Food and Our Cultural Identity

April 3, 2014—Majoring in a foreign language is sort of the ultimate liberal arts experience. Within a language concentration, students learn about history, philosophy, literature, and more in their chosen discipline. And if you’re Liz Frothingham (C’14), you also learn about food. French food, to be precise.

Frothingham, a French major, has always been interested in all things food. She fancies herself as something of a cook, and there’s always something baking in her kitchen.

But it wasn’t until Frothingham took Associate Professor Sylvie Durmelat’s class called Food and the French Empire that she realized she could combine her academic interests with her passion for the plate. The class, Frothingham explains, was about “France and its tendency to ally itself with cuisine.” They explored colonialism, food history, and the origins of restaurant dining. That it was also taught in French was a bonus.

While Georgetown doesn’t have a food studies program, there is a food cluster for people like Frothingham who are interested in a more academic take on what we eat and why. After taking Durmelat’s class, Frothingham sought out every class relating to food that she could.

She fulfilled a science requirement with a class on molecular gastronomy—the mad scientist side of food—and studied contemporary farming and agriculture with Danielle Berman, an adjunct professor who works as a social science research analyst with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Frothingham also worked with Durmelat as a research assistant on a paper about couscous.

Frothingham’s intellectual interest in food made sense to her. “Everyone can relate to this so why not talk about it?” she said.

In addition to taking as many food-related classes as she could, Frothingham also became part of the Georgetown Food Studies Group, organized by Durmelat. This collection of students, professors, and others from the university meets monthly for potlucks and conversation about food at Georgetown and in the wider Washington, DC, community.

While Frothingham’s major didn’t require a thesis, she decided she’d write one anyway. “When you study a language, you want something to show for it,” she said, noting that she might be regretting her decision now that she’s in the final throes of the thesis.

For her research, Frothingham looked at the use of food to create an identity and focused on France and its robust food culture. In 2010, the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) approved the French gastronomic meal for protection as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

“They’re saying, this is inherently French and we need to protect it because the modern world is a threat to it,” Frothingham said.

The French gastronomic meal is typically a dinner of celebration, eaten at birthdays, weddings, and reunions. It begins with an aperitif and ends with a liqueur and in between diners indulge in at least four successive courses that make use of local ingredients. It is a full sensory experience that typically takes hours.

In her thesis, Frothingham set out to determine whether the gastronomic meal needed preserving and what the designation means for the meal’s future. She is also investigating the politics of preservation. She credits Durmelat for pointing her in this direction.

Dedicating time to the optional endeavor has been a challenge for the senior who is currently taking classes, as well working as an English tutor and trying to figure out what to do when she graduates. “It’s a big undertaking,” she said. “It’s a slower process than a regular paper.”

While food is an academic interest, it is also Frothingham’s creative outlet. Despite her hefty school schedule, she still cooks and bakes as much as she can—not too long ago she made pretzels with rosemary and sea salt from scratch. After all, her cooking could be considered research. One of her favorite things to make? Tarte au citron.

—Lauren Ober