Panel of food writers talk culture

A panel of three award-winning food writers discussed the importance of food, the cultural value it holds, and how it is changing American society.

The event called “Cooking, Writing and American Culture: A Conversation” took place in the Davis Center March 31. The UVM food systems graduate program and the Humanities Center sponsored the event.

The panelists were Laura Shapiro, a culinary historian, and culinary authors Rowan Jacobsen and Molly Stevens. All of the panelists are recipients of awards from the James Beard Foundation, which is a non-profit organization that offers educational culinary programs.  John Gennari, an associate professor of English at UVM, moderated the discussion.

All of the panelists’ work varied in content and format; however, a common theme during the conversation was the role cooking has in the relationship between people and food. “For me it’s always about the angle and what this food story tells us about our relationship with the natural world,” Jacobsen said.

Stevens focused on the relationship between people and the individual ingredients. “If people cook for themselves it will make them care about ingredients,” Stevens said. “The ‘ingredient approach’ empowers people to learn more about ingredients and their preferences.”

The panelists were asked questions about the transformation of food culture and the role it has played in class, gender and racial equality movements in America. “Now you have a guy schlepping through the kitchen making an ordinary, boring meal of macaroni and cheese, and that is huge. This is a major culture change,” Shapiro said.  “It’s not a disgrace to make lunch for your kids, it’s a part of life.”

The panelists emphasized that the act of simply buying food and cooking is a powerful preparation mechanism. Toward the end of the event, panelists were asked what they think of the high volume of social media use in the culinary world and if they use it. All three panelists have a limited social media presence and agreed that it is not a main concern for them. “I pretty much bailed on it,” Jacobsen said.

However, local artist Liza Cowan, who attended the event, said that she thinks a presence on social media is extremely important because it draws people in and connects them to more information. “In terms of social media, it is much deeper than people give them credit for. There’s so much information,” Cowan said.

A book signing followed the event, along with coffee and tea. “I thought the panel was really fascinating and humorous,” audience member and university admissions employee Sara Wool said. “It makes me want to go home and open a cookbook.”