Essay on academics and food
Not all academics eat well. Often, I have found myself among a group of friends at the end of a conference, hungry for dinner, and, by some unknown force, our movement is directed toward an overpriced, chain steak house or fast food restaurant.
Conference hotels often house a Starbucks; each morning of my field’s main conference, a line of 30 people deep can be found before the day’s proceedings begin. Publisher-sponsored affairs are always a big hit. Cold shrimp served with ketchup-based sauce. Small cheese-stuffed pastry hors d'oeuvres. Toast with tomatoes on top. Cheese and crackers. Hummus. Crudités. Free food. Conference lunches can be less generous as colleagues grab day-old sandwiches -- made in some unknown factory -- at Starbucks. Or they push coins into a machine and grab a Milky Way.
Office microwaves are often messy with the remnants of frozen pizza, ramen noodles, or reheated hot dogs. Sometimes, when I am walking from the parking garage to my campus office, I spot colleagues at 8 in the morning leaving the nearby McDonald's with bags of fried something-or-other. One of my more astute colleagues, who works extensively in cultural criticism, has stood more than once across from me in our building’s elevator, a bag of Chick-fil-A in his hand. Academic cocktail parties, at the university or at a conference, usually offer $6 bottles of Bud and Miller Lite. The $7 Sam Adams is labeled “import.”
Our department meetings take place every other Tuesday during lunch time. It is not uncommon for me to eat a sandwich or salad during the meeting. Being at work makes me hungry no matter how large or small a breakfast I’ve had. When I taught community college night classes almost 20 years ago, I ate a salad before class started. Sometimes, I pack hard-boiled eggs in my salad so that the sulfuric odors permeate the room during meetings.
No matter where I’ve worked, campus catering coffee is always bad. Order a vegetarian meal for an event, and campus catering makes something heavy in starch (pasta drenched in a bland, unseasoned red sauce) or portabello mushrooms (grilled or raw). Across the street from our campus is a restaurant with the word “ass" in its title (“huge” is another word in its name). Across the street, one can also dine at a Korean restaurant, an African restaurant, a local pizza place with a good beer list, a Middle Eastern restaurant, a regional taco chain with the word "local" in its title, a fast food restaurant that specializes in chicken fingers, and a McDonald’s. I entered the student union the other day and saw a 30-person deep line at the Subway.
While my wife and I are members of the local co-op, not all of our colleagues know that it is located three miles south of campus. Recently, I bought local paw paw at the coop and posted a picture to my Facebook profile; some people mistook it for rotten avocado. The possible outsourcing of campus dining to a private company has raised faculty and student concerns that the university’s spending of almost $800,000 per year on local food will vanish. During a tour of the campus dining food warehouse last year, I was informed that when the university purchases local cattle, the chefs sneak ox tail into stews served in student housing. While most, if not all, of us housed in the humanities support same sex marriage, the elevator in our building reeks of Chick fil-A - whose owner opposes such marriages - on any given day. Purchasing a University of Kentucky Dining Plan allows a student to eat at Chick fil-A and Subway in addition to campus dining facilities.
Every October, regardless of what I am teaching, I share with students my hatred of candy. "I work all year," I say to them, "to keep candy away from my kids, and two hours of walking around the neighborhood on October 31 ruins my hard work."
In the living-learning community I co-direct, we leave Tootsie Rolls and Milky Ways out in a bowl for students to snack on when they come in for academic or life advice. In the residential hall where the living-learning community is housed, for our weekly coffee chats with members of the local community or university, we provide factory-made cookies from the Kroger supermarket chain and Cheetos. The best way to get faculty or students to attend a meeting or event, common advice goes, is to serve pizza.
Several times I’ve taught a course with the word “Eating” in its title. When I was at the University of Missouri at Columbia, the course was called “Eating Missouri.” When I took a job at the University of Kentucky, the course became "Eating Kentucky." After reading Anthony Bourdain, Calvin Trillin, a profile of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, and notable food critics and discussions, including exposés of the fast food industry and mass-produced food, students still came to class with chicken McNuggets, defrosted frozen pizzas, high-fructose corn syrup sweets, and Krispy Kreme donuts. At the four different universities that have employed me, a Subway has always been within walking distance.
Many colleagues drink 32-ounce sodas in the morning. Because of my reputation as someone who enjoys craft beer, when I’m visiting a campus for an invited talk, colleagues feel obligated to take me to a place that serves good beer. When I was on my campus visit at the University of Missouri seven years ago, colleagues took me to the local brewpub for dinner. After our last main conference in my field, I fretted over the long flight home from Las Vegas (beginning early in the morning and ending at night) and worried that I would not have time during the layover to purchase something to eat. To ease my fear of future hunger, I bought a vegetarian sandwich in the casino Subway.
I used to get excited about attending the dinners for guest speakers or job candidates. Free food. Free food at expensive restaurants. I’ve since grown tired of menus that offer only heavy meat dishes, overcooked lamb chops, bacon in everything, or scallops. The Chick-fil-A in our campus food court is "proudly" closed on Sundays. One Friday a month, the agriculture college hosts a food-related discussion for faculty and members of the community at 7:30 a.m. Local food is served for breakfast. Participants are encouraged to bring their own coffee mugs. I once gave a talk entitled "Menu Literacy" for the discussion.
I sometimes say that my casual conversational skills are limited to discussions of kids, food, and beer. My attempts to recruit job candidates often involve telling them how great the local farmer’s market is and what kind of beer they will be able to buy if they move here. For some reason, I can host a catered event with local vendors in one building on campus, but in the building next door, I must use campus catering. In my previous job, because of budget cuts, the office I directed was no longer allowed to order $15 worth of cookies from a local bakery for board meetings that took place twice a month. In my previous job, I angered campus catering by complaining about the low-quality food they served during a "Writing Across the Curriculum" event I hosted. Campus catering at my current university won’t allow me to invite a local Mexican food truck for a small event that would take place outside of the living-learning community residential hall.
I know I sound like a grump or food snob with these random observations. And I probably am as much of a food snob as I am a critic snob or rhetoric snob or teaching snob or snob of any other part of my professional life. Snobbery can simply mean valuing one thing over another to a significant, and sometimes hyperbolic, degree. I value eating.
Snobbery is not alien to academic discussion; we place value on any number of things we admire or teach. I’ve often wondered how cultural snobbery, often expressed by colleagues in regard to art, literature, music, or film, does not extend to gastronomy. I’ve often wondered how astute cultural critics or critics of the university are poor food critics. By that, I don’t mean that we must decode every food representation we encounter in order to better understand ideology or power in the food industry. Instead, I wonder why, in our practices of everyday life, we succumb so easily to fast food, high-fructose corn syrup, chains, and other items instead of merely trying to eat outside of these problematic practices.
Pleasure, of course, is a powerful agent. Pleasure, of course, is at the heart of bad eating habits. And food writers such as Michael Pollan have demonstrated the ways fat , sugar, and salt compose and encourage a specific system of food pleasure, one encouraged by much of the fast food industry. None of us are beyond such pleasure, but that does not mean we must succumb to every instance that calls out to us.
Calvin Trillin’s best effort at food critique was to declare, "I wouldn’t throw rocks at it." My food pleasure is not another’s food pleasure, I realize. And I have no desire to preach health-conscious food habits or mindful eating to my academic colleagues. I have no overall argument to make regarding what academics should or should not eat. I have no agenda to preach. My observations merely prompt me to ask: Why don’t some academics eat well?
In asking that question, I am sketching some observations that include me, too. Among these observations I highlight, I also note that I support the local food movement known as "Kentucky Proud," and my wife and I try to buy most of our produce and meat from the Lexington Farmer’s Market. But when on the road or on campus without coffee, we succumb to Starbucks, too. Among our food purchases, we buy for our kids Arthur Pasta, dehydrated cheese and pasta shaped like the popular PBS character. We are not beyond the commercialization of food either.
Bruno Latour has warned of "purification narratives," stories that try to portray some event, movement, or way of thinking as pure or without contradiction. Roland Barthes once noted that every text is made up of contradictions, what he referred to as the pleasure of the text. That I have ordered a coffee at Starbucks or bought a box of pasta named for a cartoon character might seem to be minor contradictions of my interest in local food or my series of somewhat critical observations. Minor or major, the contradictions no doubt reveal a larger crack in any kind of purification narrative of food I might want to portray. I’m sure there are more or larger cracks in my ideological stance. After all, even after he carefully decodes the industrial, meat industry in his New York Times essay “Power Steer,” Michael Pollan confesses to not caring for grass-fed beef.
My point is only to trace a type of academic eating, a series of habits and practices that run counter, at times, to our professional practices and beliefs, that suggest an untapped pleasure of the text as we build elsewhere purification narratives regarding culture or texts. For good or for bad, many academic eating practices follow similar trajectories to one another as the banal and bland overpower the local and flavorful. Professionally, we are great critics: MOOCs, corporatization of education, adjunct labor, global conflict, a fiscal crisis here or there. What about bad eating?
One type of pleasure of the text might be the relentless critic who finds fault in every representation outside of the bag of Chick-fil-A in his hand. One might surmise from this lack of critical parallelism a lack, or crack, in the overall project of critique. French fries or diet soda, it seems, may be outside of critique, the behavior change that critique is meant to promote, or even basic awareness. Such an assumption goes far beyond my simple observations of eating in the university. I can only speculate in the meantime how critical practices might better shape food practices. Do you know what you are? Frank Zappa asked. You are what you is, he responded. Or, as the popular health saying goes, you are what you eat. Either way, not all academics eat well.
Jeff Rice is Martha B. Reynolds Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky.