Food for Thought

Ken Rubin, Culinary Scholar

For Ken Rubin, studying food involves not only reading books but understanding firsthand how food is created. Here, he is at Austin's White Egret Farm, where he produced and sold organic dairy products.
For Ken Rubin, studying food involves not only reading books but understanding firsthand how food is created. Here, he is at Austin's White Egret Farm, where he produced and sold organic dairy products. (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Several years ago, when Ken Rubin went to a small working-class neighborhood in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca whose name, Colonia Ampliación Dolores, means "Growing Pains," he knew what he needed to accomplish but not exactly how to accomplish it. He had already taken a graduate anthropology course at UT in research methodology, and he had been admonished that only one of every five of his subjects who agreed to be interviewed would actually show up. He wanted to write a master's thesis about the uses of food by indigenous people who are increasingly moving from inadequate villages like Ampliación Dolores to cities in search of a better life. "Charming, sleepy colonial Oaxaca is hell to live in unless you happen to be a tourist, a bureaucrat, or an oligarch," writes Henry Selby, a UT anthropology professor and one of Rubin's thesis advisors, in The Mexican Urban Household: Organizing for Self-Defense, which was co-authored by Arthur D. Murphy and Stephen A. Lorenzen. The idea that poor people would have time to chat with Ken Rubin the anthropologist about the specifics of how they make tortillas and other staples seemed a gamble at best.

But Rubin doesn't approach things in an anthropological way -- "I do next to no quantitative analysis, I don't do formal surveys, I don't do demographics," he points out -- and within six weeks, he couldn't find time to meet with all the people who invited him into their homes. Several questions into our interview, it is apparent that a word as dry and noncommittal as "anthropological" is inadequate to describe Rubin's passion for the cooking that takes place in Ampliación Dolores and throughout Oaxaca. "At first I was just trying to get into the swing of things," he says in his level-headed, unassuming way. "People needed to see my face, they needed to see me sort of hanging around, playing with their dog, and walking back and forth from the market. And then after that it was like, 'Okay, do you want to come to my house at six in the morning so we can make atole? And then do you want to go up to the fields and I'll show you how I water my squash? And then you can come cook comida with me.'"

The result of all these invitations is Rubin's thesis, Consuming Modernity: Food, Memory, and Identity in a Oaxacan Colonia. For more than a decade, according to Rubin, Oaxaca has been inundated with "global" foods from the United States -- and from Mexico City -- whose processed, packaged glamour is creating the kind of cultural invasion that is forcing indigenous peoples to question how progress is measured, and by whom. "Children return home with red stained lips from artificial fruit drinks and orange fingers from eating cheese puffs or flavored potato chips," Rubin writes. "There is widespread confusion and contradiction as to which food items are classifiable as distinctively 'modern' or 'indigenous.'"

Consuming Modernity features sentences like "Food practices illuminate the negotiation of the self in relation to dominant cultural idioms surrounding health, morality, and the body (Caplan 1996)," but also "With some rope, we hung the goat on a tree and Josefa lifted out all of the innards and put them into a plastic tub." An academic named Paul Stoller had an idea that there could be such a thing as "sensual scholarship" and "tasteful ethnography" in which an anthropologist can use a variety of tools -- descriptions of sights, sounds, and smells, for example -- "to create a narrative that savors the world of the other." Rubin is a decided devotee of the Stoller school; his thesis is full of first-person accounts of his experiences in Ampliación Dolores. And just what is the point of writing about food if the writing isn't sensual and full of taste? In fact, why study food at all?

These are questions that have garnered increasing resonance on college campuses across the nation. Food studies -- known as "foodways" by those who practice it (Rubin refers to Mario Montaño, a professor who first introduced him to the idea of formally studying food, as "a foodways person" and "a foodways specialist") -- is far more than the study of nutrition. The study of food, it almost -- but not quite -- goes without saying, provides revealing inroads into culture, commerce, the nature of ritual, religion, and class, among other things. It's a little perplexing, in fact, that Food Studies seems to be gaining recognition in universities only now. Boston University was the first to establish a master's of gastronomy and New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, for example, is the modern incarnation of an academic department founded in the 1920s that didn't always have the words "food studies" in its title (that wasn't until 1996). "I hear rumors that other universities are planning programs," says Marion Nestle, the chair of NYU's Food Studies Department. "What we are doing is part of what people are calling 'the food studies movement,' which includes academic programs as well as the various publishers that are starting food-and-culture series and magazines to publish the work that all these new scholars will be producing."

A December 5, 1999 article in London's Financial Times by Tunku Varadarjan asserted that food studies was the latest "fad" in higher education in America. Varadarjan attended a 1999 conference titled "Food and Drink in Consumer Societies" at the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Del., in which professors presented papers with titles like "Donuts and the Folklore of Mass Culture in Canada, 1960-1999." Having a bit of fun, he wrote that "After Women's Studies, Black Studies, Chicano Studies, and Gay Studies, Food Studies sounds sadly benign: there is no great polarisation between left and right and there is no thin-skinned minority with a point to prove." But even cursory investigations of food reveal that more often than not, contention -- not contentment -- defines our relationship to food. Certainly Rubin's thesis says as much.

In Ampliación Dolores, Rubin attended a ceremony in which all parts of a goat are consumed, including the blood. Life and death are in a constant motion, his thesis states.
In Ampliación Dolores, Rubin attended a ceremony in which all parts of a goat are consumed, including the blood. "Life and death are in a constant motion," his thesis states. (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

"Food incorporates so many different aspects of life, it was just sort of taken for granted," says Rubin, who, like many historians, archeologists, and even English students who study food, had to get his master's degree through an anthropology department. Although academia has a knack for expertly slicing up and partitioning subjects, not much room has been left for the study of food as its own discipline. "You know, we learn growing up that the Indians taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn by putting fish in the dirt," Rubin says with a hint of sarcasm. "Food is a part of our history and our political economy -- the slave trade, the rum, the sugar, all these things -- so it's just a matter of piecing it all together so we can look at food as culture."

A statement like that appears to be the epitome of obviousness, but because of the relative neglect of food as a scholarly discipline fit for cultural analysis, it's an entirely necessary observation. "I was really doing an amalgamation of a lot of different things," Rubin says about his time at UT. "Some people might not even call it anthropology. They might say, 'Well, what you're doing is ... travel writing' or something like that. That doesn't offend me. Frankly, I'd rather have someone call it travel writing and read it than call it anthropology and not read it.

"It's frustrating to me when most of the best food scholarship is going on outside of the academy," he says. "Most of the best things that I've ever read about food and culture are written by chefs, they're written by everyday people who just happen to think a lot about things like cookbooks."

When Rubin was growing up in New Jersey, his oldest brother Greg, who was in the sixth grade, decided that he would become a vegetarian, so Ken became a vegetarian, too ("I was never the kind of vegetarian who was like, 'Oh, that spoon touched that chicken broth so I can't eat anything near there,'" he says). Ken was in the second grade. By that time, he was already feeding his entire family -- he would design menus and then cook them up -- and he remembers being frustrated that his abilities weren't yet equal to the demands that cookbooks placed upon him. "The ingredients they were talking about, I didn't know what they were, I couldn't find them," he says. By the end of his freshman year at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Rubin was studying food seriously and he decided to eat meat again. He began college with the idea that he would study biology and become a nutritionist "or something like that" since he knew from an early age that food would be the "centerpiece" of his life. But then the very first class he took at Colorado College was taught by a professor whose Ph.D. was about food in South Texas, and from that point on, he decided that he could make a living studying food.

While he was working on his masters, he was a producer at White Egret Farm, a raw goat's milk dairy in Austin, which means that he made the farm's cheeses, yogurts, and bottled milk in addition to selling those products at farmer's markets. Since receiving his masters, Rubin has been cooking several days a week at Cipollina, a gourmet takeout establishment, and been one of the founding members of a community group called Historical Foodways Group of Austin that meets once a month to discuss past and contemporary food issues. He has become a faculty member of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, which recently took him to Jalisco to teach a class called "Chocolate, Chiles, and Coconuts." With Glenn Mack, a food historian and the director of education at the Culinary Academy of Austin, he became a food columnist for Austin Monthly.

He also founded -- again with Glenn Mack -- a local nonprofit food research organization called FoodWorks. What is a nonprofit food research organization? Rubin and Mack teach recreational cooking classes and "do food consulting work for the Foreign Agricultural Service -- it's a division of the USDA," Rubin says. "When the Foreign Agricultural Service calls us, they usually says things like, 'We have some people who work in Senegal and they're looking for new food products. They're going to come here to the States, and we want you to teach them about new ways to look at food production.' So we've actually had two contracts so far with the foreign agricultural service where they sent over first a group from Senegal and then a group from Poland and the group from Poland just wanted to learn about fish and seafood. They sent over seven people from Poland to come to Austin for a week to study with us."

I said, "To Austin to learn about fish?" and Rubin said, "Yeah."

He taught them how to cut up fish so that they can learn how to package and sell it. What Rubin does is remind people that eating isn't merely an effort toward subsistence. That is a lesson that is easy to forget. But for Rubin, there has always been a world of meaning behind that otherwise mundane activity that is quite scintillating. "Food is just out there," he says in another of his seemingly obvious but necessary observations. "It's everywhere, and I connect it to my life and my work all the time." end story

The Historical Foodways Group of Austin will meet on Sunday, May 6, 5-7pm, at the Culinary Academy of Austin (2823 Hancock). Reeda Peel will be giving a talk about the uses of griddle cooking stones by Native Americans. Open and free to the public. Call 619-3916 for more information.

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