UConn Law Professor Mathilde Cohen is fascinated by the way food expresses — and produces — identity, especially in terms of class, gender and race.
That interest has drawn her into a collaborative project with Professor Hourya Bentouhami of the University of Toulouse-II-Jean Jaurès, which is getting underway with a $20,000 grant from the Thomas Jefferson Fund. They plan to research how laws, policies and ideologies shape eating practices and define class, gender and race in France and the United States.
“I grew up in France where food is central,” Cohen said. “When we have a family meal, we’re talking about what we’re eating, what we ate yesterday, and what we’ll eat tonight and the next day.”
Her personal interest in food became a professional one, impelled after the birth of her first child by a particular interest in the regulation of human milk. She began teaching a course in Food Law and Policy, a new topic in the UConn Law curriculum.
After she began writing about her food-related research, Cohen heard from Bentouhami, a Moroccan-French scholar who shares her interests. In May 2022, while Bentouhami was visiting UConn’s Philosophy Department as a Fulbright scholar, they organized a conference on food and race in collaboration with New York University.
They sought funding for their new transatlantic project from the Thomas Jefferson Fund, administered by the FACE Foundation, which supports French-American relations through cultural and educational projects. Their project will enlist scholars in the United States and France across an array of disciplines to contribute their research from a variety of perspectives.
One of Cohen’s own research topics will be on the cultural, political and legal meaning of French food in the United States.
“I’m particularly interested in the reception of French food in the United States,” she said. “French food has had a very important influence, both in terms of being the food of the colonizer in parts of the country that were under French domination, but also in part because of the role of Jefferson in shaping American culture and high taste.”
Bentouhami said her interest in food from the perspective of political and moral philosophy emerged “when I realized how it is repeatedly used in political discourse to affirm political identity, often in racialized ways. This is particularly true in France when it comes to defending the nation’s gastronomic heritage, including at times on Islamophobic bases, and in any case, on clearly masculinist and virilist grounds.”
“But I am also endlessly amazed to see how people who are humiliated from the food point of view find in cooking a real way of reviving the common, sometimes with an anti-racist mission,” she said. “I am enthusiastic about the idea of continuing my collaboration with Mathilde Cohen because her work on human milk is a reference in the field.”
Cohen wants the project to extend the interdisciplinary conversation that she and Bentouhami have started into a broader engagement between France and the United States.
“I really look forward to deepening my partnership with Hourya Bentouhami, who is one of the leading philosophers of her generation — and a great cook — and to nurturing a dialogue, not only among scholars but also among scholars and farmers, food workers, cooks, and eaters,” Cohen said.