Coming to PItt
Long before I considered a PhD in French Language and Literature, I was interested in food, words, and cultures unlike my own. Growing up on a dairy farm, working for a catering company, and dabbling as a freelance food critic, I loved how food bridged the worlds of body and labor with the realm of ideas, including self, community, and heritage.
After graduating in 2007 as a Creative Writing and French double major at Susquehanna University, I spent seven months teaching English through TAPIF, the French Embassy’s Teaching Assistant Program in France. Here, I paired the world of language with the world of cuisine in the only way that I knew how: overseeing the preparation and serving of a Pennsylvanian-style Thanksgiving meal to 500 staff and students at the Lycée Gustave Eiffel in Talange, France. My students successfully pronounced the “th” in the word “Thanksgiving” as they accepted their plate of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and salad with a cranberry vinaigrette—even though they did not appear to appreciate the latter.
Graduate seminar work
While trying to find my feet as a graduate student at Pitt, I took “Medieval Texts, Modern Debates” with Dr. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinksi during the spring of my first year. Delighted by the unfamiliar food imagery found in many medieval manuscripts—such as the war fought with eggs and soft cheese in the twelfth-century text Aucassin et Nicolette—I wrote my final paper on Honoret Bovet’s 1398 Apparicion Maistre Jean de Meun in which France’s political and religious downfall is blamed in part on their obsession with good food. This research later served as the basis for my MA thesis.
In the graduate classes that followed, I began experimenting with food and identity as a research theme, including chocolate and the sociability of concern in the Correspondance of the Marquise de Sévigné (1648-1696); anorexia and political power in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830); and the gendering of domestic labor in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927). While completing interdisciplinary seminars for two PhD certificates in Cultural Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, I analyzed the table as a Bourdieuian field in Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami (1885) and parsed the idealized masculinities marketed in BEEF!, France’s new cooking-and-lifestyle magazine for men—which I transformed into a dissertation chapter (now published in a food studies journal).
In the summer 2013, I received a Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Summer Research Fellowship to participate in the Summer Institute of French Cultural Studies hosted by Dartmouth College on the subject of Culture and Gastronomy. Attending seminars lead by prominent scholars in French social, cultural, and gastronomic history—including Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (Columbia University), Claude Fischler (École des Hautes Études), and Florent Quellier (Université de Tours-François Rabelais)—I began to envision a research project that would allow me to interpret contemporary social politics in France through its writing of food. In addition to building a database of secondary sources on food to employ with Pitt’s rigorous literary training, and networking with like-minded graduate students from across the country, I also got the chance to discuss journalism with Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker and piecrusts with White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses.
Tours and A&S Summer Fellowship support and Cultural Studies grant
In 2014, I began to establish my personal network of French food scholars and culinary professionals during a trip to France as a graduate assistant with Pitt’s summer study abroad program in Nantes. Through a Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Summer Research Fellowship and a Cultural Studies Small Grant, I visited the European Institute of the History and Cultures of Food (Institut européen d’histoire et des cultures de l’alimentation) in Tours, France, in order to interview food historian Loïc Bienassis on the politics of gastronomic heritage. A visit to a dairy farm in Vay, France, served as a hands-on lesson in terroir and EU agriculture policy.
Teaching and Food
As a foreign language is most effective when experienced and embodied, food is one of the mediums through which I introduce my undergraduate French students at Pitt to unfamiliar vocabulary, cultural contexts, and self-expression in the target language. In my Elementary French classes, a blind taste-test between American and French Nutellas has provided a context for employing adjectives, modeling the comparative and superlative modes, and discussing the relativism of taste and marketing. Through partnerships with local French restauranteurs, my Elementary and Intermediate French students have been welcomed each semester for private tastings and dialogues about cultural craft with native French speakers. Finally, my original “Meals, Manners, and the Modern French Novel” course uses the food scenes in novels by Flaubert, Maupassant, Le Clézio, Muriel Barbery, and Maryse Condé as starting points for exploring nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century expressions of gender, class, and race as well as the linguistic construction of consumption and power.
What I’m up to now
Having completed two PhD comprehensive exams on French culinary and literary history and having defended my prospectus in December 2015, I’m thrilled to be writing a dissertation that blends contemporary social debates—including gay marriage, immigration, and terrorism—with French food writing. Entitled “Writing in the Kitchen, Reading at the Table: Gender, Nation, and Culinary Texts in 21st-Century France,” my dissertation analyzes the acts of writing and reading about food in France in order to map how certain food texts contribute to the construction or rejection of a singular “French” identity, often envisioned in opposition to a raced and sexed “Other.”
Through a Ruth Crawford Mitchell Memorial Scholarship, a Klinzing Dissertation Research Grant, a Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Summer Research Fellowship, and contributions from the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Summer Research Fund, I will return to Europe this May to perform an intense survey of the contemporary cultural, political, social, and literary climate surrounding French food and identity. Performing interviews, visiting archives, attending local and regional food festivals, participating in a graduate seminar in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and presenting at the Second International Conference on Food History and Cultures in Tours, France, I aim to contextualize my dissertation’s literary analysis and enhance the international visibility of my research. I now teach at Ursinus College outside Philadelphia.