Cooking up a new discipline

June 20, 1997

The media - or is it the public? - is obsessed with food and eating. Chefs are television celebrities. Restaurant reviews, diets, recipes, and killer-bug scares - listeria, salmonella, BSE, . - proliferate.

Universities however, have hitherto been above such material things. Food and eating have been a neglected field of study. Is this intellectual snobbishness? Have cooking and food preparation been cast out of academe as too vocational? Scorned perhaps as women's work? Or is it just that food falls into the cracks between disciplines?

The picture is changing. Food is emerging as a growth area of interdisciplinary study in universities. Critics in English literature now theorise about the significance of food in texts, "edible ecriture" as Terry Eagleton calls it. Historians pore over neglected sources (sauces?) to see if recipe books can tell us how people lived. Archaeologists subject our ancestors' dirty washing-up to the latest scientific analysis. Sociologists deconstruct the family meal. And scientists work with social scientists as food fads and panics sweep the country.

Is there an ideal diet for good health? Can some foods and drinks, like the traditional cup of British tea (see page 4), prevent disease? Do we need genetically engineered tomatoes and are they safe?

New fields such as food policy are opening up, with Tim Lang at Thames Valley occupying the first chair thanks to the voluntary sector's willingness to support his pioneering research.

Today The THES launches a Perspective series on food. We start with the bad news. Hugh Pennington, professor of microbiology at Aberdeen and the chairman of the fatal inquiry into the E.coli outbreak in Scotland, writes about food safety, or rather unsafety - a matter, as he says, of life and death but also of medicine, philosophy, politics and law as well as biology.

Over the next few weeks we have articles by Philip James, charged with setting up Labour's new Food Standards Agency; by super-cook Prue Leith calling for more cooking in schools; by anthropologist Mary Douglas, who pioneered the study of food in her discipline; by Richard Lacey, controversial expert on BSE and by many others. A veritable feast for serious foodies.

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