Lucy Long wants people to know that food does more that simply keep us alive. It defines our cultural heritage, and can help break down barriers between those from different backgrounds.
“In a multicultural society we have to find ways to celebrate differences,” said Ms. Long, who has taught food studies courses in the pop culture department at Bowling Green State University. “Frequently we only think of food in terms of how much it costs or how fat it makes us. It's something we partake of several times a day. Our lives are centered around food.”
Her research includes shopping at ethnic stores and dining in ethnic restaurants to discover how immigrant experiences and foods intersect with American culture. Her project is funded with a grant from the Archie Green Fellowship of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
In the 1980s, Ms. Long was on the ground floor of persuading academics to take food studies seriously. She published various articles about the cultural significance of food, including "Eating Across the Curriculum," in Digest, a journal published by the American Folklore Society.
The mother of three children in their 20s, she has also written two books on the topic: Culinary Tourism and Regional American Food Culture.
“Food connects us partly because we all eat, so it is a universal activity and experience,” Ms. Long said. “But it also connects us on a practical level in that we frequently eat together and purchase food other people have produced.”
A glimpse into her own family reveals the social aspect of food. The Charlotte, N.C., native's father is from the mountains and her mother was from the flat lands.
“They were from two different regions, and there was discrimination between them,” said Ms. Long, who seems to have nary a trace of a southern accent. “I always was aware that the difference came out in food. When I was in the mountains with my mountain family, we would have a lot of mountain ham, buttermilk, hominy and corn bread, collard greens, fried potatoes, and sweet potatoes.”
On the table in the homes of relatives in the flat lands there might be fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, grits, biscuits, collards, and lots of corn. The foods don't seem all that different, but Ms. Long said, “People in my family in North Carolina considered the foods to be very different.”
Already she has visited Asian, Eastern European, African, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic stores and restaurants in Toledo, Dayton, Cleveland, Columbus, Ann Arbor, and Fort Wayne, Ind. She records store owners talking about selling ethnic foods and their explanation of it to consumers. Ms. Long explains that those simple acts contribute to the development of relationships and ultimately to communities. The documents from her project will go to the Library of Congress for scholars and anyone else who desires to listen to.
Ms. Long has an undergraduate liberal arts degree from Davidson College, a master's in ethnomusicology from the University of Maryland, and a doctorate in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
She lived in South Korea and in Taiwan from about the fifth grade until she graduated from a Korean high school (her father worked for the U.S. State Department) and has lived in Bowling Green since 1985.
"Explaining the differences in food opens the door to understanding differences," she explains. "Studying food helps us see the cultural processes that we all participate in without even realizing it."
In addition to her research and writing, she has established a website for her Center for Food and Culture to teach others about the subject. As you might imagine, she has a lot of books about foods both traditional and unusual foods. Creamed possum anyone?