Bernard L. Herman
George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and Folklore, Department of American Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Conducted by Chika Jenkins on March 31, 2021 and April 14, 2021 at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and New York, New York via Zoom
Bernard L. Herman tending the oyster ground at Westerhouse Creek, Westerhouse, Virginia. Photo by Rebecca Y. Herman. Courtesy of Bernard L. Herman.
Herman is deeply involved in the foodways, economy, and ecology of Virginia's Eastern Shore. In his conversations with local residents about food-raising and cooking, many shared their stories and recipes. In consultation with them, he wrote the James-Beard-nominated book, A South You Never Ate. Additionally, Herman co-founded Eastern Shore of Virginia Foodways, an organization devoted to education about the unique food culture of the region and preserving its legacy. In this interview, Herman talks about his life-long connection with this place, and explains how and why he farms oysters, heirloom vegetables, and fruit. Herman also discusses questions of terroir, authenticity, and tradition. He shares his insights on the power and risk of translation, interpretation, and writing; and, addresses theoretical and methodological issues in material culture studies.
In 2018 Herman presented the lecture "The Craft We Eat" at the symposium Shared Ground: Cross Disciplinary Approaches to Craft Studies, co-organized by Bard Graduate Center, the Center for Craft, and the Museum of Arts and Design. A video recording of his talk can be viewed at the end of this interview.
Bernie Herman (BH): I was born in Boston. I was a graduate school baby, after the Second World War, and my father and his parents were part of the political, artistic and Jewish diaspora, that came out of Europe in the 1930s, really up to the very last minute, the early 1940s. We ended up here, because my mother's father was an architect and he gave my father a job as an architect, about which my father knew nothing, but learned quickly. We lived here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for several years before moving across the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk. Then, we shuttled back and forth for a number of years. We've had a connection here, that is not a family or blood connection, but sort of a connection by circumstance, for about seventy years now. I identify the Eastern Shore of Virginia as my home ground.
CJ: That’s wonderful. [pause for equipment adjustment.] Oh, my apologies. That's very interesting. So you didn't quite grow up eating the food then, the food of the Eastern Shore.
BH: Oh, I did, very much so.
CJ: Oh ok, what's your favorite aspect?
BH: On the foodways? My favorite part of the foodways on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is the stories—what we grow, how we cook it, how we present it. Those are ethnographically interesting and historically compelling. The number one consideration when you study food is storytelling and sitting down with folks for conversations that are wide-ranging and often revelatory.
CJ: That's really interesting. So in your book [The South You Never Ate], you talk about the terroir, which is an often-used word in connection with, say, wine or vinegar. And I was really struck by how you talk about it, because in the past, I've only seen people talk about the more, about the location, geography, or the weather. It was often a lot more about chemistry or something like air-pressure, that kind of thing, how that affects plants. But you include how people talk about food, as part of the definition. And I find that really fascinating, yeah, definitely. So, I wanted first to hear a little bit about your oyster farming. How did you get started and what are the steps involved, the seasonal things you have to do? Stuff like that.
CJ: Wow. So do you eat them all or do you, you mentioned that the restaurants prefer the cultivated kind, do you give them your oysters?
BH: I'm very interested in a bigger problem, you know, doing the ecological work is part of this. What really led me into this, besides trying to bring back some small part of a native ecology, was the area in which I've been doing research has the longest history of sustained poverty in the state of Virginia. I mean, it is really rough here for a lot of people. I began to think what would, culturally grounded, sustainable economic opportunities look like. Well, the two things people have done here, forever, are working on the water and working on the land, farming. I began to think then about this idea of growing oysters and matching them up with stories or narratives as a means to enhance the markets, which would then create increased demand and, in time, more job opportunities that made sense to people who live here. The other part of the oyster work is this sustainable economic development project. Five of us came together around this and created a group called Eastern Shore of Virginia Foodways. We sponsor events, that include inviting chefs to come to this area, learn the foodways, not just the oysters, but all of the other possibilities that you can cram in over a weekend or a few days, and to begin to create a kind of broader awareness of the very distinctive cultural terroir of this corner of the world. So, that's it in an oyster shell.
CJ: [laughs.] Well, that's actually really interesting, a much bigger picture than I thought. I kind of thought that you were doing this as a hobby. It's not that at all, it’s so much more. About [inaudible] you know, I've read that one creature disappears and that has a chain effect. Are there any animals that came back to the region, or do you see any changes?
CJ: Oh, wow. I was going to ask if you were seeing the effects [of global warming], but you really are, already. And when sand shoal, is that what you called it, when that happens, the oysters would be buried. So you have to rebuild, or how does that work?
BH: You have to rebuild, you have to start all over again. Almost all of the oysters destined for market are grown by two or three methods. The most common are a rack and bag system where the oysters, the little tiny oysters, are put into these heavy duty mesh bags, which are then anchored with cable ties to rebar racks. Oyster workers go out and flip those every day. If you're going to craft an oyster for market, you basically have to sculpt it. It won't grow that way in the wild. Those beautiful oysters you see on a plate, that's all craft. That’s not nature at work, that’s human labor. In addition to rack and bag, people grow oysters in cages or trays. These are wire mesh cages that are about three inches deep and about three feet by four feet. Each cage holds roughly 250 to 400 market size oysters. Those cages are placed along the bottom, but you have to move them all the time because the tides will make them sink into the mud and sand. Those are the two ways that people grow them for market. The other thing growers have to do is move their oysters between bayside and seaside waters. You start with young oysters on the Chesapeake Bay side of this very narrow peninsula, grow them to size, and then you carry them to the other side by truck, all of three to four miles, to the workboat landings. Then the oysters are carted by boat out into the Atlantic waters, places like Hog Island Bay, where they're “finished” for market. The flavor changes from bayside to seaside because an oyster is a liquid animal. It filters roughly fifty gallons of sea water a day. Just one oyster. Given that volume, they acquire the flavor of exactly where they are located relatively quickly. Those oysters that are carried from bayside to seaside and put in these high salinity ocean environments will change in flavor dramatically over the course of anywhere from one to three weeks.
CJ: Wow. That's really fascinating. So about sculpting now, yeah that answers my question. Everywhere you go, the oysters, their shape is so very picturesque, they are very pointy on one end, and they are always the same size. And so you were saying that that's all manmade. That's fascinating. And just to clarify, your oyster beds are on the ocean side.
BH: The oyster beds run on the bayside. I grow in one of the little creeks running into the Chesapeake Bay.
CJ: Oh, okay. And I've seen your picture in rubber overalls. How often do you have to do that and what are you doing when you wear those?
BH: [laughs.] Those are usually what I wear in the winter, when you have to go out and the water is cold or has ice in it. Those are insulated waders. What I'm doing when I'm wearing those is walking out to my own oyster cages to lift them out of the mud if they've sunk in a little bit, shift them around, give them a shake, make sure that the oysters are all right. You have to walk out through the water, the mud and the sand to get to them. I can tell you, January water is very, very cold, and if you were not wearing insulated waders, you would be very, very sad.
CJ: So that's a lot of work, but you don't have to feed them because they feed themselves so much water and that's how they get food, is that how it works?
BH: That’s true. When they are set out that way in the creeks or in the bays, they are feeding on naturally occurring algae and nutrients in the water column. When people are growing them in labs, those seed oysters are in fact created in a closed environment and an elaborate system of devices, such as spawning tanks up-wellers, and down-wellers. Those oysters in the lab need to be fed at some point with algae that are also cultivated in laboratories.
CJ: That's fascinating. And you mentioned earlier about creating jobs for people. Did you mean more indirectly, like raising awareness for the foodways and inviting more people to restaurants, or do you actually hire people to take care of the oysters?
BH: I don't hire anybody. I don’t grow for market and what I do is very small scale. The larger idea is to create demand, which is the work we do with chefs, growers, and their markets. If you have demand, you need to meet it. If there is enough demand, you need labor. The one thing about the shellfishery, whether it's oysters or clams, is that it requires a lot of physical labor. These are really environmentally sensitive manual labor jobs.
BH: That work provides an entry-level job for folks and it also provides the occasion to undertake some new directions. What I've been working on with my friend, Tom Gallivan, who is a commercial grower who lives on the next creek north of where we are today, is a response to business lost during the pandemic closures. When COVID hit all the restaurants shut down, and that meant there was no demand for the oysters. Now, what that means is that the oysters keep growing, they get too big. Now you've got the problem of investing in more labor to take care of the oysters, to look after them—and the oysters keep growing. The longer you work on them in that way, the bigger they get. The bigger they get, the less they are worth for the restaurant and raw bar trade. You have the problem of rising costs for oyster cultivation and declining market value. Tom and I set our minds to thinking about what would an option look like, where you could turn those oysters of diminished market value into a commodity that had greater market value. Our response is a strategy and a business plan for smoked oysters. You take your oysters that are too large. You take them through a process where they are steamed, smoked, and pressure-packed. Then they can go to market. Doing that, we're able to compensate for lost revenue. But, it all takes time and our reality is that we are preparing for the next pandemic.
CJ: Wow. So when restaurants tell you the oysters are too big, are they talking just visually or do they get tougher as they grow too big?
BH: It doesn't matter if oyster is a half inch long or five inches long. They're the same consistency everywhere. They don't get tough, they just get big, and when they get too big, they are less appealing to the eye, and the eye eats first. If you've ever tried to eat a large oyster, they're pretty much unmanageable. It goes from being sort of a treat to being a job.
CJ: Yeah. I can understand that. I think, especially for something like oysters, luxury is the visual appeal. I can't picture something that's huge. So, you talked a little bit about the change of the climate over the years. I'm also very much interested in the change of the cuisine of the region. The book talks about some people from Guatemala, who came to the region and they adapt and contribute to [inaudible], could you tell us a little bit about that?
BH: Sure. The cultural arc for the foodways of the Eastern Shore, the foodways that we engage now in our own time period can be traced back hundreds of years, to the first peoples who lived here. There are indigenous foodways and ingredients that remain in play. Then, European colonization arrived. That permanent European presence begins around 1614, followed by the importation of enslaved African labor. At that point, you have three powerful influences coming together—Indigenous, African, and European foodways. That was pretty much the mix that held sway up until the late twentieth century, when we began to see a dramatic rise in the Latinx population. People from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras began to come into this area and they bring the distinction and diversity of their own foodways. When you sit down to a table it speaks to a global reach in terms of the Atlantic world and the Western hemisphere. There have been big changes in our culinary infrastructure. We now see tiendas, as often as we see convenience stores. There are all kinds of new ingredients that have come into the area, everything from epazote used as a seasoning, right on up to different kinds of cultivars, like chayote. All of these new foodways have now entered into and influenced the cuisine of this area. The outcome is that you have two things going on at the present moment. One is, as I'm thinking here specifically of the Latinx intersection that is at the heart of your question, is the extent to which people from Spanish speaking communities of Mexico and Central America have imported their own foodways to the area. The result is that you get to try all sorts of things that you had no idea what they might be. The second is that we're seeing how those people adapt to the ingredients and food practices that were already established here. It's really become a kind of syncretic cuisine with the coming together of all of these culinary practices. It’s a very exciting moment to bear witness to these changes. I'll give you a good example. The chef Amy Brandt and her friend and collaborator, Gricelda Segura Torres, when they work together, they create things that are really that kind of synthesis. They created a crab meat tamale, which is something you would never see in Gricelda’s Mexican home. And another community of oyster workers from Oaxaca and Chiapas have created mengue using pea crabs, which are sort of a by-catch, from the shucking houses. The way it works out is that you have a kind of Latinization of the local cuisine even as the home cooking from the Spanish speaking worlds of Mexico and Central America are adapting to what they find here. What you get is a kind of double-dip appropriation. You're seeing a borrowing from each other's cultures to create a third unified culture—all of these influences coming together as one. To be in the, in a place where that is happening and being tuned into what is going on is just a huge privilege. I'm actually working right at the cusp of a major cultural shift and get to observe it and record it, and eat it, that's a extraordinary opportunity and it's really enlightening one.
CJ: That's really interesting. So, food is such a personal thing, and you mentioned the cuisine goes back to the seventeenth century. And you know, when people talk about food, authenticity is a word we hear a lot, in relation to appropriation, of course. And I was wondering, what do you think about the term? I read your essay on the toad, the blowfish, and you say that the food, the toad, which is very interesting to me, tastes like home to those who grew up there. But if you are a tourist, so if we are unfamiliar, it tastes like authenticity. And I thought that was a very interesting thing you said. And when I think about it, though, I'm from Japan, when I'm eating Japanese food, it's just what I eat and just that. Only in relation to something else, authenticity becomes an issue. So I was wondering what your take is on that.
BH: Authenticity is all about the construction of some kind of otherness, whether it's historic otherness or cultural otherness. I could say the illusion, but I'm going to say the delusion of being able to tap into that and somehow have an experience, which is resonant and meaningful, which it may be. But authenticity is really about an assignment of a particular kind of truth inscribed on the bodies and the cultures of something seen or people seen as being Other, and that is tied to notions of exoticism, Orientalism, all of those colonialist kinds of ideologies. Authenticity is a form of tourism coupled with colonizing impulses. For example, when I was doing work in Newfoundland years ago, and sampling the local cuisine, I didn't think of it as somehow being authentic. That I was consuming the spirit of people grounded in place and object. What I thought was that it was different from what I was used to cooking and eating. I was reflecting on how it was different, and whether or not that was important. And if so, how?
CJ: That relates to another question I had. So what is a regional cuisine? Obviously each area has a history of eating certain things and cooking them. But those things change over the course of time, and also authenticity is something that’s in relation to the Other, like you said. So the concept of a regional cuisine, does it have a real presence?
BH: I think you've got right. You know, what I've been reading lately is, Sōetsu Yanagi. While the material is dated in some ways and it carries a certain amount of political baggage, Yanagi still is writing directly to some of those questions around a kind of curation of the Other. He turns to the tea bowls of Korea, that are produced by people, often poor potters. Korean potters make these tea bowls, but then Yanagi talks about how they receive a kind of assignment of cultural value in terms that are almost spiritual. Yanagi opens up the idea of authenticity, talking about inscriptions of identity. He rightly knows the Korean potters would be puzzled and amused by the Japanese reception of these very ordinary ceramics as unmediated, products of unselfconscious creativity. In a similar way, people here on the Eastern Shore see the reactions of people from away as they eat their first puffer fish first as a kind of strangeness of the outside view. Then they find it amusing. But ultimately where that comes down to is it creates a kind of reciprocity around self-consciousness or self-awareness of that each side maps onto the other. If you are a person who believes in the possibility of a pure culture then it's a disaster. But, if you believe that cultures are constantly up for negotiation and change, and that those changes unfold at their own pace and in their own way, then that kind of self-awareness is just one more aspect in the long, the very long arc of tradition. This is where tradition is understood. It's the cultural process of making sense. Tradition looks forward. It looks into the past and present for precedent, but it's always inventive and always innovative.
CJ: That's interesting. And the case of Kizaemon [the most famous of such plebian Korean tea bowls] really helps, because it's such an amazing example. When they imported it, it was just piled up on the dock with other similar bowls, but this one went from a nameless product to now, I believe it's a national treasure. Not very many people have seen it.
BH: I thought that it was really very astute of Yanagi to be writing in the 1920s in that way. But it was also very interesting as somewhere along the line, Yanagi would have had to come into contact with western craft revival, the Arts and Craft Movement, the work of individuals like William Morris and others. It would've been wonderful if Yanagi had written an essay on Morris. I imagine that he wrote in the way that he did, relying in large measure on Zen philosophy. I really see Arts and Crafts influences running through his essays.
CJ: I believe he had some British friends who were porters, who helped him read English material. I'm not quite sure if he specifically read Morris's writings or not, but I believe he was definitely influenced. So that's very interesting. I'm learning so much already. This is really great. So earlier, you talked about climate change, and I'm also thinking about food from that aspect too. As you know, we talk about sustainable eating a lot these days, and I'm wondering how, regional, very historically rooted kind of eating can play a role in that kind of eating, because I don't believe we can keep eating the way we are. I mean, the supermarket, that kind of large agricultural businesses.
BH: Well, I think you're right. And where the real future is going to be in the rising number of small farms. The big shift has been to monoculture and, with it, a turn away from a kind of diversity. As a consequence, we're seeing crops like field corn, soy beans, various wheat strains, being grown in extraordinary amounts. A lot of that goes into other products. But fresh vegetables, I mean, you go to the store and, you know, you think you need a passport to go through the fruit and vegetable aisle. Those apples are from everywhere. Those greens are from everywhere. First of all, I just don't know how it is economically possible to import, say a bunch of basil from Israel, and then sell it for a dollar, you know, how do you do that? So there's this larger issue of food, this kind food market is a kind of a Ponzi scheme, where, to keep it affordable, you keep endangering the economics, the future economics of entire nations. And at some point it has to yield and it has to collapse. The other part of this is that there's a growing awareness by a subset of the larger U.S. population about things that are grown in ways that are sustainable and build to biodiversity. The problem with that approach is that food is almost unaffordable to the vast majority of folks. This is produce such as boutique peas and highly specialized sweet potatoes. What we're really dealing with is that agribusiness is not sustainable and the number one reason it's not sustainable is that large-scale monoculture is an extractive industry. It essentially mines the landscape for its product. This leads to the artificial replenishment of the soils, the destruction of entire species of insects, for example, around protecting these crops, genetic manipulation in terms of ripening times and uniformity of appearance, all of these things are destructive in their own way. Add to that the destruction of forests and waterways. Where we need to begin, I think, is with a commitment to agricultural diversity. It may have to be subsidized with public monies, but to move to that kind of diversity of production, and then to make sure that it occurs at scale so growers produce enough that can be marketed at fair value and made affordable to the larger population of more limited means than economic elites. So, it's tough work. Do I think it's doable? Yes, I think it's doable. But, I know it's going to call for some real hard-headed thinking and commitment and a realignment of values. And I'm not sure I see that happening any time soon, but we'll get there eventually. We either evolve to that position or we disappear. So, it's going to happen. When I don't know.
CJ: Yeah, that's a scary thought. But when I go to a local Whole Foods and see that an apple from, say, Washington State, is cheaper than an apple at the farmer's market in Union Square, you know, there's something wrong with it. Then I very recently read a chapter on the Chicago Stockyard [Union Stockyard] by [William] Cronon. It was really something, over a hundred years ago, things were already going very, very badly.
BH: It's the whole world of mass production. And it's mass production without regard for the consequences. That's why I think of this whether it's animal husbandry for the stockyards or mono-culture, where you have a very limited array of crops, these forms of production are essentially equivalent to mining for coal and leaving the land in ruins. As my friend David Shields points out, you can go right out to the middle of a huge corn field and you can dig the biggest hole imaginable, and you will not find a worm.
BH: They've all been wiped out.
CJ: Wow. That's really scary. Wow. And, well, on the other hand, I get the impression, the people you talk to in your region, they often grow their own vegetables? I was picturing fig trees with lots of figs growing. Do they grow vegetables?
Hog-Island silver-leaf figs, a variety rescued from the island following the hurricanes of 1933 and 1936. Photo by Bernard L. Herman.
CJ: [laughs.] Oh, I live on the 22nd floor. So maybe not at the moment, but that sounds fascinating because, bringing back all types of fruit and vegetables, I think that's a very important part of keeping regional cuisine alive. Whenever I go to the farmer's market, I see heirloom tomatoes and vegetables, and also, especially, all kinds of grains.
BH: What are some of the things that we have here? Hayman sweet potatoes. Part of the work that we did was to get several things listed on the International Ark of Taste, that is sponsored by the Slow Food Movement. Getting something listed in that way keeps it in the public domain. And we are in a time period where there's an effort to take patents on aspects of the genome, the agricultural genome. And you want to keep that information public. You want to keep it accessible. So what are some of these local things that we have? We have something called Accomack broccoli, which is a green from the county north of here. We have various figs in particular, the silver leaf. And a very interesting, tiny fig, a fig that is no larger than the tip of your thumb. That fig is associated with events in the 1890s and was an old fig by then. Our task is to create awareness. You get people to plant these cultivars in their gardens and enjoy the results. The way you do that work is to just go ahead and give it away. So right now I'm working on the cowhorn turnip and attempting to bring them into home gardens and local markets.
CJ: So you have your own garden or nursery?
BH: We have a small garden, a small garden that's divided between flowers and some vegetables. The ones that I grow in the greatest number, things I'm most interested in, are okras, certain radishes, garlic varieties. I tried growing sweet potatoes. I can do it, but they really need a better kind of environment, or a better terrain than I can offer them. But you know, I keep some of these things going, but my neighbor, Gus Gustafson, is amazing! He has all these vegetables planted and he shares seeds with anybody. And, that's the idea—acts of generosity so more and more of these plants remain in circulation. One of the chefs, Amy Brandt, she even found a way to grow her own saffron, harvested from crocuses. It's really cool and very flavorful.
CJ: So saffron gets incorporated into the local cuisine? How would she use it?
BH: Well, you know, it's used in Spanish cuisine. Not Mexican or Latin American so much that I know, but it is part of Spanish cuisines. And part of this is just introducing it back into the market. And there are a couple of micro farmers who are really, really good. The couples that runs Seafield Farms and Perrenial Roots have been experimenting with high density, fully organic cultivation and doing quite well. Their beds, I think are no more than an acre, but they are able to make a living, with an acre of land.
CJ: That's really fascinating. So yeah, about the land and people, I want to come back to the idea of terroir. It was just really new to me, the way you defined it, that the way people talk about their food is the culture itself, the food culture. Could you tell me a little more about that?
BH: I forget when I began to think about terroir. It may have been when I read a chapter by Amy Trubek, who is a culinary historian, and has written extensively on terroir and haute cuisine. Terroir focuses on the taste of place: wine, sausage, cheese, all of these things. It's a French term that I believe has its origins in a governmental movement about the classification of French produce, and, linked, I think, to the districts for wine in France. It's the nineteenth-century term, but I'd have to look it up. The idea of terroir to me is about much more and it explains a whole lot more. If you think about the basic definition, the taste of place, it's how place gets represented. What that means is that you are literally consuming that place. When you consume place, you make it part of your body. This is basic biology. There is this whole notion then, if we prize the terroir of a particular place, say the Bordeaux region, and we drink those wines, they become part of our body and make us part of that place. I think of terroir as closely linked to this notion of authenticity, but at a really visceral level. The other thing that terroir helps explain in interesting ways is the, is the cultural process of understanding or framing place. It becomes a way in which we talk about the curation, and the consumption of place. For me, terroir becomes a term that can be extended to, for example, art from an African-American South. Those artists are working within a creative terroir that when you engage their work, you are engaging that place and what that place is about and how it shapes art and creative process. You can use terroir really as a theory, a point of theorizing, a place for all kinds of objects, and for locating them within cultural contexts in very interesting ways that have built into them the processes of curation and consumption. Terroir is as much about consumption, the physical act and also the psychological act of taking something into your body, into your mind, as it is about the qualities of locale. The French have a variety of these words that I wonder why we don't use. Think about cuisine. Cuisine in its limited sense is the style of cooking, located in and associated with a particular locale and ingredients. What if you simply took the idea of cuisine and framed it around the idea of making. Then we can begin to talk about things in ways like furniture cuisines. Cuisine becomes a way to theorize the making of all sorts of things. Another word that I'm thinking about a lot lately is the French word griffe, which describes an individual habitual pattern of movement. Wherever you go in your everyday life, it is mapped by the places you frequent. It comes into critical tension with the Situationist idea of the derive, which is a cultivated purposeless wandering within the city that is unselfconscious wandering within an environment. I like that interplay between those ideas. Terroir is one of those terms. Another good one is the phrase à la mode which translates into the style of the day or moment. The phrase does get applied to costume and to dress, but when you start to think what in the style of the day or moment suggests, we are positioned to ask who makes those determinations, who assigns those identities, and who can claim those identities. All of these culinary terms really become springboards to think about the much larger universe of material culture, and made and discovered things.
CJ: That's really great to hear, because part of the reason I wanted to interview you was because I felt like the [Bard Graduate Center Craft, Art and Design] Oral History Project, and I think Bard Graduate Center is wonderful, but I think food is still underrepresented there. And I think food a very important part of culture, and to hear from you that we can apply the way we think about food to a bigger world of material culture, I think it's really wonderful. And, so I wanted to ask a little bit more about the terroir because I got the impression that the way people talk about it, talk about their food, was also very important to you. So is the kind of self-awareness of the people, part of the culture, part of the terroir?
BH: Absolutely. You know, people are very aware, not everybody, but a great many people are very aware of the distinctiveness of their cuisine, including the locale, the preparation, the way in which it is consumed and talked about. Terroir offers an awareness of what is distinct, what is special, and it is very much a part of the culture. But, it's also a kind of self-consciousness around the ordinary. That aspect of terroir plays with that problem of how the ordinary becomes extraordinary, how we position through language, through speech, through storytelling and narrative, how we position things in the context and terms of our awareness and description and sharing. I really feel that those concepts around food have exceptional explanatory power. You know, the other thing here is about why terroir has no exact English equivalent. There are a lot of these words out there. You have to ask why the French have a single word that describes the taste of place and English does not. I've been reading, for example, about wabi sabi in terms of Japanese aesthetics with a student of mine. One of the things I like about wabi sabi, is that it's one of those words, or two words, that actually covers a lot of critical territory. There is nothing in English that comes close to the work that wabi sabi does, which is it communicates a kind of wistfulness, almost a mourning of the passing of the seasons, a kind of melancholy that is not truly melancholy, a kind of quietness and stillness of being in the world. Let’s bring wabi sabi as a theoretical concept into the study of material culture. What it does is it opens up affect studies in a very interesting and new way, because the Japanese have already figured out that feeling is an affect, a form of communication through structured feeling. Wabi sabi takes that even further and says that it’s communication through structured feeling revealed in perceptions of seasons, interactions around small rituals, and a quality of being in the world.
CJ: The connection between the terroir and wabi sabi is something very unexpected, but it certainly, yeah, makes sense. And also I'm wondering, its relationship with the vernacular you talk about in an essay [“Swelling Toads, Translation, and the Paradox of the Concrete”]. We tend to think of vernacular also as something ordinary. Actually the terroir does not have to be ordinary either, but when you talk about the idea of vernacular, you also say something like, it's not about what you talk about, it's not the particular objects, but it's about what kind of questions you ask. And it's also about, what's the word, you said something about situation [situational], it's more about how a certain object act as a sign in relation to other things. So, do you see any relationship, how we can think about the terroir and the vernacular?
BH: This is a question, a good question. If you're interested in the convergence of these ideas, read Material [Material: Making and the Art of Transformation] by Nick Kary. I've been thinking along these lines and encountered his connection between terroir and wabi sabi. He doesn't critically exploit the connection of how they work with each other, but he does address the two ideas. The vernacular, I adhere to the notion of vernacular as conventional conversations and habits of style. It's really about objects within the flow of everyday social relations and expressive cultures. If you think about it for a moment, vernacular can extend to things like royal palaces, because what you're talking about is how people engage with objects. You can argue that a log house somewhere in Kentucky is a vernacular building. The reason you can do that is that some people say it critically exists within conversations around the philosophical constructions of style or an aesthetic that is not in line with classical values, of beauty. It was Nicholas Pevsner, I think, in the Buildings of Britain, who wrote the line that, Lincoln Cathedral is architecture. A bicycle shed is a building. My reply to that is Lincoln Cathedral and a bicycle shed are unified in the ways in which they exist and interact in the world. Vernacular is really about the discourse of objects and how objects exist within conversations of the everyday. For me, vernacular represents a kind of currency, that marks exchange relations around ordinary things in everyday life.
CJ: That's also a very useful concept in studying material culture, for sure, that's really great. We started talking about kind of high and low among made things, the palace versus a shack in countryside. And, related to that, we talk about craft a lot and especially in relation to cooking. People cook to feed themselves and enjoy themselves, but then something happens. It becomes craft, or it becomes art sometimes, when it's done by the right person in the right setting. So I was wondering about things like that. Are those concepts useful anymore or are they all vernacular in the sense that that's something people do in their life to make their community and make sense of their social lives?
BH: I think it's an excellent question. Those distinctions perform important work in terms of how we think about class, how we think about community, and how we think about expressive cultures as opposed to some sort of globally uniform expressive culture. The fact is there's an extraordinary array of possibility and variety, in the worlds of made and consumed things. So you really need those distinctions to draw the lines around rhetorical positions. Vernacular also plays an important role in everyday life. This idea of high/low, for example, is that, these things become the tangible markers for abstract sets of beliefs and values. As you move through any environment, you're constantly, unselfconsciously, cueing yourself to your surroundings. That process, whether you go to the grocery store or you go to the White House, two very different experiences, is about you moving in the spaces. You are taking built-in cues, which in one way can be seen as high/low. They can be seen as things that invite you into a particular set of interactions or bar entry to those interactions. All objects have the capacity to do that work. What you get into here is the larger problem of agency. If agency is the capacity to act, you have to account for volition, which means, a will to act. So, agency, in that way, would be saying that objects have the will to act. They don't. They're insensate things by and large. There are some interesting exceptions, for example, pets or draft animals. What you end up with is the notion of proxy agency. It's the way we invest that capacity to act in the social imagination or the social imaginary, In doing so, we situate ourselves in relationship to the various communities that we inhabit in any given moment, for example, the community that you and I are engaged in right now is a facet of the academy. If we were chatting in the Fireside [Flame Diner] around the corner from Bard Hall [New York City], our conversation would be quite different. Part of what you're asking about is how do people inhabit object worlds, and how did the object worlds frame and define the people that are enter them. That's the work that we do in material culture study. We attempt to frame and understand interactions between, through, with, and around people and things. I would go so far as to argue that the very structure of knowledge relies on things. If we are embodied beings, which we are, how do we know the world? We know the world through the ways in which we engage it. We engage knowing in many ways, but it is always grounded in the material, whether tangible or imagined. Can you think of anything that does not have an image or object associated with it, anything at all? We are so situated within that kind of generous materiality. When you dream you dream of things, you dream of actions, you dream of spaces, it's there. When you engage material culture, you're on the frontline of systems of knowledge. You've moved into the arena of epistemology and how we know the world and our place in it through our relationships to things and other individuals or other beings in context. That was lots of work. [laughs.]
CJ: Oh, it was really fascinating. So when we experienced the world, through things, which is inevitable, I think so too, there also comes the category the object belongs to. So you are saying the categories like craft, art, those are necessities. I tend to think of those as more like a hierarchy, but at the same time [pause.] Well, maybe craft versus art is not a good example. You talk about the process where fish, which is a natural thing, becomes an ingredient, because you do something to it. So maybe it has to do with epistemology, we just need categories to understand a change, is that part of it?
BH: Yeah. I think categories are absolutely necessary, in the transactions of everyday life. We need them for lots of different reasons. First of all, we need them as a medium in which to make sense of the larger world around us. We also need them, as you point out correctly, as touchstones or references to difference and distinction. We need those categories as places where people can come together and/or people can push apart. You start to think about all the different categories we use. What's interesting in all of this is the history of humans and category making. How far back does it go? We do know that the work of categories in fifteenth-century Europe is different from the work of categories in seventeenth-century China. I was thinking about the ways in which all of spirit creatures get organized. The idea of distinction, the necessity of categories, is something that we use to make the world around us accessible, to lend it a kind of coherence and sense. Without categories, it would just be pure chaos out there. We wouldn't be able to interact.
CJ: Hmm. That's really interesting. I think my next question would have been very related, because I was going to ask about the idea of translation. It's also about making the world accessible, more accessible to you through something that's familiar, but do you have to go? It's 3:25.
BH: I need to wrap up in a couple moments, but I'm happy to have another conversation if you want to do it.
CJ: That would be great. I have really learned a lot by you. You also gave me a lot to chew on, so I think it will do me good to take the time to think about it. Is that okay with you to ask for a little more time?
BH: I'm always happy to do this. I'm a big fan of the Bard Graduate Center. But on the topic of categories since you introduced toads at the end, I will finish with this. The fish that we call here the toad is a small kind of blowfish, and it is categorized within the Linnaean system so that you have its order, its family, its genus and species, et cetera. That categorizes the living fish.
BH: When you clean it and prepare it for cooking, you literally pull it apart. In one hand, you have ingredient, which is a category, but now its associations are no longer with other kinds of fish. Its associations are with things like salt and pepper, and other kinds of ingredients and cooking styles. We can continue to think about the categorization of the living fish, but its categories have changed. In your other hand you have all this leftover waste from the poor animal. And this is—
CJ: [holds up A South You Never Ate and shows a picture of a toad pulled apart.]
BH: —trash or waste. That's its own category. In that moment of culinary preparation, the fish is wrested out of category of living things and moves into the category of waste. Now it shares space with the refuse in the garbage can at the side of the street, with sewage, with dreck. In this example, you literally take an object (the fish) associated with one category, pull it apart, which is a violent action, and place each of the pieces into different categories. The two parts of the fish are now divorced from the original. Now you can start to think about how an object enters into perception, of how, when we interpretively interact with an object, we perform metaphorically that action of pulling something apart of destroying its associations within one context and reconstitute it into others.
CJ: That's definitely an interesting point to think about. Something that used to be a whole gets taken apart and puts in different contexts. And now those elements make sense separately. That's really fascinating. So, should we say goodbye for now? Is it okay to set up a new time then.
BH: I'm really happy to work with Catherine’s students. I think the world of Catherine [Whalen]. So why don't you take on what we've talked about today, and then let me know when you're ready and we'll find a time and pick up a second conversation if you wish.
CJ: Thank you so much. And I hope you and your family are well during these difficult times.
[End of March 31, 2021 session]
[Start of April 14, 2021 session]
CJ: I think it's recording. Great, thank you. So a few weeks back, we ended on the topic of the blowfish, the toad, we ended by discussing categories. What used to be a whole fish that would be in a category, it then gets pulled apart. And one part is to become trash, that's a category. And then the other part becomes food. That's another category. And then that category belongs with other categories like spices, oils, stuff like that. So that was really fascinating. And I've definitely been thinking about that, in relation to my own studies too. I study ornament. So that's exactly what we do. There's a whole object. Then we look at one part, one part of an object, now a distinct category called ornament, that kind of thing. But, yeah, related to that, I want to start with the question about translation, because I think both category and translation have to do with how we understand anything. So in your book, you define translation as act of rendering something accessible in terms that’s familiar and comprehensible. And I was wondering, when I read your book, one thing that was striking was that you quote people a lot. I mean, you talk about an object, you describe what other people do or talk about things, but you also quote people directly. And I was wondering if that's one way to make the reader aware that there's always, always the danger of translation and quoting would work as a reminder.
BH: There is that, but there's a different reason that I quote people extensively. It's really a combination of, first, respect for those voices. Those voices are really important and they say what they mean. I want to honor the integrity of that voice. Second, I see my role in writing through interview and oral history as very different from when I'm writing on objects of the 1700s. I do a lot of work with artists, and I had occasion, several years ago, to sit with the quiltmaker Irene Williams in Gee's Bend, Alabama. Irene was asking about what I was doing. I said, well, I'm working on a book project. And, she says, this quilt, and I'm paraphrasing here, this quilt that I'm holding is like your book, you know, you stuff that book full of your memories and your thoughts, and you bring it together. When I make that quilt, I piece together all these pieces, and then I bring it together as a whole. I began to think in that moment about the work I was doing then with the living voice and how much every one of those quotes was like a piece of patchwork in one of Irene's quilts. I was sewing together all those patchwork, but instead of cloth, it was voices and words. I began to think about my role as piecing, stitching and batting, the structure of the quilt. That experience captures one of the ways in which objects teach us about writing. But, it took Irene and her insights, to really make that clear through that analogy.
CJ: That's fascinating. And that is really, yeah, a helpful analogy. And it also connects well to the next question I had. I've read [Clifford] Geertz, the famous essay on thick description. And there is one passage that I never understood and kind of bothered me. He says something like when he's studying, say, some interesting custom in a small town, he's writing in the small town, but he's not talking about it, the topic is not the small town. I think that's how he puts it. So, well, first of all, what is wrong about talking about a small town? And if he's not talking about a small town, what is he talking about? At the same time he says a small town is not a microcosm of the big picture. So I've been very confused about that.
BH: There's another quote in there in that essay, which I think clarifies a lot of this, and really becomes the means to addressing some of the seeming paradoxes in Geertz’ essay on thick description. And it goes something like this, that our task is to rescue the said from its perishing occasions and fix it in perusable terms. When we're writing in a community is that you have to remember all those interactions are fleeting or perishing, and that as soon as we write them down, we fix them, we freeze them in terms that are readable to us. What we are really writing about are our impressions, our engagement with this community in a way that, we hope, is accessible to whoever our audience is imagined to be. There are two other ideas that are not in Geertz’ essay, but really help clarify his ideas. One is the notion of social imaginaries. I think we talked about this in Charles Taylor's work. Social imaginaries are the ways in which people understand the worlds they inhabit, and the transactions and engagements and interactions they experience within it. When you think about Geertz in a community doing ethnographic work, he is inhabiting two social imaginaries right at the outset. He is in the moment of that village, and he is in the moment of writing for his perceived audience or his academic social imaginary. The second observation comes out of visual culture, and this is the idea of ideologies of the everyday. These ideologies are the systems of values that are often deeply naturalized, unarticulated that knit people together and help them frame their social imaginaries unselfconsciously—at least for the most part. There's Geertz in that community, drawing on those ideologies, those systems of values, which shape his work as an ethnographer, and also shape his present as being in that space at that time and how he seeks to describe it. That’s what Geertz is actually saying there, I would think, is that, he is not writing about the community, but he is writing with and through the community, his perception of those imaginaries filtered through his own ideologies and directed toward a second imaginary, which is his audience. Did that help at all? [laughs.]
CJ: It does help a lot, but that brings up more questions too. I think. Well, one of them would be, do you find, when you talk to people, do you find your work to be similar to what he's doing? Negotiating different ideologies and trying to freeze these moments in perusable terms as he put it.
BH: You can't help it that when you write something, you fix it in words and in print, you can't help having fixed these conversations, which only exists now as digital information, or on analog tape for older recordings. You have taken something, you've plucked from the flow, the endless flow of everyday interactions, which just go right on by, and you have given it special status by recording it, by making it visible in a particular way. That's not unlike the cleaning of the blowfish or looking at a piece of ornament in furniture. They are essentially violent actions. We are wreaking a kind of critical violence that we need to be thoughtful about, as we engage objects and as we engage the words of people. So yes, I do see the work that I do is in alignment with Geertz. I would like to think that it is. The big difference would be that my interactions within the community that I write about in the book on food, in A South You Never Ate, some of those interviews go back almost forty-five years. I have a long personal history in that community that is not the history of a scholar, or of a teacher, but as somebody who knows people on a different level, and that raises very important question in its own right. How do you engage your audiences as an outsider insider, or an insider outsider, take your pick? I wrote that book really for the folks in that community as best I could, and yet I know that it's still too academic, it’s just better than the other things I've written.
CJ: So people in the book, did they actually read the book and tell you what they thought about it?
BH: Absolutely. And part of my method was to take pieces of the manuscript where people are quoted and go back and read those passages aloud to folks and ask, “is this right?” Would you change this? The edits were minor, but they were important. Theodore Peed, H.M. Arnold, they made a few corrections here and there, but they were really not substantive. They were really about sort of an expansion of meaning.
CJ: That's really great. And I'm asking more questions then I initially said there would be, but people in the book, I think it's really wonderful they get to read it. And I'm just wondering what it means for them to have their stories recorded. I think, as I get older and lose some family members, I think the biggest fear is that those who knew my family members, there would be less and less of them left, and memories and stories would fade away. So I do think it's really great for them to have their stories recorded. Do you get the impression as well?
BH: I get that impression, but there's another connection that's even stronger. The book is still is an object that carries very, very special status. To be in a book is a kind of recognition of importance. It is a kind of permanence in the world that will outlive you and will be passed down through your family. Books are about power. You want to be sure that the book that you write recognizes and respects the power of those speakers, rather than the power of you, the listener and writer. And, because a book has that status, it is a monumental presence within certain communities.
CJ: Yeah, what you just said, I think it's a really important question for me as I study other people's cultures or objects, not necessarily even other people’s, but my own culture in the past. I do rely on books and records, and they do carry certain authority. And power. And I guess my last question of this conversation would be, how would I be able to understand people and their lives through your book? What kind of things would I have to be careful of? And, it has to do with how I study anything, I guess. So it's a big question.
BH: It's how you approach it. If you approach these projects with an open mind, and you're talking about writing at this scale—it doesn't matter whether it's the living voice or a 16th-century ceramic bowl—it’s that what you want to learn to do is to be a listener. Listening is a lot harder than most folks know. Even if you think you're listening, there are other things that are running through your mind, at exactly the same time, and you can never get rid of them. You just have to acknowledge their presence. You have to discipline what you bring to the project of listening. I would say that objects speak in ways that parallel the human voice. But there's a big distinction to be made. When I enter into writing about objects, particularly objects for which there is no living voice, where I'm encountering the thing as a thing in and of itself, I ask myself if I'm writing on the object or if I'm writing with and through it. The distinction is important. Too much of the work we do in material culture is the inscription of meaning or significance onto the thing from a position that is outside of whatever that object has to say. We rely on categories, we rely on things like taste and discernment and connoisseurship, we rely on all of that apparatus and we inscribe the significance of the object onto the object. Well, that's essentially a form of interpretive graffiti. When you write like that, you're, graffitiing the thing, you're covering it up, rather than letting it open up, you are tagging it as property. When you write with the object or through the object, you are actually trying to “listen”, in quotes, to what an object offers. What I always look for are the things that make me think twice. There are objects of all sorts that I don't think about very much at all until they appear in situations that render them suddenly visible. When an object comes into view, I try to be attuned to the ways in which it makes me rethink the world around it. That kind of writing is with the object. Objects pose fabulous questions. They yield very few answers. They yield possibilities for stories.
CJ: Yeah. In your essay, you say something that really struck me. It's about, did you call it the paradox of the object? Paradox of the concrete—
BH: Yes, the paradox of the concrete.
CJ: Right. You talk about material certainty versus semiotic ambiguity. I think that's how you put it. So it sounds like we should pay attention to the semiotic ambiguity that the object is somehow emanating.
BH: Objects, like people, inhabits space. They exist in relationships through people. [picks up a cast iron toy bank.] This little bank, this little bank, ah there's money in it, I wonder where that came from. This little bank, it's concrete. I can describe this in all kinds of ways, explain what it's made of, how it was made, and everything else that its material fabric yields to eye, hand, and mind. At the end of the day, though, what it means depends entirely on how I enter it, and how it encourages me to think about things in different ways. It may be the heft of the bank. It could be haptic in that way. It could be that I engage with its architectural details through the language of classicism. [points to pediments on the facade.] Or, as I look at this little sweep of the roof, I think, “Oh gosh, well maybe this is the kind of kick of the roof that you would find in, say, in Japanese or Chinese architecture.” Those observations slide feed different meanings, but all are contingent on how I, at a very personal level, engage with that object in ways that make sense, in ways that others would understand. I know that that engagement is as fleeting as the world of words. And, while that object has a kind of enduring materiality, its thingness about it, its associations elicit and spark very different sets of interactions.
CJ: That’s something definitely I want to keep in mind as I study different cultures. And I really thank you very much. So before we part, what's your favorite, favorite recipe in the book I should try?
BH: [laughs.] Okay. Well, my favorite recipe in the book is the one that I'm having to eat at that time. They are all good.
CJ: Oh yeah.
BH: But, if I was to recommend one, for somebody to make at home, that would be easy, it would be the oysters, Oysters Westerhouse. That's my recipe that is a spin on a recipe from the late eighteen hundreds. It's easy to make, and it’s quite lovely, but it's basically an oyster stew with no dairy in it other than butter. The oysters maintain their integrity. It's oysters, white wine, butter and maybe salt, depending on where the oysters come from. And, a little bit of paprika and red pepper to taste. That's pretty much it. But it's also a recipe that always reminds me of a conversation I had with the late Hooksie Walker. I interviewed Hooksie one afternoon about the family oyster house down the hill. I asked, “Hooksie, when you make oyster stew, what goes into your oyster stew?” And, he says, Oysters.”
BH: And I'm thinking “okay,” and say, I think I understand that it is an oyster stew.” I asked, “but what goes into it besides oysters?” “Oysters,” Hooksie says. It turns out that when it came to oyster stew, unlike a recipe that might use cream or lemon, like the one in the book, it was just oysters that were essentially poached in their own liquid. And might have a little bit of pepper on them, but not necessarily, or maybe a pat of butter, but that was it. That was all, and you know, Hooksie, then says, “You know, you want to have that bowl packed with oysters, not with soup.”
CJ: You've given me so much to think about, and I really thank you, and I hope you don't mind if I get in touch with you in the future with more questions, because I'm sure I'll have more.
BH: Oh, I'm happy to do it. Who's going to see this, this conversation?
CJ: Catherine has a website called the [Bard Graduate Center Craft, Art and Design] Oral History Project. So the interview is going to go up there. I think anybody at Bard, or anybody we give the link to will see it. And I definitely want, yeah, our conversation to be read. Like I said, I think this might be the very first interview about food, anything remotely related to food. So, yeah, and it's really fascinating in other aspects too.
BH: Thank you for inviting me to do this. It's been very fun, but I'd like to hear at some point more about your work and what you're doing on your bowl project.
CJ: The bowl project is a seminar paper, but I'm studying ornament, that’s my main interest, and it's often ornament used by other cultures. So I worry a lot about interpreting and putting my words in their experience, or taking things apart violently, as we discussed. So I’m sure I will have more questions.
BH: Be well.
CJ: Thank you so much.
[End of interview]