August 2016

Kitchen Cosmos

Each week, we will feature a short essay from each of the Humanities Research Fellows now at work on the topic of food.  We begin with Bruce Willis, Professor of Languages, and his reflection on creation stories in the Americas.

Pots and pans, mortars and pestles, pitchers, whisks, knives: the implements for processing, cooking, and storing food represent some of the most elemental and yet creative of human inventions. Because of their familiarity through daily use, these utensils sometimes even become characters in legends, or the focus of certain traditions, of the kind my students and I examine and analyze in the Latin American Cultures course.

In Popol Vuh, the cosmology of the Quiché Maya, cooking tools famously rebel against their masters. The creation story relates that the gods needed three tries to create humankind. In the first attempt, the mud-sculpted proto-humans fell apart. In the second attempt, the mannequin-like figures made of wood could walk and talk, but they had neither heart nor mind, and could not recognize kindness and respect. They were punished by the gods, by their own dogs and turkeys (animals that were eaten), and even by their cooking utensils:

Then the grinding stones said this to them: “We were ground upon by you. Every day, every day, in the evening and at dawn, always you did holi, holi, huki, huki on our faces. This was our service for you who were the first people. But this day you shall feel our strength. We shall grind you like maize. We shall grind up your flesh,” said their grinding stones to them.

Then spoke also their griddles and their pots to them: “Pain you have caused us. Our mouths and our faces are sooty. You were forever throwing us upon the fire and burning us. Although we felt no pain, you now shall try it. We shall burn you,” said all of their pots. Thus their faces were all crushed. (76-77, trans. Christenson)

The mannequins were eventually drowned, and those few who survived became the monkeys.

El diluvio y la destrucción de los hombres de palo. (Diego Rivera. 1931. Acuarela sobre papel.)

The third try was the charm: humans were successfully amassed out of different colors of corn dough. In general terms, Mesoamerican belief systems hold that people are made of corn, and corn is kin. Even today there are those who believe that to sell corn is to sell one’s cousin, sibling, or parent–the same failure to recognize kindness and respect that doomed the wooden people.

Caribbean and Amazonian cosmologies tend to feature gourds as womb-like containers of treasured abundance. In Taino myth, for example, the ocean and all its fish are born from a dropped calabash when Deminán and his brothers try to return the gourd to its safe perch in the clouds. Cuban writer Antonio José Ponte, in his essay collection Las comidas profundas, writes of a tradition in eastern Cuba in which a gourd or a jug is kept in a secure spot out of the sun and away from animals, to be gradually filled with fruits as they come into season over the nine months of a mother’s pregnancy:

Poco a poco, entre el espíritu de la botella, figuración de Las Mil y Una Noches, y el espíritu del niño esperado, empieza a establecerse una relación muy estrecha. Todo lo dulce a la redonda, toda carne de fruta entra a la matriz de vidrio para componer un doble, un niño de tierra. La barriga de la madre y la del botellón se vuelven fermentaciones gemelas (48).

[Little by little, between the spirit of the bottle, allegory of A Thousand and One Nights, and the spirit of the expected child, a very close relationship begins to be established. All that is sweet from the surrounding area, all flesh of fruit enters into the womb of glass to create a double, a child of the earth. The belly of the mother and the belly of the jug become twin fermentations.] (my trans.)

The resulting mixture, a sangría-like drink called aliñado, is imbibed to celebrate the baby’s birth, or even stored much longer and fermented further as the child grows.

These mythological and ritual examples from the Americas blur the lines among humans, food, and food preparation utensils, as co-actors in one environment, to demonstrate an ancient truth: we are not only what we eat or drink, but also the embodied practice of how we prepare and consume it.

Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at TU announces 2016-17 fellows

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa has announced its annual class of fellows for the 2016-17 academic year. The 10 individuals selected from applications submitted earlier this year include TU faculty and students as well as members of the Tulsa community. They are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of food – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, shared meals and exhibitions.

The faculty fellows include Lisa Cromer, associate professor of psychology; Sam Halabi, associate professor of law; Chris Ruane, professor emeritus of history; Bruce Willis, professor of languages; and Jan Wilson, associate professor of history and women’s and gender studies.

They will be joined by two students: Molly Noah, a museum studies master’s student, and Emma Stewart, an undergraduate English student. The center also has named three public fellows: Michelle Donaldson, executive chef at Tallgrass Prairie Table in Tulsa; Sasha Martin, Tulsa author of Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness and founder of the blog Global Table Adventure; and Anh-Thuy Nguyen, artist and assistant professor of fine art at Rogers State University in Claremore, Okla.

Food is a foundational aspect of all human cultures. The manifold ways we grow, prepare, regulate and share what we eat gives shape to identities both cultural and political, ethnic and national. Food preparation is a source of enormous creativity – our kitchens are social sites where tradition mixes with innovation amid a now global flow of ingredients, tastes and techniques. Eating itself lies at the very core of most world religions, giving rise to ritual as well as to values like hospitality and generosity. In the arts, we find food everywhere, from early images of hunters scratched in rock through Renaissance paintings and modern cinema. It’s there in the earliest recorded literatures, like the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and it drives the plots of Renaissance plays and contemporary dystopian novels.

Some of the great cultural and historical shifts in human history can also be traced to changing food ways. Agricultural innovations, like the plow, and ecological disasters, like the Irish famines, have concentrated populations and dispersed them. We see the evidence of these great migrations in abandoned Mayan ruins and in the towns of western Oklahoma where the prairie turned to desert amid the Great Dust Bowl. Today, the industrialization of food production is changing what and how we eat, simultaneously contributing to climate change even while generating vast new global food supplies. The language of food, furthermore, shapes the very ways we write and speak about ourselves: taste and hunger, consumption and starvation – such words borrow the rituals of the table to describe our pleasure, desire and pain. Food, in short, is an essential element of the human condition. Throughout the 2016-17 academic year, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities will explore its human dimensions through a diverse array of programs including concerts, performances, film screenings, exhibitions, discussions, lectures, cooking demonstrations and shared meals.

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa was founded in early 2014 when an interested group of faculty and administrators gathered with the shared goal of developing a public think tank focused on enduring questions about history, identity, ethics, memory, art, music and literature. Sean Latham, Pauline Walter Professor of Comparative Literature at TU, was named the center’s founding director. Each year, the center focuses attention on a single topic designed to help us better understand what it means to be human.

For more information about the center and its programs, please visit

Fall Report from the Director of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

04-13-15 Sean Latham summer reading-006We launched the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at the University of Tulsa just over three years ago with the aim of encouraging interdisciplinary research, fostering creative collaboration, and serving the community. As the arts and humanities began to come into question, we set out to defend them as fundamental to our democratic, civil, and social lives. At the same time, of course, Tulsa itself was in the midst of an exciting cultural renaissance, sparked by the creation of the Brady Arts District, the TU-Gilcrease Museum partnership, the revival of downtown, and much more. The OCH thus emerged at a moment when there was both a plainly felt need for an engaged humanities and a growing spirit of cooperation throughout the region.

The results have been surprising and, at times, even overwhelming. The Center itself went quickly from hosting a handful of events on campus to organizing just over forty talks, exhibitions, performances, and symposia in 2015-16. Approximately 7,000 people attended an OCH event last year, figures which include a sold out crowd for An Evening with the 1491s, standing-room only performances of the Vaudeville Museum, and record audiences at the Art of Politics exhibition mounted at the Zarrow Center. We have collaborated on programming with Philbrook Museum, the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, Circle Cinema, BookSmart Tulsa, Guthrie Green, AHHA, and many other community partners. We now host John Erling’s outstanding oral history project, Voices of Oklahoma, and have just agreed to house the International James Joyce Foundation as well as the Modernist Journals Project. In addition to funding from the University of Tulsa, the OCH has received grants from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Lobeck-Taylor Foundation, and the Editorial Cartoonists Initiative. And thanks to the extraordinary generosity of the D’Arcy family, we now have a sustaining endowment gift that will permanently underwrite the Center’s ongoing activities.

Such success has been made possible by the dedication of our internal and external advisory boards, the faculty fellows whose work we support, the community partners who share our vision, and the hard-working staff who schedule venues, create ads, and serve food. Our most significant debt of gratitude, however, is owed to those who take the time to attend our events and thus affirm our core belief in the essential value of the humanities to a healthy community.

food-logo-870In 2016-17, our focus turns to the topic of food, a foundational aspect of all human culture. The manifold ways we grow, prepare, regulate, and share what we eat gives shape to identities both cultural and political, ethnic and national. Through lectures, digital initiatives, exhibitions, readings, and yes, even banquets, we will explore how and why food is so essential to the human condition. Things begin in September with a month-long cluster of programs on the local food movement and we are now scheduling events on topics like the history of cookbooks, the global tea trade, the indigenous food sovereignty movement, and much more.  To learn more, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our new monthly newsletter.  We look forward to welcoming you to the Center and to our ongoing conversations about what it means to be human.


Sean Latham

Walter Endowed Chair of English

Director, Oklahoma Center for the Humanities