November 6, 2000
Paschel peels into the
By Michael Alpert
Jarrett Paschel is a self-proclaimed food geek or foodie,
to use a more yuppie term. The incriminating evidence is the telltale
signs of always having been a food fanthe hundred-plus cookbooks,
cooking utensils and the renaissance mans knowledge of wines.
So when the newest postdoctoral fellow at the recently created Emory
Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life decided hed soon begin
researching the Vidalia onion (named for Vidalia, Ga.), it seemed entirely
in keeping with his passion, as well as with his previous scholastic research
and former work as a restaurant critic and food consultant.
I want to understand the role of the Vidalia onion in our culture,
said Paschel, 34. I want to know how weve come to understand
it as distinctive. I want to look at the cultural and historic foundation
of the Vidalia onion and how it came to be.
Though his culinary tastes include an onions pungence, Paschel
said he might never taste a Vidalia onion as part of his research. Sure,
hell probably be encouraged to try one at some point in his months
of planned interviews with grocers, produce managers, roadside vendors,
chefs and others central to the food world, but his or others taste
testing isnt part of the scheme.
He instead is focused on why and how an uncharacteristically sweet, mild
onion, initially grown in a small town in Toombs County, Ga., in the early
1930s, became that citys most acclaimed prize, the sought-after
Mercedes of onions, the world-known Sauvignon of grocers everywhere. Paschel
plans to embark on a course of research to document, among other things,
why the Vidalia onion gained the popularity to be named Georgias
official state vegetable in 1990, a year after a USDA Vidalia Onion Committee
was established to fund its research and promote its popularity.
Paschels interest in the Vidalia is similar to that of a Seattle
Times reporter who in May wrote about the Krispy Kreme doughnut, a
foodstuff that had transcended its industry: a food celebré
complete with nostalgic Americana, devoted acolytes and almost religiously
ecstatic rolls of the eyes and moans of mmmm when describing
But for Paschel, its how tastes arise thats important.
Im going to research collective taste and preference, not
individual taste, he said. My goal is not to set up objective
We all know BMW and Mercedes are good, but the question is: How
did that get to be? asked Paschel, who a month ago came to Emory
from the University of Washington, where he performed similar food research
for 10 years. We all kind of know what is good and what isnt.
I want to find out why tastes are what they are.
For example, he continued, if we all started ranking
restaurants, wed probably collectively rank them similarly. You
may like foods that are saltier and I sweeter, but we all somehow agree
that the fancy French bistro in Decatur is better than McDonalds.
Paschels research is some of the first at the MARIAL center, which
boasts five postdocs, nine faculty members, three grad students and an
undergrad honors student since its founding in January and official opening
barely a month ago at Emory West. Paschels onion work precedes his
plans to examine barbecue culture and follows his still unpublished
research of distinctive type of peach and Copper River salmon while at
University of Washington. Like his peach study and forthcoming examination
of onions and barbecue, his research into how a particular salmon went
from pet food to a restaurant delicacy is among several case studies he
hopes to incorporate into a book.
Paschels efforts are central to MARIALs purpose of researching
ritual and myth in middle-class families in the contemporary American
South, for which the center was granted $3.6 million. Among MARIALs
other work is that of anthropology Professor George Armelagos, whos
studying social uses of food in family life, and postdocs Pat Wehner and
Felicity Paxton, who are looking into creation and impact of family lifestyles
and the significance of proms and similar courting rituals.
We were looking for somebody to fill some gaps, particularly in
the ritual uses of food, Shore said. When we heard what Jarrett
had been doing [in Washington], we were very excited.
He brings not only an academic background, but his own unique perspective on food.