Caucasians and Casseroles

I’ve taught urban studies for fifteen years and students have all manner of questions how cities work, how they don’t work, and how they might work better.

Questions about ethnicity and identity are common ones. Over the years we’ve interrogated common stereotypes (“Why are Asians seen as ‘good at math’”?) and ones that are much more curious (“Do Eastern Europeans walk down the sidewalk differently than other groups?”

This past week, I had a very bright and precocious woman in my class toss out this query: “Do Caucasians eat casserole?” The short answer is that, of course, Caucasians do eat casserole. I’m quite certain that other groups eat casseroles as well, though I don’t know if they eat casserole with the same gusto as Scandinavian types in the Upper Midwest.

Talking about food as a marker of ethnicity, is well, hmm, problematic. In a society where folks might borrow a snippet from column A and a snatch of something from column B, mashups of meaning are commonplace. Cuisine, food folkways, or whatever you wish to call them are fairly tepid markers of ethnicity in our time for some folks, whereas others will fight you to the last banh mi over such matters.

As we set out one day for a bit of field research, this same student wanted to query Caucasians and others about their casserole consumption. I’ve found that most students are initially quite timid about querying people just Out on The Street about anything, so I was quite excited that we were going to leap right into the fray of messy urban ethnography and street corner culinary interrogation.

Out on the Main Quadrangle in the aggressively cerebral University of Chicago campus, she found subjects who were quite willing to acquiesce to her seemingly simple query. A couple of wan young men wearing Midwestern-booster style t-shirts that read “These Lakes are Still the Greatest” spent time cutting, slicing, and reassembling their own complex personal history with casseroles. They were Caucasian and they also were from Minnesota, so they were ideal Test Subjects.

What surprised me was that my students just leaped over any introductions as she plunged right into her interrogative. True enough, I hadn’t given any of them the formal patter about introducing yourself, explaining the purpose of your questioning, and other matters that would have kept them out of boiling water with the University’s Institutional Review Board.

The thing that was most compelling about this to me entire affair was that it animated the entire class. Amidst other conversations about public housing, infrastructure, and urban governance, inevitably some students would be less than enthralled.

As it turns out, 12 out of 15 Caucasians polled that day had an abiding interest in casseroles. As a gateway to understanding culture and identity, casseroles turned out be much more intriguing than I could have ever imagined.