The winter 2012-13 issue of the Concordia University Magazine features a four-part series on the role food plays in culture, business, nutrition and defining who we are. In this second segment of four, Rhona Richman Kenneally, associate professor of design and computation arts in the Faculty of Fine Arts, believes the environment around us significantly affects the ways we interact with food.
Eat, sit, talk
Earning degrees in English literature, Canadian history and architecture may be a circuitous route to acquiring expertise in food studies, yet that is how Rhona Richman Kenneally did it.
Richman Kenneally is an associate professor of design and computation arts. Her research begins from the premise that the way we think about food — from the role it plays for individuals to the implications food practices have had on our world — must take into account the wider “built environment.” It must be understood as dynamic interactions between things and living things, spaces and structures, even energies such as electricity.
“When we analyze our relationships to what we eat, we have to recognize that while we manipulate food for our own purposes, it also manipulates us,” Richman Kenneally explains. This results in complex exchanges with widereaching implications, she adds.
Her work focuses on understanding connections between what she calls mindful food behaviour and our homes as cooking and eating environments. Mindful eating prioritizes an appreciation of the sensorial and gustatory qualities of foods, of their having been grown and consumed in sustainable ways, and of the shared eating experiences they can
stimulate. She cites the “work triangle,” whose points are the sink, refrigerator and stove, long advocated for kitchens. She also notes a preoccupation with stainless steel or granite surfaces, evident in new kitchen design.
Yet Richman Kenneally doubts whether such simplified parameters of efficiency should be a Holy Grail. “Mindful eating can be facilitated by not installing a sink or stove on a kitchen island, where unrestrained splashed water or grease might make cooking seem onerous,” she says, adding that the humble kitchen table, where household members gather for meals, is a key element.
Richman Kenneally says the relationship between food, the kitchen and the cook as creator is an “integrative experience” that involves transformations and negotiations on the part of each. It is an aspect of her current research, which focuses on 1950s to 1970s Ireland, when the republic’s rural areas were transformed by expanded water and electricity networks. These “agents of modernity” had profound effects on how meals were cooked, where they were cooked and which foods gained or lost cachet. “Certainly life became easier for women if electricity meant they didn’t have to load a stove with wood or peat or anthracite. But the centrality of their role was challenged,” Richman Kenneally says. “They had to relearn cooking skills and compete with novelty foods that became available.”
Her research, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, has whetted Richman Kenneally’s appetite to look even deeper into food and the built environment’s profound implications. “Food is one of the markers of cultural values of ecological engagement and environmental, economic and political prioritization. It makes sense to understand it as a bellwether that allows us to investigate all sorts of other priorities — things that give us pleasure or cause trepidation in our world.”
Food for thought.