A Taste of the Past

The Lampert Institute kicked off its year-long series titled “Food Cultures: Traditions and Futures” on Thursday, September 17 with a lecture by Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Dr. Jennifer Jordan. Jordan talked to a packed room about a concept she refers to as “edible memory” in her discussion called “Edible Memory: How Tomatoes Became Heirlooms and Apples Became Antiques.”

“Edible memory” is the term Jordan uses to describe the connections humans make with certain foods – why an apple you eat as an adult can take you back to the memory of eating apples as a child, for example. The genetic biodiversity of foods like tomatoes and apples is what makes this possible. An apple’s genetic code can be salvaged from an old plant and used to graft a new one, which is where the often-used term “heirloom” comes from.

“How do we turn something as perishable as a tomato or an apple into an heirloom?” Jordan asked. “It’s the genetic code that we’re handing down.”

As a sociologist, studying plants and genetic codes didn’t seem like a logical step in Jordan’s career, especially after having spent years writing a book about Berlin. On a visit to Austria, however, Jordan discovered plants preserved as artifacts at historical attractions and sought to find out more.

“Edible memory came to be a way to describe what I was seeing, how people were interacting with these foods,” Jordan said. “Genetically, historically, culturally – where does it all come from? What stories does it tell?”

Jordan shared stories of her childhood and her family’s apple tree that she is trying to recreate in her yard now in an attempt to experience the

edible memory of the exact apples she ate as a kid.

The term “heirloom” is frequently used by restaurants and grocery stores, trying to capitalize on a certain trend in gourmet cuisine. The question posed by this lecture – what makes tomatoes heirlooms and apples antiques – shows that often tomatoes referred to as heirlooms have no real traceable history.

Jordan published a book on her work in this field titled “Edible Memory”. In an area as wide as produce, one could study the histories and genetics of plants forever.

“We have such a diverse culinary culture,” she said of America. “It gets a bad [reputation] in terms of the standard diet, but there is so much diversity.”

Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Upstate Institute Chris Henke helped to organize this lecture as part of the “Food Cultures” series, along with the Lampert Institute and the departments of Sociology and Anthropology (SOAN) and Environmental Studies.

“We want to get people thinking about what is the promise of local food systems,” Henke said. “It’s kind of the trend, but at the same time there’s the question of whether it’s actually a good thing or is it sustainable to eat locally. We want to get people on campus talking about that debate.”

Senior Anna Heil came to the lecture as a member of the Lampert Institute and was impressed by Jordan’s talk.

“I think it’s amazing. I’ve just recently become really interested in agriculture, and especially tomatoes,” Heil said. “I thought she was a great speaker and I’m interested to learn more.”

Senior Bobae Kang is a SOAN major and was drawn to the lecture because he is interested in getting a better understanding of how the areas of sociology and anthropology can be interconnected with food.

“I’m interested in food and how its larger structure is relevant to something that can be as personal as food consumption and taste,” Kang said. “As a SOAN major, it’s interesting to me to see how we can study things like tomatoes in a very intellectual way.”

One of the goals of the Lampert Institute’s series is to get the community thinking more deeply about the food they consume. Some students said Jordan’s talk gives them a reason to put more thought into what they eat.

“I think it’s interesting to think of heirloom[s] in terms of what varieties we’re eating, because I don’t usually think about that with my produce,” Heil said. “I’ve been mostly focused lately on the local side.”

“This talk definitely helps us to understand some of the larger context behind our everyday consumption of life,” Kang said. “In that sense, we can be more thoughtful. We can even relish it more if we start thinking about how it can be a medium to something bigger, like narratives and memories.”