Aron Dunlap is a colleague of mine at Shimer College, where he teaches and I . . . don't. He is Assistant Professor of Liberal Arts. Aron's work is varied, including a book on Lacan on Religion. But, he also has been thinking about a course on food and, as you will discover below, works with our students in the community garden. So: Aron and a Cooking with Ideas interview seemed like a great match. I am grateful to him for doing it!
Bibliochef: So, as someone also interested in religion, I want to begin there. In what ways is your interest in Christian theology and/or religion linked to your interest in food?
Aron: I’ll complicate the question even further. As I’m just finishing up my book on Lacan and religion, I’ll tie in psychoanalysis here as well. I think orality is a key term for connecting psychoanalysis and religion. Food is always important in religion precisely because this original connection with the world as experienced by the infant always remains our guide to what lies outside of us, whether that be world or others. We want to consume it and them, and are terrified that it and they may consume us. A brief example may clarify: My daughter’s first book addiction is to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which is precisely on these themes. Max is misbehaving and tells his mother that he’s going to “eat her up” – and so he promptly gets sent to bed without eating anything. He then fantasizes that he travels to the land of the wild things and becomes their king. After a night of revels he sends them to bed without their dinner. But then he is lonely and catches the smells of his mother’s cooking from across the ocean. He comes home and finds his dinner waiting for him in his room: “and it was still hot.” Growing up, for the very young child, is a navigation of eating and being eaten. And meals are crucial because they represent the perfect balance between self and other, between the raw sensorium we’re born screaming into and the cultured artifice that human beings attempt to live in. In Christianity, this tension is resolved most explicitly in the Eucharist, where Christ gives his body to be eaten, but in which he is not consumed; but, strangely enough, those who consume him are turned into him. So, there at least, the religious path is seen in terms of a special kind of eating and drinking
Bibliochef: Terrific example. And as someone whose graduate work was in religion and psychological studies, I like that you added the psychoanalytic! Would you say that the liturgical importance of food in Christianity is part of why the two connect?
Aron: I’d guess I’ve just answered this one in a way, but we can extend the importance of food outside of the liturgical framework. We can argue that the importance of the Eucharist makes farming, gardening and the soil one of the most crucial things for Christians to think about. And not only Christians, for it would be very difficult to find a religion in which food and food and drink offerings did not play a central role. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all begin in a garden and for each of these traditions the encounter with God is an encounter amidst fruit-bearing trees and running rivers. Even in the transfigured city of the book of Revelation those trees and that water remain. Even city-dwellers gotta eat.
Bibliochef: Ok, let's delve into the psychoanalytic a bit further. Do you see food as a likely subject of psychoanalytic inquiry?
Aron: Well, as I said, orality is absolutely key in the child’s interface with the world. From a clinical perspective food has been rather overshadowed by sex in the popular view of things, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the walls of consulting rooms didn’t hear just as much about eating disorders and alcoholism as they do of sexual issues. And, of course, inasmuch as sexuality involves a regression (or an embrace) to earlier phases (oral, anal, etc.) it is impossible to separate food and sex for the clinician.
Bibliochef: So, I interview by writing questions ahead of time, and I asked: Given the psychoanalytic connection of orality (and thus food) to early childhood, and your interest in children’s literature, I am curious – do you see the two as connected? Of course, that seems redundant here, given Aron's example above. And yet. . . .
Aron: I have been wanting to write a book on Harry Potter and theology for a long time. I don’t know if it will happen at this point, but my first conference paper was on the fourth Harry Potter book and the very original way in which the time travel sequence is conceived there. At this point I’m just excited to be able to relive all the children’s classics with my daughter. Just seeing how she reacts to them and ingests them is very enlightening. I remember reading The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as a child and being so taken in by the food descriptions. I had no idea what scones or clotted cream were, but I knew I wanted to eat them. Preferably for second (or third!) breakfast. Telling children stories about food (and it’s surprising how many stories are about food or incorporate it—think of Pooh and his honey) is a way of gently convincing them that the orality of speech can be just as rewarding as the orality they are used to, which is centered on their pleasure at the breast, and their sense that the world is theirs to consume whole.
Bibliochef: I know that you are involved with a community garden in Chicago. Can you speak to how that might connect to your more directly intellectual interests as well as to the classroom?
Aron: Well, this community garden is actually Shimer’s plot! We are in the beginning stages, but I think we had a very successful first harvest this year. We got some great tomatoes, some towering sunflowers (biggest in the garden!) and some other great herbs and stuff. For me, gardening is just a basic part of life that we should all have a general and basic knowledge of. So much of what we do now is virtual that it gets easy to imagine that the real world just doesn’t matter that much anymore. But our food still comes from gardens and from farms (no matter how large), and, in the long room, that ground is where we have come from and it’s where we return when we die. Seems like a good idea to know something about it, and to plunge one’s hands into that soil which we’ll all one day call home.
Bibliochef: As a student of popular culture (and I too have read the Harry Potter series), what do you make of the popularization of a kind of foodie culture?
Aron: Well, all fads become annoying at some point, but I won’t complain if people want to eat local food and learn something about gardening. It’s kind of like Whole Foods and similar fancy and expensive stores. These places come with a whole culture that can easily veer to the pretentious, but at the end of the day it’s thanks to these stores that we have access to some incredible food, that, twenty years ago, was just not available to most Americans. The biggest danger with the current food fad is that it won’t make it to those who need it most, those who live in the food deserts of our cities and small towns, where a bag of chips is often what’s for lunch. Shimer students are really aware of this stuff. In fact, I was just talking to one of our seniors who works for a South Side farmer’s market that focuses on impoverished neighborhoods about that lack access to fresh vegetables and other healthy foods.
Bibliochef: If you were teaching a course on food, and you could invite anyone – living or dead, who would you invite? And why?
Aron: Hmmm. There are some amazing food writers out there. I read, last summer I think, a collection by A.J. Liebling. He’s one of these guys who, one can tell with one look, likes his food. He spent years in France just eating his way through the country and the cafes of Paris. Yes, he got very fat. But I like the easy way he holds his knowledge about food. Ultimately, food is stuff that we all eat every day. The academic and scientific approaches are fine and good, but my favorite writing on food is writing that everyone can really sink their teeth into. It should be funny, too, because the reason no one likes to eat alone is that it’s very hard to laugh when you’re by yourself.
Bibliochef: If you could take your imagined class on a field trip to anywhere, (and perhaps anywhen), where would that be and why?
Aron: O, I think, just for the hell of it, I would go to that restaurant in Spain, El Bulli, where that guy, Ferran Adria, invented all those crazy recipes coming out of molecular gastronomy. Actually, I think the restaurant is now closed, so we’d have to go back in time a year or two. Honestly I think the whole molecular gastronomy is wrapped up in a more than just a little fadishness, but the stuff is pretty fascinating nonetheless. I would also like to be immersed in Chinese cuisine, maybe do a food tour of China or something like that. Their whole approach is so profoundly different.
Bibliochef: I admit I would love to go to that restaurant in Spain as well! And now for some of the questions I ask all of the people I “speak” with! What’s the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Aron: Meals can’t be separated from people and from the context in which they’re eaten (the meals, not the people). I’m thinking right now of a meal I had in Croatia visiting a friend from college. Her mother and grandmother spent all day making fish dishes – there must have been five or six very elaborate ones – and they were just fantastic. I remember most vividly this inky squid thing. I didn’t even know what I was eating, but I remember hearing something about how the Croatians show their hospitality by going to absolute excess with the amount of sea creatures involved. It was way too much food. Just perfect. Tying this back to theology, I think the whole notion of excess food especially when guests are concerned, which is a feature of many cultures, is connected to the theological notion of gratuitous donation. Being, the world, is a gift from God, but not a gift that is calculated or budgeted in any way. It’s pure, over the top, excess. The world and the beings running around on it don’t have to be here, but it’s sure wonderful that they are.
Bibliochef: What music, films, books related to food would you recommend? Why?
Aron: Well, Michael Pollan is pretty right on with everything he writes. I think his brief Food Rules could become a kind of Bible (number one rule: eat food (!)). I also love two Eastern films on food, Tampopo, which is a Japanese flic about ramen, and Eat, Love, Man, Woman, which is about the way family ties are always food ties in some way. That one is Chinese. It ends with an unexplained shot of a child breast-feeding for like 10 minutes.
Bibliochef: What do you eat for comfort food?
Aron: Mac and cheese, mom’s recipe, very good with gruyere. Also, a very common Sunday brunch for my wife and I has become bagels with lox and a bloody mary. Some things just work, right?
Bibliochef: You may know that mac and cheese is my number one guilty pleasure! I usually ask if people have a favorite restaurant in the Finger Lakes region, so let me know if you do! Otherwise, how about a favorite in Chicago?
Bibliochef: What am I not asking that I should? What question have you never been asked that you have always wanted to be asked? What's your answer?
Aron: You didn’t ask about music! But that makes me think that I’ve got way too many irons in the fire. It’s actually tough to think of many good songs that are about food. I don’t know why that is, and I honestly can’t think of any references in my own songs to food. O, that’s not true. I have a line in an old song about drinking milkshakes on the dock. I like that, especially now that it’s about 10 degrees outside my window. Nothing that a little raclette and wine can’t solve. Happy New Year!
Bibliochef: Well, actually I did ask about music, but hey -- your answers have been wonderful! And, while it is a tad past New Years as this goes up on Cooking with Ideas on February 1 (and we can only hope it is warmer now!), hurrah to 2014!