Conduct a short ethnographic exercise in which you observe and participate in a food event, documenting as much of the process as you are able through fieldnotes, subsequent interviews with participants, photography, etc. An essay will provide a synthesis of your research, in which you should describe the food event from conception to culmination, locate it within the larger food repertoire of the particular group and the group’s socio-cultural tradition, and relate it to other cultural performances. Students should consult and cite the relevant literature for analogous food performances in different contexts. Anticipated length: 5-7 pages double-spaced (exclusive of bibliography).
How to interpret this
“Conduct a short ethnographic exercise…”: All assignments need to cover a particular instance of a food event which you are actually present at. For example, you shouldn’t do “Eid” or “Moon Festival” or “Thanksgiving”: you should do a particular observance of Eid, or a particular Moon Festival celebration, or a particular Thanksgiving. You are to address how this particular observance came to be, what decisions were made so that the general patterns of how it is “usually” celebrated could be made present for this one instance of it, and what changes/substitutions/adaptations (in menu, in scheduling, in attendees) were made in order for the food event to actually come together in a meaningful way. This touches on the two overriding themes of conservatism (keeping things as they have been in the past because that sense of continuity provides one with a connection to that past) and dynamism (adapting to the needs of the present to create something that is meaningful to the particular circumstances of the moment of performance).
“Ethnographic” can include “autoethnographic”: you can look at your own activity, but you should be doing so with the same critical eye, and asking the same sort of questions about precisely why you are making the decisions you are making. The assignment is by no means restricted to named events like cultural festivals, but they serve as good illustrations for my point. Dates, birthday dinners, family suppers, game night at Don Cherry’s: these are equally valid, and so too are even less marked events like “Ian makes a sandwich”, “Ian goes to Caper Convenience,” or “Ian buys a loaf of bread.”
“An essay will provide…”: you will need to:
1. “describe the food event from conception to culmination”: who initiated it, what was the occasion, who was present, who was responsible for what (including who had no obvious responsibilities), how did it unfold, how was it received, etc.
2. “locate it within the larger food repertoire of the particular group”: how this particular instance coincides with the history of this particular group’s celebration of the event (your family’s Eid celebrations; your friendship group’s birthday celebrations; a typical date night with your spouse / partner, etc.). If this group has no shared history (if, for example, they are celebrating Moon
Festival for the first time away from their families, or if this was a first date), then there will be interesting negotiations and perhaps different receptions to the event from the various participants.
3. “and the group’s socio-cultural tradition”: the broader patterns of how this is done in a culture (at their most general, i.e. we’re back to “Eid,” “Moon Festival,” and “Thanksgiving”). (There may be a further intermediary step: this Eid, my family’s Eid, Eid in Pakistan, Eid in Islam.)
4. “and relate it to other cultural performances”: which provides a certain amount of latitude. You can compare and contrast this event not only as you have above (i.e. with other instances and/or the more general patterns of observance) but also with other forms of marked celebrations, or with unmarked ones (quotidian food events).
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