A food journey across the Middle East

During a summer internship with Professor Heather J. Sharkey, four undergrads studied oranges, olive oil, coffee, and sorghum in an effort to understand their political, nutritional, and emotional value to the region.

Burlap sacks full of coffee beans.

When sophomore Anika Prakash of Princeton, New Jersey, began her internship this summer, she had little idea just how political oranges and grapefruit could be. 

“I’d heard a lot about olive oil production in the Middle East but not much about the politicization of citrus. I wanted to learn how it came about,” she says. So, she took on the fruit as a research project. Over the course of eight weeks, she absorbed as much as she could about oranges, with guidance from Penn Professor Heather J. Sharkey and in conversation with three classmates, junior Jade Gonzalez and sophomores Nadia Mokhalallati and Iman Syed.

“Citrus was introduced in the Palestine region in the 10th century, but it didn’t become a political food until the 19th century, partially related to land ownership and trade dynamics and a link to what became after 1948 the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” Prakash says. “The Jaffa orange is a symbol of the Palestinian people and their connection to the land. Israel has a strong connection to the Jaffa orange, too.”  

Oranges weren’t the sole culinary focus for this quintet. As part of a summer internship on Middle Eastern foods that Sharkey created with support from the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring program, the team also studied coffee, olive oil, and sorghum. Sharkey had envisioned that the students would spend their whole time investigating four individual foods of their choosing, but with the shift online she broadened the internship’s scope. 

She and the students immersed themselves in literature from the field of food studies, video chatting three times weekly to engage in long conversations about subjects like French bread’s cultural implications in Algeria or the sexist undertones of grocery shopping. They relied heavily on materials from the Penn Libraries, including many cookbooks and food pamphlets, and spent time overhauling the syllabus for Sharkey’s class on the subject, Food in the Islamic Middle East, which she’s teaching remotely this fall.

“I wanted them to do original research for themselves,” says Sharkey, who is part of the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations in the School of Arts & Sciences. “I also wanted to help them with the professional development that they would need going forward, and we talked a great deal about the experiences of online learning.” 

Triptych, top image is a field of sorghum, bottom left image are three oranges growing on a branch and orange blossoms, bottom right is a carafe of olive oil, with a bottle of olive oil, bowl of olives, herbs, and vegetables in the background.
In addition to coffee (above), the students studied sorghum, oranges, and olive oil with researcher Heather J. Sharkey this summer. 

Sharkey’s long-standing curiosity about food sparked the idea for the course, a Benjamin Franklin seminar that she’s taught since 2012. “I realized some years back that not only was I interested in food from the point of making it, but I found myself widely reading news and scholarship about food. It occurred to me that because the academic literature on this subject is so rich, it could make for a great class.” 

An internship on the subject was a logical leap and finding interested parties took little effort; three of the four participants had taken a previous class with Sharkey. “She got us really excited about the idea of researching with faculty and creating mentorship relationships,” says Syed, from Rye, New York. “I had wanted to do research at Penn, and I’m also really interested in Middle Eastern history, so this particular project suited me.” Syed picked olive oil to study. 

Specifically, she looked at a Palestinian olive oil company that aims to bolster Palestinian farmers through economic and cultural empowerment using a co-op system and fair-trade principles. She wanted to more explicitly understand how the organization acts as a gateway to the global market for these farmers. 

Gonzalez, from Bertrand, Nebraska, focused on sorghum, a cereal crop similar to barley or wild oats. “A lot of these crops are staple foods, but what makes a staple food? That’s what I wanted to find out and how I landed on sorghum.” In trying to determine a timeline for the grain, she learned that it spread loosely along the same trajectory as Islam. There’s future work to do to clarify those parallels, she says. 

But even more than the sorghum research or the work to revamp Sharkey’s syllabus, which Gonzalez called one of her favorite parts of the summer, she says she enjoyed and learned from the conversations. “It transformed into this exploratory seminar-style endeavor, where it was just five women talking about interesting things related to food and the Middle East. It was organic.” 

Sharkey expressed gratitude for the experience as well. “My students push me and inspire me,” she says. “Our work together gave me so many ideas.”  

Heather J. Sharkey is a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

This opportunity was offered through the Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships, specifically the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program for first years and sophomores. Each student receives a stipend of $4,500 for the 10-week summer internship. Since its inception in 2007, PURM has funded more than 800 Penn faculty members to provide more than 1,000 undergraduates with cutting-edge research experiences.