At the Rocky Mountain MLA this weekend I participated on a panel called "The Meaning of Food: Cultural Values and Culinary Choices." The panel took four very different approaches:
1. a BYU professor's close reading of hospitality/food rituals in Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Levinas and Derrida showing up in the poignant 'world's last Coca Cola' scene
2. My attempt to wed hunger to environmental justice in works by James Agee and Richard Wright.
3. A UT Austin grad's look at the role of traditional recipes, mother-daughter relationships and Indian-American acculturation in the "desi" chic-lit The Hindi Bindi Club
4. A BYU grad's articulation of the varying performances of "egalitarian social leveling" in religious food rituals in Sikhism, Judaism, and Christianity.
What struck me the most about this last paper, presented by Josh Goldberg, was his insistence on the latent potential behind religious rituals and traditions. Those elements (including food laws, feasting practices, and cup sharing) which are only waiting to be activated and re-membered and have the ability to dismantle social and cultural power structures. I was excited to meet a new friend. If you are interested in his work, find him on Mormon Midrashim, one of the more provocative blog ideas I've encountered.
The discussion after the papers was also fruitful, several people comparing our approaches to different meal courses or cooking approaches. One woman asked us to consider the act of hospitality in opposition to control (and the attempt to maintain it). As well as the difference between concern for "presentation" and concern for "welcome"--two things that need not be in opposition but often are (Martha/Mary?)
Worth the jaunt to Snowbird Lodge, as was the snowy mountains.
Also, I would not be here without the generosity of the UO English Dept. and the willingness of Paul W. to share a hotel room with a total stranger. Many thanks to them.