You are here

Food for Thought: Culture, Gastronomy, and Teaching

January 6, 2020

Food and culture are an especially intriguing nexus for Deborah Lee-Ferrand, a PhD candidate in French studies. Lee-Ferrand found a place to grow her teaching career and mature her dissertation, titled “Acquired Tastes: Food as Relation and Memory in Franco-African Women’s Literature” while holding a position as a visiting professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. Her experiences, research, and plans focus on food, teaching, and French.

What is your dissertation about? 

I work on gastro literature, which is literature focusing on food, cuisine, and gastronomy (and even sometimes integrates recipes), and I point out the dynamics among the triangle that is France, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean in terms of food and power. I use novels, cookbooks, and restaurant reviews to show how female authors are fighting against the hegemony of the French in literature and cuisine. It enables me to highlight other topics that can be found in the literary texts I focus on, such as economy, politics, sustainability, social constructs, and others.

What made French cuisine a worldwide reference was the alliance between a chef, an author, and a journalist, who, at the turn of the 19th century, coined and defined what gastronomy is. They defined the rules for the preparation and consumption of food that made French cuisine revered by people worldwide. In the last few years, there has been an increase in the news coverage about sub-Saharan and Caribbean cuisines, and chefs specializing in these regional staples have been recognized with prestigious prizes. There has also been a rise in literature focusing on food from these regions. These cuisines are not marginalized anymore and are becoming trendy, using the exact formula that built the renowned status of their French counterpart.

What countries has your research taken you to? 

Once to Senegal and another time to Martinique and Guadeloupe. And of course, when I am in France visiting family, I will often try African and Caribbean restaurants and connect with the chefs there. The fun aspect of my research is that a lot of my work is done in restaurants, tasting the food, talking to chefs, reading cookbooks, talking about produce and their origin, and cooking with moms and grandmothers in their homes.

What goals guide your research?

I want my research to be innovative, to bring together the humanities and social sciences, and, above all, I want it to be accessible. I hope that it will interest a wide public that is not solely composed of academics or students researching this topic, but that it will also grasp the attention of people who are curious about literature and food history, food culture, and new culinary trends. 

What are highlights from studying at UMN in French studies?

I think that the strong assets of the department are twofold when it comes to the training I received. First, I very much valued the opportunity to teach undergraduate classes while getting a graduate degree. The training I have received both from the French department and its collaboration with the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) made me the successful professor I am today. Additionally, I was able to take a wide range of classes on different periods. I knew I wanted to specialize in francophone studies, but what I did not know when I entered in the program is that I would equally enjoy medieval studies. Being comfortable working on such different periods is very useful and it definitely stems from the department’s interest in giving the students a solid background across periods. Moreover, the faculty encouraged and facilitated interdisciplinary studies, and that is reflected in the originality of the research conducted by graduate students. 

And I loved living in Minneapolis! It is a vibrant city with a strong francophone and francophile community. I definitely miss the exceptional culinary scene, which fed my creativity. And now that I am living in the South, I even dearly miss the snow! 

How did you end up at William & Mary?

I actually spent a year here from 2009–10 as the language fellow of the French house, and I have very fond memories of that year. I was an exchange scholar coming from the Université de Montpellier in France, which is also how I ended up coming to the UMN.  

I was looking for a position in a small liberal arts college where I would have the opportunity to teach a wide range of classes on language, literature, and culture. I also wanted to be in an environment that is focused on the faculty’s involvement in teaching. I like working closely with students and helping them reach their full potential, and that is exactly what I do at William & Mary, whether I advise a student on a thesis project, a research project, or a daily class assignment. 

When I got the job at William & Mary, it was my first year on the job market. I was very surprised and extremely grateful for this opportunity. As a single mom finishing her dissertation, staying at William & Mary gave me the opportunity to build my resume while strengthening and maturing my dissertation.

William & Mary is an environment where I have continued to learn. I learn a lot from my colleagues, who are showing me the ropes of what being a professor entails. I learn equally as much from the students, who are extremely smart and dedicated to their education. They are creative and strive to learn. It has been a pleasure working and teaching here. I have been learning a lot about the profession while waiting for the right tenure-track position to come by.

What are your favorite courses to teach?

Last spring, I taught a class entitled Food for Thought: French and Francophone Literatures in Context, which was directly inspired by my research. We started in the medieval era and explored the trope of food up to the contemporary period in France and the francophone world. It was a very diverse class composed of American and international students. Cooking, food, and gastronomy meant something completely different for each student, but it united them all. I like teaching this class because it is always a topic people are passionate about; everybody eats, so everyone has something to say about it. 

I enjoy teaching content classes and creating new syllabi. So far, I have taught an introductory class to Beur and Maghrebi cinemas, a class on French identity, and, most recently, I taught a class called Born This Way: Gender and Sexuality in French and Francophone Cultures. Next semester, I am expanding my range with a class on medieval literature called Medieval Shenanigans: Fantastic Beasts, Fights, Feasts, and Fashion.

What’s next?

I am currently working on a few projects. The first one is an article based on interviews with chefs from sub-Saharan Africa who work in both France and the US, and whose cuisines were formerly associated with poverty and famine but are becoming trendy in the West and finally being recognized and prized as they should be. The second article is actually based on a conference paper I am presenting at the Northeast Modern Language Association convention in Boston next spring. It is on a comic book, entitled Le goût d’Emma, born from the collaboration among French authors and a Japanese manga artist. It delves into the world of the famous Guide Michelin. At a time when culinary stars are being rejected by chefs, I thought it would be interesting to analyze and discuss this pillar of French culture from a different angle.

I am also on the job market. I am hoping to find a tenure-track position in an institution similar to William & Mary. I am truly happy when I am in a classroom, and I equally enjoy teaching language classes and showing the student how grammar is like a puzzle. Learning a language is fun and teaches you as much about another culture as on your own.

This interview was conducted by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.