A Five-question Series

The latest bulletin from The Common Table reached subscribers last Wednesday, May 29, this time announcing an article titled “Food Thinking.” The article’s premises were inviting, in that it works across a few theoretical beacons, Anna Tsing, Horst Rittel, and Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, to expand the thesis that food studies is suited to dusting off design thinking, reviving again those dimensions of design thinking that have worn thin or blinked out. You’ll find good stuff there, worthy of reading and worthy of returns, on mindsets, or questioning attitudes; with such practiced, inquisitive dispositions follows something almost ritualistic in noticing taken-for-granted interdependencies, in a feel for the organism, whether the corn plant or the baby bok choy leafing dark green hopeful from the raised beds where we planted them in mid-May. I don’t quite identify with design powerfully enough to prefer that same language (or field of specialization), but I did read in this piece something akin to a foodwise network sense, an atoll whose cartographic attempts I imagine would be delicious and intriguing at once. And this, in turn, relayed me to look around at more of The Common Table, to explore a few of the other recently published pieces beyond “Mother’s Hand Taste,” the piece on Jiwon Woo’s ever-fascinating work about son-mat, which I wrote about a few months ago and also explored in the spring semester with students who were taking Food Writing.

There is much to admire, appreciate, and learn from at The Common Table. I found especially standout the series “On Food and Education,” which follows the pattern of five-question interviews. The five questions invite responses from a host of respondents, and each is featured in elegant, readable posts, organized with the questions as the governing structure. The five questions are

  • How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline or tool to someone who might think that means just cookery lessons?
  • What are you doing/have you done to change understanding related to food?
  • Who are you trying to reach and teach and why?
  • Where would you like to take your work in this field; what are your goals?
  • What is the big-picture perspective in terms of the future of food education and where is it coming from?

The repeating pattern causes me to find the series more inviting as a series; there is so much good stuff here. It got me thinking, too, and again, about the substitutive interplays with food, writing, and visuality, about how this interviewing format, because it is simple and consistent, coheres multiple responses and fashions them into a genre unto itself. Semi-structured, multi-phase interviews have, as I conceive of them, ascended as the interview method that has the best chance of summoning in-depth perspectives, yet these strictly structured, one-phase interviews, like we find in The Common Table‘s series, offer just as much for the researching writer’s repertoire. I suspect that part of what explains my quiet, unchecked bias in favor of semi-structured interviews is that academic publications rarely publish in plain view the uncut and unfiltered responses from interviewees. This is a meandering way of expressing my own realization that the value of the strictly structured interviews has been skewed by wading too deep for too long in academically styled prose. What would a five-question series on writing be? Or visuality? What would the questions be? Who would be the interviewees?

So many pieces in the five-question series prompt new ideas and invite thoughtful responses, such that it is hard to choose one as a paragon, though I suppose “On Food and Education: Marije Vogelzang” rises to the top because I have already bookmarked it for a future section of Food Writing. Her response to the first question strikes connection with our lesson on apple and orange mindfulness, the day when, with Thich Nhat Hanh’s guidance, we linger, slowing down with a piece of fruit to listen for the crunch or to test edges as we pull a Mandarin orange apart, segment by segment. Vogelzang’s lists are rangy and uncanny, playful but not self-consciously so. I love this as a model for the inventional copia generated from something simple, ordinary, everyday. That this piece strikes in so many directions—and all from the repeating five-questions—is why I am holding onto it, tagging it for returns in my teaching, my writing, and my glimpsing thoughts for what would one day be a striking feature in a rhet/comp journal, perhaps.