More than 50 Swarthmore staff and faculty members came to the table for a campus book club this spring, a shared intellectual exercise on a most relatable topic: food.
“Everyone eats, and most everyone reads,” says Jen Moore, an administrative assistant in the History Department who co-facilitated one of the three groups this year. “We all had plenty to say and feel.”
Building upon the success of last year’s book club (proposed by Professor of History Allison Dorsey in anticipation of Toni Morrison’s visit), the book club examined food from all angles, from memories and family recipes to issues of greater complexity.
“It’s amazing how books about food can become a catalyst for such deep discussions on racial identity, religious beliefs, family dynamics, and culture,” says Tania Johnson, interim director of Sponsored Programs and Institutional Relations who co-facilitated another group with Dorsey. “I knew that food was an important part of my culture and personal history, but the books and discussions made me reflect on my memories in a new way.”
Facilitators had a nearly endless list of possibilities from which to choose the books. Each of the groups read The Good Food Revolution, a nonfiction work about growing healthy food, people, and communities, and The Hungry Ear, a collection of poetry, and each read two other books of their choosing. Each group got together for three discussions, which facilitators treated as more of a conversation than a class.
The group co-facilitated by Meg Spencer, head of Cornell Science and Engineering Library, got off to a lively start with The Best Food Writing of 2014, which had a “pinball effect,” she says, of connecting participants to various chapters. But its next conversation on Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, which some loved and some hated, fell flat.
“I had never been in a book club, so I didn’t know that’s normal,” she says, laughing. “I just thought, ‘Wow, we really blew it.’”
“If a discussion lags, we’ll improvise and introduce a new question or topic,” adds her co-facilitator, Peter Schmidt, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English Literature. “But that’s rarely the case.”
Some participants festooned their books in colorful stickies and felt comfortable sharing their opinions right away. Others needed to build a comfort level with their peers, especially those from other areas of the College whom they had never met.
“What people have said is that this was a great opportunity to sit down and have the kinds of conversations they wouldn’t have had on a typical workday,” says Pamela Shropshire, associate director of the Aydelotte Foundation, which sponsored both years of the book club. “They got to make connections with people they may have only known by email.”
Adds Schmidt: “It’s a way to have thoughtful and fun interactions, to tell stories, and to get to know one another in a stress-free environment.”
Gradually, the discussions grew richer, confirming Shropshire’s sense of the hunger for forums in which to discuss big ideas.
“That’s the heart of the work the Foundation does with faculty,” she says, “and this is a chance to engage staff in those spirited conversations and debates.”
Fittingly, the book club concluded with a potluck gathering. All of the groups came together to read aloud from and discuss The Hungry Ear while noshing on dishes inspired by the books and family recipes. Among highlights were Dorsey’s chicken, Schmidt’s cornbread, a tomato pie from Danie Martin, a technical services specialist in McCabe Library, and Israeli couscous from Paula Dale, executive assistant for facilities and services.
“I loved the club,” says Dale, “in particular the chance for staff and faculty members to come together as community over shared interests. Engaged people from all over campus gathering to discuss food — now that’s a good recipe!”