Eating with Ashley

Olivia Diaz Gilbert

My name is Olivia Diaz Gilbert and I am a rising Junior at Emory University.  In this study, I interviewed and observed my roommate and fellow Emory student, Ashley Varnadoe.  I chose to study Ashley because her culture surrounding food and dining contrasts greatly from mine and I was curious to find out more about it.  Ashley and I have been sharing a kitchen and dining area for the past month, and almost immediately I noticed the differences in how we use these spaces. Where she eats, and what she does while she eats are very different from my own practices.  Ashley is also a vegetarian, which somewhat influences the use of the kitchen and kitchen table.  I was particularly interested in comparing Ashley’s experiences with her kitchen and table as a child to what I observe sharing a dining and kitchen space with her now.

To conduct this study with Ashley, I used two anthropological methods.  To study her current practices in the kitchen, I used the method of participant observation (Crowther XXI).  Our relationship made using this method very easy and natural.  I am usually present while she is making and eating food, so nothing was different when I was observing her in an anthropological context except my own thoughts. She did not feel uncomfortable, or from what I could tell change her behavior while I was observing her, because it was almost the same as what we do every night.  I also used the informal interview method to study Ashley’s experience with the kitchen and table while she was growing up (Crowther XXI-XXII).  I chose this method first because it is impossible for me to observe her past, and because I trust her to be honest and unbiased in her account, especially in an informal setting.

In the participant observation part of my study, I observed Ashley making dinner on a typical night in.  She began cooking without much thought or fuss; she put yellow rice in a saucepan with water to cook, chopped up summer squash and started it sautéing on the stove, and set up her laptop in the kitchen so she could watch Suits while she cooked.  Throughout her time in the kitchen, she was careful to avoid any of the surfaces or utensils that had been used on meat by our other roommate and had not been washed yet.  After the first two parts of her meal had some time to cook, she started heating up some tex-mex style jack fruit meat substitute in a frying pan.  When she was finished cooking, she put her food on a small plate and brought it and her laptop over to the couch in the living room without even glancing at the kitchen table.  She ate her entire meal on the couch while continuing to watch suits.  After her meal she stayed on the couch for several minutes until she reached a good stopping place in her TV show and returned to the kitchen to wash the dishes and put away the left-over food.  Later that evening she did use the kitchen table, but not to eat.  Instead, she sat at the table and did homework for a couple of hours.

When I interviewed Ashley, I asked questions based on the knowledge I had collected while observing her.  I learned that as a child, she always either ate outside on the outdoor furniture when the weather was nice, or on her couch while she and her family watched TV together.  There was little to no preparing of either space before eating.  After the meal, whichever member of her family had not cooked had to clear and wash the dishes.  When I asked if she and her family ever used the dining table she said that they did but only for special occasions, holidays, and family gatherings.  The table was reserved for when they had company and still only if the occasion required formality.  The table would be set with all the nicest dishes and utensils, and often bore some decoration having to do with the theme of the occasion.  She also told me that when the table was in use, she still was not allowed to use it.  The table was for adults only and she and her cousins and sister had to sit at the kitchen island and eat.  However, she and the other kids still had to help clean up the table when the meal was over.

Ashley’s experiences with her kitchen and table are vastly different from my own.  At one point, from a place both of curiosity and my own bias, I asked her how they kept the couches clean if they ate on them.  The reason my mother always cited for not allowing any food on the couches was that I would spill and get food on them.  But when I asked, Ashley just laughed.  She said that she had never thought about that before and that she didn’t think that she or her family ever spilled food anywhere.  She had white couches growing up, so she probably would have known if they did happen to spill something.

Learning about Ashley’s childhood table provided context for how she uses the kitchen table in our current living situation.  In her childhood she and her family almost never ate at the table and now she still almost never uses it for eating purposes.  She still likes to watch TV while she eats, and even went as far as to say that she feels “weird” when she doesn’t have anything to watch.  Based on her account of the white couches, I can infer that it was also part of her family’s mealtime culture to be especially neat eaters.  Based on my observations, I can confirm that she is in fact very tidy when she eats.  In our apartment, I can remember one distinct time that she did eat at the table; when we hosted several friends for dinner.  Just like in her home growing up, eating at the table is mostly reserved for special occasions.  For Ashley, the table means friends, family, and celebration.  It is not used for everyday eating which makes occasions all the more special for her when the table is eaten at.  I learned a lot more about my friend, and a food and eating culture that greatly contrasts my own.  This was a fun and interesting study that I hope helps me practice more cultural relativism when I learn about more different cultures in this class and in my daily life (Crowther XXI).

Works Cited:

Crowther, Gillian. Eating Culture: An Anthropological guide to food. Toronto: University of Toronto press. 2013.

One Reply to “Eating with Ashley”

  1. Very detailed and careful observation, Olivia. Well done on the “completeness,” “specificity,” “engagement with class material,” and “general writing” sections of the rubric. Connection making between inclass discussions and experiences is weak. On the whole, excellent post.

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