Do the origins of biryani or the international migration of the pork bun sound like research you could sink your teeth into?
That’s just some of the work being done at the University of Toronto, Scarborough (UTSC)’s Culinaria Research Centre, said to be the largest food studies research centre in North America.
“Scarborough has some wonderful food, and our student body at the Scarborough campus is just amazingly diverse,” says Jeffrey Pilcher, a professor who adds that much of the work done through Culinaria is student-led.
“We just turn them loose to research the stuff they know – their own family cooking, the restaurants they go to. What they come back with is oftentimes really quite amazing.”
A food studies minor program launched at UTSC in 2016, and Pilcher says a major will hopefully soon follow. The growth of the program has also been driven by increasing student interest.
“I first taught a food class back in 1994 that had 10 students – now you get hundreds of students taking these classes without us even trying,” he says. “There’s a huge demand from the general public, but also students, to know more about their food. Particularly in Toronto, because it is so diverse, and because Canada has made multiculturalism such a central part of its identity, the interest in food is there.”
Culinary studies and science-based nutrition programs have long been established in the world of education, but the study of the cultural, political and economic implications of food is a widening academic discipline.
“What academics tend to bring to this question is a more socially engaged, critical perspective on why food matters in terms of social justice, racial understanding, gender issues and these kinds of things that oftentimes get left out,” Pilcher says, adding that long-term academic study allows for deep dives into important and under-explored issues.
The goal is for UTSC to become the top destination for food studies in the country. Ryerson offers a food security program, while the University of Guelph has the Arrell Food Institute and Western boasts a bachelor of sciences in food and nutrition. “But looking at food from a global perspective, there’s nowhere else in Canada that you can do this,” he says.
Students in the food studies minor begin with an introductory course that offers an overview of the field from a variety of angles more advanced courses zero in on anthropological, ecological, historical and political perspectives.
In the final years, students narrow their focus further. “You might be looking at food cultures of Asia, or food and empire. We do a class where we turn the students loose on Scarborough to find something new and interesting. We had people looking at Chinese beef noodles, bubble tea, the Pacific Mall, the St. Lawrence Market’s peameal bacon.”
Occasionally, those courses feature hands-on research and demonstrations in the Culinaria Kitchen Laboratory.
“It’s basically an old geology lab. They tore out whatever geologists do and put in a demonstration kitchen,” Pilcher says. “For my culinary ethnography class, their last day in class they had to cook whatever it was they had studied. We talked about what we learn from engaging in a physical way with the labour of food, with the taste of food – what does that add to our understanding?”
The kitchen also hosts events and demos from visiting chefs. Last fall, during a two-day event focusing on Chinese food in North America, Nick Liu of DaiLo prepared dishes from a 120-year-old Chinese menu – part of the world’s largest collection of Chinese restaurant menus (over 10,000 items), which now resides at UTSC.
Culinaria also brings in a handful of graduate students each year, with the current cohort’s research ranging from the idea of “slowness” as a desirable factor in food production to consumption and food waste in Indonesia to the role of food in intersecting social inequalities.
Through their research, students and faculty are building tools that can help other food researchers. Pilcher points to a student-led mapping project meant to track food sources – from butcher shops and terminals to bars and restaurants – in the Toronto area from before colonization to the present day.
“The idea now is to sort of use this stuff and figure out what kind of stories we can look for. How can we mine this data to tell stories about the history of Toronto foods?”
As the school’s body of academic research and class offerings expand, Pilcher says the food studies program will continue to broaden in scope.
“We want to [look at] things like food justice and health,” he says. “These questions are really central to understanding food and preparing students for not just jobs in the food industry, like writing, but also to participate as an informed citizen with these kinds of questions – getting students to understand why it matters what we eat.”
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