The role of the senses in how we engage with food
PhD student Anna Seecharan is studying food anthropology, with a particular focus on how our senses – smell and taste – influence how humans engage with food.
Anna is based in The Centre for Rural Policy Research and is supervised by Professor Harry G West and Professor Katherine Tyler.
What is your background?
The twin influences of education and food have long been intertwined in my life. My dad was from Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, and my mum from Norfolk. We were (pretty much) the only inter-racial family in rural North Norfolk during the 1980s and my parents both strongly valued education as a means of ensuring that we five children never felt “less than” anybody else. I loved school, so for me, education stuck.
Following university I worked in the Higher Education sector for over ten years as an administrator, however food was always there in the sidelines. Having worked in the hospitality industry throughout my university years, I continued to seek out foodie projects, including moving to Mexico City to train as a pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu. After a stint as a baker I heard about the MA Anthropology of Food at SOAS, University of London and was finally able to combine my two passions: academic writing and thinking about food!
What’s next for your research?
My PhD research is in its early stages. I am part-way through my first year on the ESRC/SWDTP funded pathway, preparing for the MPhil upgrade.
My research focuses on the role of the senses in how human beings engage with food. Sense of smell plays a crucial role in unlocking memories and emotions through food, and as such, is a really important contributor to our sense of identity and well-being.
The worst thing about my field? Having previously researched anosmia (the loss or lack of sense of smell) and knowing what a huge impact losing your ability to taste food can have on one’s emotional well-being, I was really sad to hear of the dramatic rise in people experiencing this extremely challenging condition as a result of Covid-19
Furthermore, commensality – eating together with others – is often fundamental to how we build a sense of group belonging. Using a sensory ethnographic approach, I will explore everyday food practices (such as growing, cooking, and eating food), with the aim of investigating how food, the senses, and embodied practices come together to enable people to create meaningful social connections through food.
Having recently been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, I am also thinking critically about the implications of conducting ethnographic practice as a Neurodiverse researcher – in particular, what it means to inhabit different sensory worlds.
What are the best and worst things about your field of work?
The best thing about being a food anthropologist is talking to people about food (and, sometimes, sharing a meal, too!) I’ve always found food to be a topic which evokes strong emotions. More often than not, when people begin to share their food memories, they open the door to the intimate stories of their lives.
Doing food research allows me the privilege of hearing different perspectives, life narratives, and social histories told through the lens of food. I am able to spend time in some amazing projects, such as community bakeries, shared allotments, and community cooking classes. While face-to-face research wasn’t possible during the pandemic, I was able to conduct “cooking interviews” online with people who have migrated to the UK. Cooking a dish simultaneously, then eating it together virtually via Zoom, was an unexpectedly rewarding experience during the difficult days of isolation.
The worst thing about my field? Having previously researched anosmia (the loss or lack of sense of smell) and knowing what a huge impact losing your ability to taste food can have on one’s emotional well-being, I was really sad to hear of the dramatic rise in people experiencing this extremely challenging condition as a result of Covid-19.