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Are We What We Eat? Professor Sylvie Durmelat Examines Food Practices

In her office at Georgetown, Durmelat explains how her research ties in to her Ignatius Seminar. (Photo: Roland Dimaya)

By Gabrielle Matthews

There are three egg cartons on Professor Sylvie Durmelat's office desk. They are left over from what the professor of French laughingly calls the "egg-cersize" from her fall 2008 Ignatius Seminar "Food for Thought." The seminar helped first year students to unravel the complex relationships among food, culture, and society through texts from various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

The egg cartons Durmelat brought to class for analyses by her first-year students were from different locations and were produced in dissimilar ways. One, made out of recycled paper was from a family-owned farm in Pennsylvania and came from a local produce vendor at a YMCA, but the cage-free hens who produce the eggs are fed a commercial feed and stay indoors; another carton was purchased at a chain supermarket, and contained organic eggs wrapped in layers of plastic; the third was from a local organic store and held pastured eggs from hens that are free to roam and feed outdoors. All had different prices.

Students were asked to investigate and pass judgments on the eggs, choose which carton they would buy and justify why. Durmelat was struck by how the students made decisions. Often the students considered the color of the eggs to be a factor in quality, though in fact it only means the eggs were laid by different breeds of hen. Some students were put off by the plastic, though recycled, packaging from the supermarket. Others were most attracted to the pastured eggs. Durmelat found that this type of hands-on exercise is a good way to help students become not only better educated consumers, but also more critical readers of the texts that surround us: even those we often take for granted, like egg cartons. This exercise also provided students with a taste of the ethical and economic questions that are at stake when considering food production and consumption.

"It is a matter of being a more educated citizen and consumer—and a critical reader of packaging," said Durmelat. 
Students also enjoyed food site visits such as to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market in Northwest DC. For some of them, it was their first visit to a farmers' market, and for all of them, it was a welcome opportunity to explore and connect with DC. While they enjoyed sampling and purchasing fresh local food at the market, students also observed interactions between sellers and buyers, talked to farmers about why and how they chose this location for their products, all of which helped students to determine what makes the market an extraordinary social setting.

Durmelat's current research project is cinema produced by and about French citizens of North African immigrant descent. She is co-editing a collective volume which will include her piece about cultural integration and food, entitled "When the Ship Comes in: Couscous as a Recipe for Integration in 'The Secret of the Grain,' a Film by Abdellatif Kechiche." The 2007 film "The Secret of the Grain," deals with the economic and gastronomic integration of a Tunisian immigrant in France who turns an old freighter into a restaurant to serve fish couscous. The film has a decided focus on how social issues intertwine with gender roles, food preparation, social mobility and immigration. Durmelat says that exploring the interplay of food, power and politics with students in her Ignatius Seminar has helped her shape her analysis of this film by looking at how food can become a language to approach issues such as immigration and integration, which she explored in her first book. She said, "Indeed, cooking and talking about food are a form of language that one can use to make sense of one’s migratory experience."

Durmelat’s first book, "Fictions of Integration," deals mostly with identity questions, spatial exclusion (the opposition between suburbs and cities in France) and the politics of memory. In the text she focuses on how the children of immigrants have moved beyond being mere subjects by becoming the authors and producers of their own history, through cinema, literature, and in the media and the public sphere.
"Fictions, understood as story (re)telling, and as self and collective imaginations play a crucial role in individual and social processes of invention, as well as in the construction of communities and nations," Durmelat said. "Fictions of integration," as Durmelat defines them, reshape productively the overarching process of cultural integration by exploring the various ways in which one becomes, rather than is born, a native.

Durmelat is developing another project intimately connected with both food and collective identities and colonization, thus combining her interest in food studies and her expertise in French and Francophone post-colonial studies.

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Student Profile: Stephanie Lio
Stephanie Lio blogs about food. The native of Sunnyvale, CA continues to think about cuisine and food production, even after her Ignatius Seminar "Food for Thought" ended.
Student Profile: Eirene O'Connor
Eirene O'Connor, a first-year student and native of New York City, found her favorite part of her Ignatius Seminar "Food for Thought" to be one most professors probably would not expect: writing the final paper for the class.
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