July 9, 2007
Gilman’s students learned to
stomach research in diet project
by carol clark
Sander Gilman grew up in New Orleans, where every Friday he would go to the French Quarter market with his grandmother to shop for a live chicken. He recalls peering into crates, searching amid the scrawny birds for one that was relatively plump and had clear eyes. The vendor would lop off the head of the chosen chicken, and Gilman and his grandmother would take the carcass home where he would help to prepare it.
“You’d pull the feathers off, very carefully, and then you were left with the pin feathers,” he said. “You had to take an open flame and burn them off, otherwise the skin was too bristly to eat. The whole house smelled of burned pin feathers.”
The burning smell was soon replaced with the aroma of roasting chicken. “It was the best chicken one ever ate,” said Gilman, Emory Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Today we have no connection with live animals that we eat — and we don’t want it.”
The history of diets and dieting are the subject of Gilman’s recent research and forthcoming book, a project he undertook with students. Over two semesters, his Institute of the Liberal Arts seminar “Food and Taboo: History of Dieting” engaged 20 students — both undergraduates and graduates — in researching special diets, from religious rituals of the ancient world to contemporary theories and practices. The resulting collaborative volume is now undergoing peer review and will likely be published in the fall.
His students, who didn’t grow up choosing live chickens at the market, offered their own perspectives. “It was so cool doing the book with students,” Gilman said. “They have a very different understanding of food and dieting. And each of them brought something different to the table, in terms of their experience.”
A women’s studies major contributed knowledge about gender, while a science major viewed the subject through the lenses of genetics and biochemistry. Students heavily involved in sports brought information about dieting and sports medicine, while a gossip columnist for the Emory Wheel was heavily versed in the fad diets of celebrities — or at least what celebrities professed to be eating.
“We looked at how diet reflects itself in popular culture and how popular culture affects dieting,” Gilman said.
The book covered everything from an analysis of Margaret Mitchell’s references to the weight of her characters in “Gone With the Wind” to Dr. Phil’s “The Ultimate Weight Solution.”
One of the things that surprised the students during the research was the fact that many of today’s diet “fads” actually originated more than 100 years ago, Gilman said. The precursor of the graham cracker, for example, was invented in 1829 by Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister who urged Americans to eat a high-fiber, vegetarian diet that included lots of coarsely-ground flour.
Many of the early movements for vegetarianism and health food had a theological basis, Gilman said. “A healthy diet was once seen as a path to God. Today, God isn’t usually in the health-food equation anymore. It was an ‘aha!’ moment for many of the students.”
One of the book’s conclusions: We have always been a dieting culture. We always will be.
Gilman, who is the director of Emory’s Psychoanalytic Studies Program, is used to tackling such esoteric, interdisciplinary subjects. His more than 70 books include the titles “Fat Boys: A Slim Book,” “Seeing the Insane” and “Jewish Self-Hatred.”
“The common theme among all my work has to do with how we imagine who we are,” he said. “I’ve been asking that question over and over for 45 years, using different objects.”