October 2016

Call for Recipes: TU’s Global Table


Food is a foundational part of all human cultures and the many ways we grow, make, and share what we eat gives shape to our identities as members of a family, a tradition, and a culture.  Inevitably, we hold some dishes particularly dear, whether it’s a simple stew that just smells like home or a complex plate that marks a special celebration.  As part of our year-long focus on the theme of food, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities plans to collect such special recipes from the TU community along with the stories that give these dishes meaning.

seedsWe thus invite you to visit our webpage and submit a recipe as well as a story and a photograph to help explain why it’s so meaningful to you.  These recipes need not be particularly original or unique, but we do encourage you to tell us why this one dish matters so much.  Does it evoke memories of a now-distant family? Does it provide a connection to rituals or traditions that have been edged out in a world of ready-to-eat meals? Is it part of a special religious or cultural celebration? Or does it convey something special about your own sense of identity?  We encourage you to send not only the recipe, but also a photograph that speaks to your story.  You can certainly provide an image of the dish itself, but you might instead send images of a family member, a kitchen, a celebration, or a place somehow connected to the food.

Throughout the year we will highlight different submissions on our webpage and in the spring we will compile a complete collection of items in a special digital cookbook that explores the rich diversity of TU’s Global Table.  We welcome submissions from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other members of the university community.

Medeleine Moments

In this week’s report from the Humanities Research Seminar on Food, Emma Stewart, a student at TU, reflects on the uncanny power of food to plunge us into our memories of the past.

marcel_proust_1900-2At the outset of Marcel Proust’s renowned French novel In Search of Lost Time, the narrator tastes a madeleine cookie dipped in tea, and the once-familiar tastes and smells bring back enough memories of childhood to fill seven volumes. This moment in literature is important to the study of food, because it precedes later research proving the power of smell memory to spark old, emotional remembrances, an ability that some modern psychologists have even dubbed “the Proustian Phenomenon.” In Volume I of his novel, Proust writes:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”[1]

Proust’s food-inspired reflections of childhood prompted me to search for “madeleines” in my own life by preparing a few family recipes. Standard favorites such as chocolate chip cookies and mac-and-cheese, however, did not spark any particularly vivid recollections, and I began to lose faith that Proustian remembrances could be cooked up in my kitchen. As it turns out, these recipes were missing an element of rarity. In other words, because I have tasted foods like chocolate chip cookies often, even into adulthood, they have lost any strong associations with my past.

The solution came in the form of a marshmallow cinnamon roll recipe that, as a child, I used to prepare at my grandma’s house. While my parents slept in, my siblings and I would wake up early and sneak downstairs to awaken my grandma, who would lovingly guide us to the kitchen after donning slippers and a bathrobe. After setting out the ingredients, she would show me how to roll the marshmallows in melted butter and then cinnamon-sugar, and next how to carefully wrap them up in dough, pinching the edges to tightly seal the sugary package. By the time the cinnamon rolls were done baking, the rest of the house would be awake, and we would all gather around the table to enjoy both the company and the food.

emma-marshmallow-cinnamon-roll_rThis was my first attempt at making my grandma’s cinnamon rolls[2] on my own, and a phone call home verified that I had the right recipe. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting, but the sweet aroma of melted butter and cinnamon-sugar, as well as the motions of rolling the marshmallows, folding the dough, and pinching the edges, making sure to do it in just the way my grandma had taught me, hit me with emotion so strongly that I was brought to tears. I felt the presence of the love and guidance of my grandma, while at the same time feeling more acutely the distance between us.

In preparing this food, I was all at once the young girl following her grandma’s instructions and the college student trying to recreate the recipe over a decade later. I think this is the same phenomenon that Proust describes when his narrator takes a bite of the madeleine, though I opted to fill just this one blog post rather than seven volumes. What Proust reveals in his writing and what I was able to experience through my grandma’s recipe is the power of food to link moments in the past with the those in the present. For me, this meant the ability to bring a little piece of my grandma’s kitchen in Wisconsin to my apartment in Tulsa. I can only hope that one day people will gather around my table with the same excitement and love with which we gather around hers.

[1] Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Ed. D. J. Enright. Vol. 1. New York: Modern Library, 1981. Print.

[2] I found out years later that my grandma’s marshmallow cinnamon roll recipe is actually Pillsbury’s, though I will forever associate it with the former.

The Art and Science of Food

10-14-16-san-miguel-visits-oklahoma-center-for-the-humanities-109We believe that the arts and humanities are an essential element of our social and civic lives. The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at the University of Tulsa is thus committed not only to developing a diverse array of public programs each year, but to serving our larger community. On October 14, the Center hosted nearly 100 sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade students from San Miguel School of Tulsa for a free program on the cultre and science of food. TU faculty members led three different interactive workshops that offered the visitors an opportunity to think about the role food plays in shaping personal, familial, and cultural identity.

10-14-16-san-miguel-visits-oklahoma-center-for-the-humanities-120Keith Symcox, Professor of Chemistry, looked at the science at work in our kitchens in a series of tasty experiments. The students then met with Bruce Willis, Professor of Languages and current Humanities Research Fellow, and shucked corn while talking about its vital role in Mayan creation stories and Mesoamerican cultures. Finally, Sean Latham, Professor of English, led students through a writing exercise that revealed the powerful connection between smell and memory. The students came away from these diverse events with a richer understanding of food and its integral role both in our own lives and in a larger global history.

10-14-16-san-miguel-visits-oklahoma-center-for-the-humanities-132Each year, the OCH sets out to design at least one program focused on local schools and uses our annual theme to provide students with a unique set of opportunities. In 2014, for example, the Center hosted a special set of performances, exhibitions, and workshops about the start of WWI, while last year we used the theme of humor to bring nationally recognized political cartoonists to Booker T. Washington High School. We hope to expand such programming in coming years in order to connect the arts and humanities more deeply to the life of our city, region, and state.

Food and Historical Trauma

We continue our regular series from the Humanities Research Fellows.  This week, Lisa Cromer, Associate Professor of Psychology and an expert in trauma, reflects on the connection between food and memory in cultures that have suffered extraordinary loss.

Food, emotions and memory are inextricable. Psychology tells us that what we eat and how much we eat, are impacted by our emotions (Macht, 2008). Similarly, food is a powerful agent for evoking emotions and emotional memories. The sight and smell of a favorite dish can flood one with positive reminders of special people and times; the associated emotions may be comfort, love, and joy. Memories may be related to holidays, but also can be part of our remembered personal narratives; for example, holocaust survivors speak of happy associations with bread, as bread represented survival (Bachar et al., 2005).

cromer-seedsFood memories can also be powerfully negative or repulsive; indeed experimental studies show that a single negative experience with food (for example, the onset of sickness after eating a food), can result in an enduring food aversion. I think of my grandfather who could not tolerate the sight or smell of blue cheese because of the memories of starving during WWII, and having only rotting cheese on which to subsist. Food memories are also associated with cultural and religious practices. These traditional and rituals means—whether they be gefilte fish on Jewish holidays, seafood risotto for Italian Catholics on Christmas Eve, or congee to celebrate the Chinese New Year—can evoke a sense of connection. Food traditions transcend time, making food rituals a way of memorializing the past.

As I reflect on the use of food for cultural connection and individual attachment to a collective, I wonder about food and food narratives as a way of healing the past. In particular, I wonder if food rituals and narratives facilitate cultural healing. Historical trauma is framework for conceptualizing the experience of mass trauma and oppression of a group who share an identity or affiliation. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart is credited with applying historical trauma to healing for American Indians (Brave Heart, 1998). Her theory posits that the social ills plaguing American Indians in the present are rooted in past atrocities, and that healing begins with recognizing and understanding past trauma, then grieving that trauma, before transcending it. In the literature, historical trauma is typically measured by how much one thinks about ancestral losses of land, language, family ties, culture, spirituality, and respect.

At present, food traditions are not measured in the historical loss/trauma literature, which may be a shortcoming. Anthropologist Jon Holtzman (2009) identified important cultural themes related to memory and food; he noted that food is an avenue for historical connections to nostalgia, family and ethnic identity. When we examine the American Indian experience, a component of historical trauma stems from governmental control of food sources and food preparation and other food-related traditions. Traditional foods were symbols of ethnic identity and changes to food practices stripped American Indians further of an aspect of their cultural identity (Wesley-Esquimaux & Smolewski, 2004). Given that healing from cultural oppression and loss theoretically occurs through a process of recognizing and understanding the historical trauma, and culminates ultimately in transcending the trauma, perhaps exploring, revisiting, and reconnecting with food traditions and oral food narratives could be an additional way of healing from historical trauma.


Bachar, E., Canetti, L., & Berry, E. M. (2005). Lack of long-lasting consequences of starvation on eating pathology in Jewish Holocaust survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Journal of abnormal psychology, 114(1), 165.

Brave Heart, M. Y. H. (1998). The return to the sacred path: Healing the historical trauma and historical unresolved grief response among the Lakota through a psychoeducational group intervention. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 68(3), 287-305.

Holtzman, J. D. (2006). Food and memory. Annu. Rev. Anthropol., 35, 361-378.

Macht, M. (2008). How emotions affect eating: a five-way model. Appetite, 50(1), 1-11.

Wesley-Esquimaux, C.C. & Smolewski, M. (2004). Historic Trauma and Aboriginal Healing accessed from: http://www.ahf.ca/downloads/historic-trauma.pdf

The Taste of Russian Summers

In this week’s report from the Humanities Research Seminar on the theme of “food,” Professor Christine Ruane shares her own experiment in recreating an eighteenth-century Russian treat.

Russian food has evolved by incorporating influences from other culinary traditions, especially French cuisine. Tired of having Europeans dismiss Russians as uncouth barbarians, in the early 1700s Tsar Peter the Great decided that he would “Europeanize” himself and his subjects. One way to do that was for Russians to eat European food. Since French cuisine had become the gold standard for European fine dining, elite Russians embraced it to demonstrate their culinary sophistication. This embrace of French cuisine did not mean that Russians merely imitated their French counterparts. Cooks in Russia adapted these French recipes and cooking techniques to Russian conditions. Most Russian cookbook authors will identify these Franco-Russian dishes, or sometimes the names themselves reveal their dual citizenship.[1]

ruane-blog2There is at least one exception to this instance of cultural transmission and adaptation. In researching Russian usage of fruits and vegetables, I kept running across a dessert called pastilles (French) or pastila (Russian). Initially, I assumed that the Russian candy was the result of French influence, but in exploring the etymology of the Russian name, I discovered a more interesting story. According to the most comprehensive nineteenth-century Russian etymological dictionary, pastila comes from the verb postilat’/postlat’ which means to spread or lay out.[2] The original name of the candy was postila which clearly indicates its derivation from the verb. The first mention of the dessert (postila) can be found in a sixteenth-century household management book called the Domostroi.[3] It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the Russian spelling was modified to pastila.[4] Why the name changed is not explained in the sources, but it is translated into English as pastilles. Whatever the confusion over the name, the dessert is an example of old Russian cuisine. Along with jams, preserves, and juices, making postila served as another way to preserve freshly harvested fruits.

So what then is this Russian dessert? The Russian culinary historian Pokhlebkin argues that the medieval postila would have been made from pureed apples, honey, and beaten egg whites. Once thoroughly mixed, women would bake these sweets in the enormous clay stoves that were customary in Russian homes.[5]  Inevitably, the traditional ways of making postila changed as a result of Europeanization and industrialization. Sugar replaced honey as the sweetener, and Russian stoves were replaced with smaller metal ones. Pokhlebkin remarks that the drying process with newer ovens became too cumbersome for women to make postila in their homes.[6] (Indeed in my attempt to make the modern version of pastila (Figure 1), I found the long baking time of six hours challenging to work into my rather hectic schedule.)[7]   To supply Russians with postila, some nineteenth-century Russian entrepreneurs began the industrial production of the sweets.[8] The provincial towns of Kolomna and Rzhev became the centers of postila/pastila production in large part because they used the much-loved Russian antonovka and titovka apples for their puree. Today, there is a pastila museum in Kolomna, celebrating the role of this sweet confection in Russian life.[9]

[1] See Darra Goldstein, A La Russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality (New York: Random House, 1983).

[2] Vladimir Dal’, Tolkovyi slovar’ zhivogo Velikoruskogo iazyka (Moscow: Russkii iazyk, 1980): III: 344-345. This is a reprint of the 1882 edition.

[3] For the English translation, see The “Domostroi”: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible, ed. and trans. Carolyn Johnston Pouncy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 152.

[4] Vil’iam V. Pokhlebkin, “Kulinarnyi slovar’,” Bol’shaia Kulinarnaia Kniga (Moscow: Eksmo, 2013), 899.

[5] Ibid. For more on Russian stoves, see Snejana Tempest, “Stovelore in Russian Folklife,” Food in Russian History and Culture, eds. Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997): 1-14.

[6] Pokhlebkin, “Kulinarnyi slovar’,” 899.

[7] Goldstein, “Apple Confections/Pastila,” 292.

[8] Pokhlebkin, “Kulinarnyi slovar’,” 899.

[9] See kolomnapastila.ru.


The Plant Treaty

Michelle Donaldson, Executive Chef of Tallgrass Prairie Table, continues our regular series of reports from the research fellows working on the theme of food at the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities.

global-grainsThe narrative of food is forever evolving. We all have ideas about what tastes good and what we want to see on our table as well as strong opinions about, organic vs. conventional, necessity vs. want, fast food vs. slow food, so on and so on. As a chef, I live in this narrative and have two varying perspectives: one as a chef the other as an everyday person. Sometimes they co-mingle, sometimes they argue, sometimes they’re in harmony, and sometimes they are polar opposites. We both, however, believe in the necessity of bio-diversity and feel strongly that corporate control of our food supply is a terrifying nightmare that makes Soylent Green seem more like a possible reality than a work of fiction.

soylent-greenIf you’re not familiar with the premise of Soylent Green, a great sci-fi thriller from 1973 starring Charlton Heston, I will gladly refresh your memory or introduce you. In the year 2022, the world has been left overcrowded, polluted, barren, and starving. A giant corporation rations out Soylent Green, which it claims is made of sea plankton. Spolier alert: it turns out, humanity has exhausted that resource as well and, in the film’s memorable tagline, “Soylent Green is people!” If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend it just to see Charlton Heston deliver that line.

I mention Soylent Green because we seem to be living in an age of fiction becoming reality. No, I don’t think we are about to start eating people, but I am nervous for the future of farming. In the last year four major mergers have been negotiated in big agriculture:

  1. Syngenta, the Swiss seed and chemical maker, has been agreed to be bought for more 43 billion dollars by China National Chem Corp., which aims to be the world’s largest agricultural-chemical company.
  2. Dow Chemical seeks to merge with Dupont to become one of the worlds largest seed and chemical companies, valued at around 130 billion dollars.
  3. Agrium Inc. and Potash Co. out of Canada combined to become one of the world’s largest fertilizer corporations.
  4. Finally,Bayer AG bought Monsanto Co. for 66 billion dollars.

Regardless of how you feel about conventional, organic, or non-GMO practices, we should all share a healthy fear of a majority of the world’s seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers being controlled by less than six corporations. This is, in effect, a hostile takeover of our food system.

In 2004, 138 countries and unions, along with some help from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) signed the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA), now known as the Plant Treaty. This far-reaching international agreement, in partnership with the Convention on Biological Diversity, will provide improved food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use of the world’s plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. It also aims to recognize farmers’ rights, by allowing them the opportunity to continue their work as stewards and innovators of agricultural bio-diversity. The treaty solidifies the practices of seed sharing and provides access to the living genetic resources necessary for plant breeding and preservation.

seedsSo, I’m left thinking this: How, in this moment of corporate concentration, do we obtain and maintain agricultural bio-diversity, choice, sustainability, and conservation? I am scared to death knowing a vast majority of the world’s food could be controlled by only four corporations. I do however see hope. I see it in the ever-growing awareness of our food system. I see constant protest in the way people are choosing to spend their money on food. I have optimism for our global community when I see marvels like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and their capacity to protect 4.5 million distinct seed samples. Seed sharing, germplasm, and farmers’ rights are all recognized by the Plant Treaty. I hope all of us consider taking both individual and collective action to preserve the planet’s diversity, even in the face of big-ag buyouts and synthetic seed salesman.