Harvard professor talks role of food in shaping culture

On Oct. 3, Harvard professor and historian of science Stephen Shapin gave a lecture titled “You Are What U Eat” as part of a Mossman Lecture Series hosted by McGill. Over 200 academics, professors, and students gathered at Tanna Schulich Hall to hear Shapin speak on the role of food in shaping identity and culture, and how perspectives towards food have changed since the 17th century.

Shapin, who is best known for co-writing a 1985 book called Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, has written works of science covering the periods of 17th century England to the modern-day United States.

“Food is a kind of lens through which our way of living has been refracted,” Shapin said. “Food is self-making in a pervasive way.”

According to Shapin, most people currently believe that their bodies and the food they eat are composed of chemicals, and that their health depends on taking in the right combinations and amounts of food constituents. In the past, however, many physicians and patients believed that consuming foods allowed you to absorb the virtues and powers associated with it—for example, if you ate rabbit, you might become timid, while eating beef might make you bold.

Shapin also discussed the “index of cosmopolitanism”—how perspectives about food and its accessibility have changed so that now, food choices in a cosmopolitan city such as Montreal are inherently different from the food choices of previous generations. For example, Shapin explained that garlic has only recently become readily available and was in fact quite scarce in the past.

Nicholas Dew, a professor of history at McGill and one of the organizers of the lecture, said he is a long-time fan of Shapin’s work.

“I have been reading Shapin’s work since I was an undergraduate,” Dew said. “I’m sure McGill students from all backgrounds will find the talk interesting.”

According to Shapin, the purpose of the lecture was to urge attendees to rethink their approach to food.

“I like to be able to teach the historical facts of food in a way that encourages people to think differently about their next meal,” Shapin said. “I like to engage people’s sense of the present […] while at the same time telling them about the strangeness of the historical past.”

Alice Hutin, U1 Arts, said the lecture changed the way she views food.

“I had never thought of food from such a perspective,” Hutin said. “This talk really made me think about the history of food in a way that I never had before.”

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