Subnature and Culinary Culture

Subnature and Culinary Culture
2014 to 2015
Emerging Networks
Visiting Faculty Fellow

“Subnature” is a word coined by architectural historian David Gissen for aspects of nature that the architectural discipline has traditionally shunned, such as dankness, darkness, mud, weeds, smoke, puddles, dust, debris, crowds, and pigeons. Subnature encapsulates the “problems” architects have attempted to solve, circumvent and avoid in favor of qualities such as light, airiness, cleanliness, and flow.

This Emerging Humanities Network’s objective is to extend the rich topic of “subnature” from architecture to cuisine, querying how one discipline can inform another, providing a better understanding by studying a problem from a novel perspective.

One aspect of cuisine that can be understood in terms of subnature is “goût du terroir” (“taste of place”), a term for the distinct flavors imprinted on a food or wine by its physical origin. The concept has been especially potent in France. Historically, food identified with terroir was associated with the filth of the provinces and the savagery of more distant lands. More recently though, it was re-appropriated as a powerful vehicle for regional pride and identity, to the point that roads are planned and rerouted so that they don’t impinge on native agricultural spaces.

The new taste for terroir is not restricted to France, though. In the US, cave-aged, “stinky” cheeses are replacing the mass-marketed, asepticized variety, and there’s a new rage for “funky” ciders featuring the earthy flavors of indigenous yeasts.

Local and regional manifestations of these trends—for instance, pork in the Carolinas—will be a special focus of the project. In the past, wealthier people ate “high on the hog,” consuming prime cuts of meat dissociated from the whole animal, while the poor ate organ meat, chitterlings, and cured fatty cuts. Of late, connoisseurs have co-opted previously excluded foods. Offal is now coveted by individuals wishing to connect with the whole hog and the local identity it represents. Similarly, affluent consumers pay premiums for artisanal bacons, or for cured pork belly, a food that was once a staple of the poor throughout the South.

During the Fall 2014 semester, Duke undergraduates in existing courses, mentored by Duke faculty sponsors, will engage with the topic of subnature using Gissen’s architectural model as inspiration. Their investigation will be framed as an experiment in transdisciplinary teaching.

Biologist Sanford Eigenbrode from the University of Idaho defines transdisciplinary endeavors as problems that are “uniquely formulated [and] cannot be captured within existing disciplinary domains. Collaborators accept and adopt epistemological perspectives unique to the collaborative effort and distinct from those of any of the cooperating disciplines.”

In theory, transdisciplinary work allows collaborators to interact with different languages and frameworks, distinctive cultures, disciplines, training, backgrounds, and unique writing styles. A central goal of this project was to test and critique this theory.

Participating faculty and courses will be:

  • Luciana Fellin: Intermediate Italian (ITALIAN 203) and Italian Writing Workshop (ITALIAN 301) (also part of the Emerging Network “Performing Culture Through Food”)
  • Charlotte Clark: Sustainable Food Systems (ENV 590:10); Sustainability Theory and Practice (ENV 245)
  • Charlie Thompson: The Politics of Food (DOCST 341)
  • Gabriel Rosenberg: Food, Farming, Feminism (ENVIRON 209 / WOMENST 275)
  • Clare Woods: Nature and the Classical World (CLST 490)
  • Ashley Rose Young: Southern Food Cultures (WRITING 101)
  • Deborah Reisinger: Cultural and Literary Perspectives (FRENCH 302S)
  • Kathy Rudy: Animals and Ethics (WOMENST 270)
  • Rytas Vilgalys: Mycology (BIO 211L) and Microbial Ecology and Evolution (BIO 220L)

In addition to the classroom work, students in these connected courses will participate in a number of community events, including:

  • Talks about Ancient Greek cuisine and Nordic cuisine accompanied by a meal prepared from unusual ingredients, such as insects, molds, and weeds
  • A tasting of cave-aged cheeses
  • A pig roast that explores the Senegalese roots of people living in North Carolina, smoked and fermented foods, and the history of pork
  • A food truck offering Nineteenth Century New Orleans street food
  • An artistic smokehouse installation


Luciana Fellin
Associate Professor of the Practice of Italian in Romance Studies
Thomas Parker
Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies
Gabriel Rosenberg
Assistant Professor in Women's Studies
Jennifer Stratton
Documentary artist and scholar
PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge Fellow
Franklin Humanities Institute Fellow
J. Clare Woods
Associate Professor of Classical Studies
Co-Director, Story Lab
Ashley Rose Young
Ph.D. candidate in History


Subnature and Culinary Culture Kickoff Event
Subnature and Culinary Culture Kickoff Event
-- Sep 11 2014

The opening event for Subnature and Culinary Culture was on Wednesday, September 3 at the Franklin Center. It began with a lunch that featured seaweed salad and crunchy cricket salt and ended with... Read More

Subnature Featured on the Gastropod Podcast
-- Nov 25 2014

Nicola Twilley, food blogger and contributing writer at the New Yorker, visited Duke to partake in the ... Read More

Terroir Tapestries: An Interactive Consumption Project
Terroir Tapestries: An Interactive Consumption Project
-- Jan 12 2017

An essay by Jennifer Jacqueline Stratton, a documentary artist and scholar and graduate of Duke’s MFAEDA program, and ... Read More