06/12/2012 06:20 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Food Studies, Cooking and Kitchen Chats

"So, do you cook?" Until a few years ago I often found myself trying to respond constructively to this question, which was the usual segue from my admission to teaching Food Studies. Other assorted reactions included: "So, does chocolate really affect a woman's mood?"; "So, do you always shop at Whole Foods?"; and my favorite "So, what is the best Italian restaurant in New York?" -- as if researching food was an obvious extension of my Italian ethnic background, a perfect fit thanks to genes selected by centuries of Mediterranean diet. The "so" that often preceded these questions seemed to point to some sort of fundamental connection, an inevitable link between Food Studies and the realm of the enjoyable and the inconsequential.

I realized that most people had an easier time making sense of food writing as a respectable and enviable occupation than wrapping their mind around food as an object of serious scholarly pursuit. Recipes, restaurant reviews, and tips to pick the best ingredients have become a noticeable part of our media landscape, as common as classified ads and film listings. Yet judging from others' reactions, studying food from a scholarly point of view hailed from a completely different territory. Some identified the field with nutrition, others with food sciences. Until a few years ago few were open to appreciate the relevance of a comprehensive examination of the daily experience of shopping for food, storing it, preparing it, consuming it, and discarding the leftovers. Now things are changing, and quickly. More and more scholars, students, practitioners, and activists are trying to make sense of food, which frequently finds itself at the center of cultural discourse and public debates. Its ties with personal health, social well-being, the environment, social customs, political choices, and administrative measures are becoming obvious to increasing numbers of concerned citizens.

As more students take courses in the Food Studies and new programs are sprouting all over the country, research about food is intensifying in depth and expanding in scope. A clear indication is the growth of the annual joint conference of three of the main academic associations dealing with food: the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS), and Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN). This year's meeting, which will take place in New York City between June 20 and 24 at The New School and New York University, has witnessed an unprecedented number of submissions from all over the world. More than 120 panels will examine issues ranging from sustainability to alternative food networks, from politics to gender, from the social aspects of nutrition to the cultural elements of consumption. The diversity of the panels is a testament to the dialogue among disciplines that has marked Food Studies since its beginnings (the first ASFS meeting took place in 1987) and to the crucial importance of maintaining a vigorous dialogue among academia, civil society, the nonprofit sector, public servants, and activists.

From time to time I still get the dreaded cooking question. And truth to be told, I have no shame in admitting that I love eating and cooking. Nor do I have a problem sharing my preferences when it comes to restaurants. However, I have noticed that more and more people actually get what I do and understand the significance of Food Studies. If arguing about the alleged "authenticity" of a recipe or discussing a variety of heirloom beans is what it takes to initiate more far-reaching conversations, so be it. I have no qualms about it. After all, kitchens are still great places to chat. And if you want to join the conversation, join us in New York this June for the Food Studies Conference.