A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
March 9, 2006 Volume 36 / Number 6


Lynn Houston: Cooking up Academic Success

Eating and drinking wind their way through much of literature, from tea in Jane Austen novels to the eating scene in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. For Lynn Houston, Department of English, new to CSU, Chico last fall, the literature of food is both her field of expertise and her passion.

Interest in food and culture came while Houston was studying in Switzerland as a Fulbright scholar in 1994. When she and her international friends began having potlucks, everyone would bring traditional dishes from their home countries except Houston. She wasn't sure what to bring, and the question became: "What makes for uniquely American food?"

Through her study of American literature, Houston has been trying to answer that question ever since. The topic speaks to the mixing of Old World and New World cultures as so many American dishes have European influence. "I became obsessed with cookbooks and stopping at the food markets," she says, "and how the movement of food reflects American culture."

Unlike traditional English professors, Houston uses methodology from both anthropology and literature. She looks at cultural values, statistics, and relevant literature when doing research because interdisciplinary work helps connect the dots better than research from any one department could. "I kind of have to keep my hands in a lot of different pots," she says.

She reads work by Carole Counihan and Sandra Steingraber to better understand her discipline. Counihan, an anthropology professor at Millersville University, is known for her work editing the "Food & Foodways" journal. The journal features research focusing on how food influences social change. Steingraber is an ecologist and author known for tracking environmental links to cancer and reproductive health. She has written "Living Downstream" and spoke at CSU, Chico last semester.

Houston is also involved with the Popular Culture and American Culture Association and Association for the Study of Food and Society. Along with looking at the relationships between food and culture, these groups aim to inform politicians and citizens about "foodways"—the values and practices associated with how a country produces foods. "These food values are helping influence public policy," she says.

Knowledge of these concepts helped her complete a dissertation titled The Mad Cow Nexus: The Stakes/Steaks of Personhood in Global, Industrial Food Production before coming to CSU, Chico in fall 2005. In the work, she mixed academic disciplines to look at cattle raising, representations of beef in American media and literature, and the cultural food values resulting from that. Her aim was to explore changes in attitudes toward food production after mad cow disease hit the American media.

She has also written Food and Culture in the Caribbean as part of the Food and Culture Around the World series, published in 2005. The book provides a history of Caribbean food from indigenous times to the present. Houston says it was an opportunity to share her knowledge on the topic, although a lot of her more academic-style research was edited out before publication.

As expected from someone who enjoys studying food all day, Houston enjoys cooking food at home. She honed her skills while testing Caribbean dishes for her book. "One of the fun parts of writing it was developing and testing the recipes to include in it! As I was doing the revisions on the book while living in Louisiana, I was struck by the similarities between food traditions in Southeastern Louisiana and those of the Caribbean," she says.

Houston also cooks Polish dishes. Her mother's side of the family is of Polish American heritage, "so we do lots of cooking with cabbage," she says.

Before CSU, Chico, Houston was working as a visiting assistant professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. In less than a year, Houston has already started gathering ideas and plans for her future in Chico. She says she sees herself focusing more on the environmental aspects of food and literature as time goes on. "Here in Chico, there's an emphasis toward progress in environmentalism and sustainability," she says. "There are more people writing now about those issues."

Houston would like to start a general education English course based on her studies in food and literature. Everyone likes food, so reading about the topic would seem accessible and enjoyable to students, she says. "It would be a good way to get people into literature.”

—by Stephanie Miles