Global Foodways

Illustration by Erin Banks

By Lauren Ravalico

Let me paint the picture of a familiar domestic scene. A middle-aged mother at 7 in the morning attempts to impersonate Elastigirl.

Left hand reaches toward the coffee pot, right hand twitters across various vaguely sticky surfaces to locate the ever-misplaced iPhone. Eyes scan the contents of the fridge to simultaneously compose menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Mouth articulates a harmonious response to the duet of “mom, Mom, MOM, MAHHHHM!” which forms the sublime, yet crazy-making house music on perpetual repeat, in surround sound.

Alexa, dial my morning down a notch.

Hours later, I find myself reflecting on another domestic scene of breakfast time, this one located within my intellectual home of 18th-century France. A mother, carefully coiffed, face made up, crisp white skirts ready to billow, sits—sits!—at the table with her sister and daughters as a servant pours hot coffee into the delicate clink of a porcelain cup. This image of morning tranquility at first stokes my jealousy. Where is my Rococo haven of leisure life?

Francois Boucher, Breakfast, 1739

These sorts of charming genre paintings proliferated in Enlightenment France, but their tightly staged imagery of familial contentment can dissimilate darker truths. Take a second look, a bit like you might do with an Instagram pic, and you find clues to more complex meanings looming just beneath the surface of genial bourgeois blankness.

Because the semicircular composition of the human figures around the breakfast table invites our eyes to board a breezy visual carousel of familial intimacy, we nearly glide right past the coffee urn that occupies the exact center of the painting. But that luxury object contains within it the liquified black bounty of slave labor and thus serves as an inanimate surrogate for the suffering human bodies whose labor engendered this occasion of pleasurable consumption.

Alert now to the painting’s surreptitious articulation of human objectification, my eye is drawn to that stiff little doll in the lower right foreground. An uncanny inaction figure, she looks like a miniature of the mother, who is, herself, a painted statue of passive femininity, charged only with holding ever fast to a little silver spoon. It would seem that the poor little girl literally holds her own future in her hands.

A few generations later, following the French Revolution and the abolition of slavery, the glossy fantasy of leisure life would give way to a trove of documentary-style paintings depicting various bodies at work, among them street singers and prostitutes, mothers and wet-nurses, actively engaging in the toils of money-making and child care. My fascination with the representation of labor extends to these more modern snapshots of democratized work, especially when, like Boucher’s “Breakfast,” they revolve around the question of women’s role at the table and in the kitchen.  

Certainly much of this fascination involves self-recognition. In many ways I can map the contours of my identity on the topography of the kitchen table, the great plain on which I have always studied and written, both struggled with and enjoyed the act of eating, served food sometimes lovingly and sometimes resentfully made, wiped innumerable crumbs and other, soggier scraps, cried, not to mention banged my fist, either shouting or laughing across from family and friends. The table is flat but it is also deep.

This stew of intellectual interest and personal connection to the kitchen has simmered for a long time and ultimately inspired me to attempt coordinating a yearlong program of courses and events at the College of Charleston called “Global Foodways.” Besides having the opportunity to teach my own “Culture of the French Table” course as part of the program, it has been amazing to see the range of disciplines in which food takes the spotlight. Students can learn about the history of tea in China, the sociology of food, food culture and sustainability in Italy, food as medicine, and dozens of other options.

Events, open to the public throughout the year, highlight three key Foodways issues: community of the table, sustainable eating practices, and the history and politics of food. Women scholars, chefs, community leaders and entrepreneurs are at the forefront throughout. In March 2019, for example, a senior member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will come to speak about her work to help empower women’s agricultural leadership in developing countries. Her visit to Charleston is co-sponsored by the Center for Public Choice and Market Process as well as the Center for Entrepreneurship at the College.

Another event all about chocolate will continue to focus on sustainable eating as well as on the history and politics of cocoa, which, like coffee, remains one of the world’s most traded commodities. An anthropologist and African-American studies scholar from Harvard will speak about the cultural meaning and global history of chocolate. Her public lecture will be followed by a “Beans to Bar” lesson and free 12-course tasting with local sustainable chocolatier Bethany Nunn, founder of www.cocoaacademic.com.

It is my hope that Global Foodways will serve as a virtual table around which members of the academic community and beyond can engage in conversations and sensory experiences that open our hearts and minds.

Lauren Ravalico, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of French and Francophone Studies and a member of the executive committee for Women’s and Gender Studies at the College of Charleston. She specializes in the literary and visual culture of 18th and 19th century France, focusing on the intersection of women’s history and the history of senses and emotions in Western thought. Dr. Ravalico is the coordinator of Global Foodways, the inaugural program for the annual World Affairs Signature Series, which is co-sponsored by the College of Charleston School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs and South Carolina Humanities, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.