It was when Molly O’Neill told me that I was going to have to re-dry roughly 30 pounds of granola a second time, that I seriously questioned my decision to spend the summer cooking at cookNscribble. I’d already had to dry this batch of granola twice. What had happened to it that it was now damp again? Part of me wanted to curl up on the floor in tears at the thought. Most of me wondered how I had ended up here, in upstate New York, worrying about whether granola was crisp, crunchy and dry.
Back in February 2014, I hated my thesis. I wanted to give up. Run away. Join a circus. Bake a lot of cake. I had decided on a Foucauldian analysis of my research findings (his work provided the best framework for understanding what I had witnessed in the field) and suddenly I had to take the intellectual leap into his work. My undergrad was in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and my MA in International Relations. Neither of these made me read Foucault and suddenly I had to read Foucault’s writings on discourse, knowledge and power. I was going to have to understand him, interpret my findings using a framework of discursive practice, discuss it intellectually and, possibly worst of all, write Foucault in my own words. It was a stressful, frustrating time – one that made me feel fantastically stupid.
By chance, I found out about a culinary internship at cookNscribble, in upstate New York. Culinary interns got to cook for food scholars who attend a residential programme in August, work with visiting chefs, blog, hang out with interesting food people, and generally participate in food conversations. It sounded like exactly the kind of internship I’d been after, but not found, throughout my PhD. There is a lot of writing about the importance of interning whilst a student, especially in the current financial climate where walking into an academic job once you’re finished is unlikely. I’m not one of those PhDs who only wants to be an academic, although I do want to teach, do more research, lecture, write. There are other things I want to do as well – teach cooking, develop food growing programmes, bake cakes, and write about food. So the internship at cookNscribble provided an opportunity to develop all those other skills, rather than my academic ones.
I arrived in early July and jumped straight into the kitchen. I spent most of the time making a lot of loaf cakes, cookies, scones and pie dough. It was the perfect antithesis to my thesis. The work was practical – I was in the kitchen all day, most days of the week – and it gave me time to think (and not think) about my work. I cooked meals for staff who were busy designing the curriculum for the scholars and sorting out details of the LongHouse Food Revival which happens in September and, once they arrived, the scholars. I got to shop in fascinating stores and farmer’s markets, meet farmers, talk with visiting food bloggers, writers and editors, and pick raspberries, blueberries and cherries.
Cooking for food people is surprisingly intimidating. But the thing about taking the leap and doing so, means that, when they comment on how good something is, it feels pretty spectacular. And they also have a plethora of knowledge and skills that they want to share.
I got to meet various fascinating American food people – writers, chefs, farmers – people who wanted to talk about the state of the food system, or the secrets to successful pie dough, or the satisfaction of growing your own vegetables. Molly O’Neill taught me how to line a pie crust, and shared her recipe for blueberry pie. Ame Gilbert showed me how to sear duck breasts and how to hand-roll gnocchetti. Ian Knauer showed me how to lattice pies, and cooked a corn and tomato pie that I want to marry. A woman, also named Alexandra, taught me the art of preserving raspberries so that their perfect summer flavor is revealed when you open the jar in the dead of winter. Tim Lippert explained about the benefits of grass-fed Dexters and woodland-raised hogs. I got to turn 50 pounds of oats into Molly’s granola. (Something, I admit, I’ll be okay with never doing again.)
But aside from all of that, I learnt about myself that summer. The internship may have improved my cooking skills, given me lots of blog content and introduced me to a great variety of interesting people but it also reminded me that I can actually cook, and, more importantly, that I like being in the kitchen; that cooking is the way I express myself. To a certain extent, I found my own food voice, something I was never entirely sure of before.
Knowing this somehow made my thesis a more writable, achievable thing. I knew about food. My thesis was all about food. I just had to pull it all together.
Author Bio: Dr Lexi Earl. Lexi has just completed her PhD in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham. Her research looked at the experiences of food in schools. Lexi blogs as philosophy and madeleines: surviving a PhD with cake and tweets as @lexiearl.