Interview with a Gastronomist, Part 1

Today I have a special treat for my readers. I have had the privilege of being able to interview my professor of gastronomy at the Culinary Institute of America, Beth Forrest, who has taken time out of her incredibly busy schedule to answer a few of my questions. Besides being a doctoral candidate in the field of gastronomy at Boston University, she has been a professor of Gastronomy and Food and Wine at Boston University. This marks part 1 of 3 in our interview.

What made you want to go into your field of work?
Teaching gastronomy is the trifecta of things I love: food, history, and teaching. My original plans were to finish my undergraduate degree and then going back for my teaching certificate and teach high school history. After I finished with my BA, I spent a year backpacking around Europe and realized that I had so much more to learn about history so returned to school an earned a M.A. in medieval European history. When that was done, I thought I STILL had more to learn, so I returned for a PhD in early modern European history. When I was applying for my PhD program, I realized that I wanted to study food, but it was seen as a topic for non-serious students (these days, it is okay to come out and declare that you study food!). I use food as a lens to discover the social and cultural history of people — the history of mentalite,which simply means the thought processes, values and beliefs of people. Because food is so loaded with meaning (and everyone eats) it can be looked at in any culture at any time.

Have you always enjoyed gastronomy, and its surrounding fields?
Absolutely! When I look back on my life, I see that I’ve always participated in it, even if I didn’t know about it. Academically, I wrote undergraduate papers on the political uses of the banquet in medieval society. I began studying history when it was popular to be multi-disciplinary and draw on scholarship and methodology outside of history — anthropology in particular. In fact, it is still debated whether gastronomy is a field in-and-of itself or if it is interdisciplinary much like an American Studies and one needs to study food through an established discipline. Food food, I think that if one is to understand “complete history” one must think about the structures/institutions (sociology), how the geography might influence a culture (geography), how the culture at one particular place and time might have meaning (anthropology), etc. etc. in order to understand a historic episode. It makes it both daunting and exciting. I also grew up in a family that spent a lot of time in the kitchen and surrounded by food-related activities. We always had a large garden and herb garden and my father kept bees. We would spend a lot of time “putting food up” for the winter (canning), and my mother baked bread, made yogurt, and my father grew grapes and made wine (it was terrible stuff). When we traveled, my mother also always brought us to a local
grocery store as she thought it was a great way to learn about a culture.

Where have you traveled? Do you have a favorite culture?
I’ve always placed a high value on travel, to the expense of other things, such as nice clothes, cars, apartments! Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, India, Ireland, Luxembourg, Morocco, Netherlands, Portugal, Peru, Poland, Turkey, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Wales. I’ve made wonderful people everywhere I’ve gone. Each culture is fascinating on its own and has amazing historical &
gustatory offerings.

If you enjoyed the first part of this interview from my culinary school professor, then you will enjoy next weeks posting where we discuss the future of gastronomy, her defining moments, what she does to keep lessons fresh and intuitive, and much more.