Food Studies and Ecocriticism

Ecocritical literature…makes us conscious of our relationships to the natural world, to our humanity and our mortality…Food is universal and essential to life, just like death – and life and death is the engine of nature.

Ecocriticism, a literary discipline, is perhaps the best thing to happen to food studies. Though it eludes simple definition, it is often said that ecocriticism concerns the study of the relationship between literature and the environment or physical world (Glotfelty xvii). Ecocriticism also endeavors to revisit “nature writing” and address contemporary environmental concerns (“Ecocriticism”). As such, ecocritical literature provides a useful lens through which food and food studies can be examined, as it illustrates the urgency of action that is required to address global food issues.There are many food-related problems on the planet today, but this blog is especially concerned with the loss of connection with where food comes from (place, producers) and our food itself.

This severed bond is especially apparent in our dysfunctional relationship with our food system. Ecocriticism observes issues in the current environment and proposes courses of action to rectify them. This is a perfect model to apply to the modern food system. By examining relevant texts about food, nature, natural history, and related pursuits such as hunting and farming, we can determine positive actions to be taken toward a better food system, and a better, more fulfilling relationship with what we eat.

Some ecocritics have already extended their influence into the food systems and sustainability studies. Timothy Clark states (of bioregionalism):

…The ideal is to reduce to a minimum the physical, culture, and psychological distance between the consumers and producers of food and other essentials. This would also be to let the geographical, climactic and biological nature of a region become once more a crucial agent in human identity and social organisation. 131

His notion of a “bioregion” establishes place as a key concept – in this sense, the characteristics of particular places. Ecocriticism is oft-concerned with place, and In food studies, place has a multi-faceted meaning. Terroir or “taste of place” refers to how the area where food is grown or raised affects the final product. Place can also mean provenance. Food provenance is of increasing concern, and with new and often confusing labeling laws, it can be difficult to determine the truth about where animal products come from. “Cage-free” may mean “kept in an overcrowded building.” “Free-range” can refer to very small spaces rather than imagined rolling pasture. The list goes on. Consumers are becoming more interested in the “where” of products, not just “what.” Lastly, since few things can “take us back” like a good meal, food has the power to evoke memory and emotional connection with food that transcends time and space.

Another applicable feature of ecocritical literature is its implementation of “sensory ecology—a feeling for how the world works and how we fit into the world” (Slovic 131). Slovic asserts that sensory ecology hinges upon literature that invokes the senses and awareness of physical sensation (131). This certainly applies to food. Food is a universal necessity of life, a cultural lynchpin, and a sensory delight. Food is experienced with the senses, and it pleases and nourishes the body. By learning how to better engage with our food, we can not only enjoy it more but also appreciate how it gets to us. Developing more refined taste is not elitist – it helps us become conscious of the nuances of quality ingredients and the importance of “best options.” In other words, the ingredients which look and taste better (detected by the senses) tend to be better for the producer and source, the environment, and ultimately the consumer.

Studying nature writing and ecocritical literature in college is what led me to food studies. As an English major, I eagerly absorbed the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, Poe, Dickinson, Faulkner, and the ecocritics. Although an English degree program may appear unrelated to food, but it teaches us to be perceptive of and receptive to deeper meanings and connections that we need to be more conscientious eaters. Ecocritical literature also makes us conscious of our relationships to the natural world, to our humanity and our mortality. On a more immediate level, it encourages us to experience the physical world with our senses and expand our imaginations. This applies to food in many ways. Food is universal and essential to life, just like death – and life and death is the engine of nature.

Whether we like it or not, all humans are still connected to nature because of food. Even far-removed city dwellers still eat plants that grow from the earth and animals that lived off it. What’s missing is participation, responsibility, and accountability. We are largely a population of voracious consumers, and the producers of our food – though they may have the deepest connection with it – often struggle in society. Farms struggle to break even and close their doors left and right. In short, we would rather eat than cook, and much rather eat than produce. Through this blog I hope to explore ways to flip the script, and examine the relationship between humans, nature, and food.





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