In a third-floor conference room at the Penn Museum, biocultural anthropologist Morgan Hoke is discussing pie. It’s not pumpkin or pecan, but a theoretical “energy” pie that breaks down potential reasons for the stunted growth of children in Nuñoa, a rural community in the Peruvian highlands.
“Growth is a highly sensitive process,” says Hoke, an assistant professor in Penn’s Department of Anthropology. “It’s responsive to diet and illness, but it’s also responsive to environment.”
About 70% of the time, those first two factors account for why the children are smaller than their peers worldwide. But that leaves 30% of stunting still unexplained. Hoke hypothesizes it has to do with how well their guts work. It’s research she began as a doctoral student and has continued for the past five years.
On that day at the Penn Museum, she’s presenting as part of a yearlong food colloquium she and Penn archaeologist Megan Kassabaum organized. During the fall semester, academics from nine institutions spoke on a range of topics, from food as life sustaining to how pizza and sushi gained their prominence. This semester, the talks turned inward, focusing on the research happening across the University.
The colloquium, which runs through the end of April, has been more than a year in the making. “It’s central to both of our research interests, and we thought it would just be a cool topic that people would be interested in thinking and learning about,” Kassabaum says.
As soon as Hoke and Kassabaum started digging into the theme, they quickly realized just how wide-ranging research on it truly is. And although scientists may each approach it through a unique lens, those varying perspectives help advance the conversation, Kassabaum says. “When you study these subjects, we assign them these academic genres. But we’re actually studying very similar topics, just with a different take.”
Like with colloquiums in the past, this year’s is also a graduate-level course, with classwork that requires the students to develop food-related projects related to Philadelphia, either as an expansion of their ongoing work or as something novel. One student delved into the anthropology of cheesesteak. A trio of her peers studied different aspects of the northwest Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua.
Kassabaum says she and Hoke had two goals for the students. One was to show them how much anthropological research fodder food has to offer. “Food as a uniting force is something that comes up all the time,” she says. Second, they wanted the students to understand that it’s possible to move between and across the four subfields of archaeological, biological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology.
More broadly, the seminar aimed to highlight how anthropology can contribute to discourse on food and conversely, how much food has to say about the world. “Food studies was really big not that long ago in anthropology,” Hoke says. “It’s kind of petered out, not entirely, but I think people have forgotten just how much food and food production can tell us.” Some of Kassabaum’s research, for example, focuses on the relationship between pre-European-contact populations in the lower Mississippi Valley and bears, which they likely ate as part of special feasts and saw as their close animal kin.
Hoke largely studies infant health in Peru. “My work focuses on what babies are eating and how that’s affecting their health and well-being, both immediately and throughout their lives,” she says. As her talk on energy pie and stunting comes to a close, she gets at least half a dozen questions before time runs out.
Clearly, she and Kassabaum have struck a chord. “When you study and talk about food,” Kassabaum says, “you can get anybody interested.”
Morgan Hoke is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and an Axilrod Faculty Fellow in the Population Studies Center in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
Megan Kassabaum is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and the Weingarten Assistant Curator for North America at the Penn Museum.