The Complicated Life of Food, and the Scholar Who Studies It

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Suzanne Freidberg '84 probes into the history and challenges of how we eat
From the Spring 2009 Caller

Food isn’t just food to Susanne Freidberg ’84: it’s a complex web of power relations, trade and globalization, and ingrained attitudes. Fresh: A Perishable History, the second book by this Dartmouth professor of geography, hit the bookshelves in April. A unique exploration of the way fresh food has been perceived through time and cultures, Susanne’s book examines the paradoxes of beautiful, tasteless fruit; of lovely fish whose consumption has depleted their stock; and the ultimate costs of our desires for fresh food.

Susanne’s road to her latest research is a journey both physically and intellectually. Her interest in food began when she studied corn farming in southern Kenya as an anthropology major at Yale University. Later the marketplaces of West Africa caught her attention with their powerful women traders and their colorful produce. That led to London, Paris, and Zambia, where she was intrigued by international power relations between sellers of African food crops and their European buyers, and how environmental and social justice activists influenced the food trade. The result was her first book, French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press.

That line of thinking led to more curiosity: why was early refrigeration thought to be immoral? Why is it that everyone values freshness but no one can define it? “I figured that question would keep me busy for a while. Which it did,” says Susanne, who also holds a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley.
Susanne’s studies have sparked much interest in these days of “foodies,” when food has become somewhat of an obsession. But, she says, “I try to get across to my students that if they want to change the world—to do something about hunger and poverty and so forth—it’ll depend on a lot more than what they buy and eat. It’ll take big political change. This isn’t always the message that people want to hear.”

Susanne feels well served by her teachers at Catlin Gabel—Dave Corkran, John Wiser, Bob Ashe, Paul Dickinson, Lowell Herr—who taught her how to talk to people who knew a lot more than she did, good practice in her later studies. Although she didn’t plan to stay in academia and “had vague plans” to work in international development, she realized in graduate school that her real strengths lie in research, writing, and teaching.

“I also got to love being around students,” she says. “It’s energizing and humbling. The academic’s work is never done, but I like doing it on my own time, and taking it all over the world.”