Mario Montano, Ph.D., is a scholar of barbecued beef head, the castoff cattle heads cooked in pit ovens behind mom 'n' pop stores and served up every Sunday after Mass in the Texas border town where he grew up.
Montano was raised on those mesquite-smoked meals. Later, in college, he thought of them when he read Margaret Mead. Now, he is the author of a 476-page dissertation on the cultural meaning of barbacoa de cabeza .
"I believed the history of these people could be reached through eating," said Montano, an anthropologist at Colorado College. "The beef head was a key symbol, something that could let me into the culture."
Across the country, academics are leaping the triviality barrier to plumb the mysteries of food--the history, anthropology, sociology, symbolism and overall deep meaning of how and what people eat.
Scholars are studying clambakes and cookbooks. Academic presses are churning out books on eating. Dozens of universities are offering courses on food and culture, and, in one case, a master's program in gastronomy.
For years, food and eating seemed unworthy of serious study. They were too trivial, too humble, perhaps too much fun. Cooking had been women's work, so male scholars ignored it and female scholars turned their backs.
But the rise of women's studies has hauled domesticity out of the closet. And the growing interest of historians in ordinary people and everyday life has legitimized among many academics the study of the commonplace.
Interest in ethnicity is also a motive; eating offers a window into cultures for which there is little written record. Finally, some scholars admit a personal incentive: They love food.
"It's such a powerful dimension of our consciousness as living things," said Sidney Mintz, a Johns Hopkins University anthropologist and expert on sugar. "To omit it from the study of human behavior would be egregious."
The interest in eating promises not only insights into how people live and what they value, but also, some say, the possibility of greater respectability for such professions as food writer and chef.
The courses, seminars and conferences on food and eating are attracting not only academics but also some of those food writers and chefs, plus people in hotel management and those who are making mid-career shifts out of other fields and into food.
"If you're going to take it as a serious business and a respectable discipline, you never can have too much education," said Julia Child, who has long been an advocate for greater academic interest in food.
A few benighted souls, however, have not yet quite got it.
Kathy Neustadt, a folklorist, fended off wisecracks for years when people asked about her work. But she felt vindicated when her adviser pronounced her doctoral dissertation on clambakes truly "cutting edge."
When Harvey Levenstein, a Canadian historian, used to tell people he was writing a history of eating in America, back would come the knee-jerk response, "Oh, you're doing a history of McDonald's!"
If there is a hotbed of food studies in the United States, it is Boston. The country's first master's degree program with a concentration in gastronomy is at Boston University. Radcliffe College has begun offering a special series of courses on food, culture and history.
An exhibition about food last spring at Harvard University's Widener Library--which included Oliver Wendell Holmes' lunch box and a letter in which Mahatma Gandhi toyed with eating meat--provoked more response than any other exhibition in curator Pamela Matz's four years on the job.
But the phenomenon is nationwide. In anthropology alone, membership in the professional organization of scholars who study food has swelled over the past 15 years from a handful to 300. Members count 30 to 50 anthropology courses in food and culture being offered at several dozen schools, including UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and Cal State Fullerton.
"We're beginning to see people using food as an entree into broader social and historical processes," said Mary Beaudry, an associate professor of archeology and anthropology at Boston University. "I think it's very clear that it's getting greater academic credibility."
One such person is Neustadt, who was a graduate student in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania when an aunt suggested one summer that she attend a clambake that was an annual ritual for an old Quaker community near Dartmouth, Mass.
The event had begun 100 years earlier as a simple Sunday picnic, with food baked outdoors on seaweed-draped rocks. As generations passed, it became a revered tradition. Members of the community, scattered around the country, would return every year. When Neustadt first went, turnout was well over 600, including dozens of visitors.