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Simon Majumdar Interviews UCLA Professor Stephen Aron

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Bonus Episode 2 Show Notes:
Stephen Aron Interview

A very special interview of UCLA Professor Stephen Aron about the collaboration between Simon Majumdar and UCLA.

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TRANSCRIPT

EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About Food

SIMON MAJUMDAR INTERVIEWS UCLA PROFESSOR STEPHEN ARON

SHOW INTRO MUSIC

Simon Majumdar (SM):      

Hi everybody and welcome to Eat My Globe: things you didn't know you didn't know about food. And on this very special episode, I thought I would give you a little behind the scenes view of how Eat My Globe came to be. So, I am very excited to introduce to you professor Stephen Aron from the Department of History at UCLA. Thank you for joining us.

 

Stephen Aron (SA): 

It's a pleasure to be here, Simon. It's been a pleasure to partner with you on some of the things that have led to this podcast.

 

SM:    

Well, I know I had to work with UCLA because my wife is a hardcore Bruin. Go Bruins. But also because you have a wonderful and very dedicated Department of History here. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about yourself and the department and then we could go on and talk about not only the importance of history but the importance of food history and how we work together on this podcast.

 

SA:     

Well, I have recently concluded my term as chair of the UCLA’s. . . UCLA History Department which is one of the largest history departments in the world and certainly one of the most … certainly one of the most acclaimed departments in the world. We have scholars who specialize, who study and teach on almost all aspects of human history stretching around the globe. And one of the things that I think distinguishes the department is not just the scholarly eminence of our community, but I hope also the commitment that the department has to reaching out beyond the academy, to recognizing that our work needs to matter, for our work to matter it needs to matter more than just within narrow academic circles. It needs to sort of impact and make a difference in the broader, beyond the . . .  beyond the confines of the campus community.

 

And so we created a Public History Initiative. We've recently launched something with the generous gift from Meyer and Renee Luskin. Launched the Luskin Center for History and Policy. So we are looking for ways. We do a wide array of public programming in which we, under the aegis of the “Why History Matters” platform, in which we look to find ways to bring historical perspective, knowledge, insight to questions and issues of contemporary concern and to move beyond the academy.

 

An in that vein, it was a pleasure to connect with you because it seems to me food is such a wonderful way to reach and teach people about the broader meanings, about broader historical questions and issues.

 

SM:    

Let me ask that question that you asked yourself about it. Why does history matter?

 

SA:

It's a big question.

 

SM:    

I know.

 

SA:

Now that's going to require more than-

 

SM:    

But why do you feel the need as an institution of higher education to reach out to people who aren't necessarily academics but they're inquisitive, and what do you think the benefits of sharing historical perspective and lessons from history? Tell us about the modern world.

 

SA:

So look, the cliché that's often trotted out at these moments is the Santayana quote about, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I actually don't think that's the best way to think about it. That is to say I don’t know that . . .  I . . . I tend to subscribe, not so much to Santayana's history repeats itself line, as I favor Mark Twain's aphorism that, "History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes." I think one of the things that we can help bring forward are the rhymes, the echoes, the ways in which there's not sort of it happened this way, so it's going to happen this way again. But rather there are ways in which certainly understanding of the past situates us in the present, helps us understand how we got to be who we are, and does provide guidance as we look to the future of both folly and fortune that we might follow.

 

SM:    

In terms of the way that we've worked together, which is taking a number of different forms, when we first met. What is it do you think about food and food history . . . really informs the way that we move? And I know from my point of view, obviously the way that you look at how people have moved around the world in search of food, the way that people have traded in search of food, and certainly if people have listened to the episode so far on Eat My Globe and if you haven't, why not? Go and listen to them. Thank you very much.

 

But I know that people have discovered that something that we take as very simple, whether it's been fish and chips or it's been gin or a cup of tea or a piece of sushi, can tell us a lot about who we are. But I . . . I'd love to hear that from a . . . kind of . . . from the institutional perspective as it were.

 

SA:

Well again, it seems to me that if we follow ... That in the history of food, we can follow the history of the world in many respects. Not simply because of the most basic human level, how we sustain ourselves is, you know, is the history of the human species, but so much of culture is entangled with the ways . . . is entangled with cuisine. And particularly from a department like ours which is interested in the kind of global connections between peoples ... I can think of few better ways to make real, to make concrete, to sort of really make vivid for people the ways in which cultures entangle with one another, we shape one another, interact, exchanges between peoples than to follow the history of foods that follow the history of cuisines as they develop not in isolation from one another but in conversation with one another and connection to one another.  I think to me, that's the story of human exchange broadly defined that shapes the history of the world.

 

SM:    

It's also a lot of fun I think when we-

 

SA:

And we have certainly made it not only fun, but we've made it really tasty.

 

SM:    

We have definitely made it delicious. So… let's just talk about some of the ways that we've worked together because people might enjoy hearing about that and they can certainly find some videos of some of the meals that we've done together. We met two years ago and I think the first kind of programs that we ran and are still running is something called, “Convivium.” And perhaps you can talk about Convivium and what that is.

 

SA:

Convivium, which I bow to you, Simon, because you are the master of it and we have been happy to come along for the ride in many ways. It's subtitled Dining Through History and it is what that titles suggests, a way to bring history alive by creating special meals. The first one we did used the ingredient of saffron to sort of show the ways, in which, as saffron has made its way around the world, how it inflected and infused different cuisines and changed different cultures. And so we were able to, in a remarkable meal, in which every dish at that . . . at that dinner was in some way or another created with saffron, from the cocktails that we started with which were?

 

SM:    

Absolutely. We did a saffron martini.

 

SA:

To the appetizers.

 

SM:    

Through the appetizers, we did saffron cakes from Portugal. Just to go through the menu.

 

SA:

Yeah.

 

SM:    

We did saffron cakes. We did saffron biryanis from India. We did saffron cake at the end of the meal from England. And it showed the way that both, I think, saffron had been used in cuisine but also traded as something of incredible worth.

 

SA:

And we had with, working with Simon on that, providing commentary from a historical standpoint Sanjay Subrahmanyam who's one of the most eminent global historians and who's written scores of books about connected histories, as he calls it, and looking at the ways in which the histories of different peoples and cultures have connected with one another and reshaped one another. And again, how better to do it than as you just identified, through looking at these dishes as they come . . . as saffron . . . as saffron makes its way through global trading networks, through those circuits that connect peoples in different parts of the world together, how it changes the cuisines in those different places. And you then created such a wide range of courses that showed the impact of saffron and the incredible value that saffron held.

 

SM:    

Oh. And that's one of the things that we talk about a lot over the food is how certain dishes and certainly we talk about in the podcast, things that we often take for granted now have such a fascinating and often valuable history. The next meal, we . . . and again, if you have the opportunity there's an episode with the author Paul Freedman who wrote a wonderful book called Ten Restaurants That Changed America and we created a meal that looked at a dish from each of those 10 restaurants. And I know, was a huge success. And again, if you go and look on the website associated with this podcast, you'll find a video of it. But I know that was one of the highlights of this time almost a year ago.

 

SA:

Right. That was, again, a wonderful meal and I hope you've all spent some time now listening to and maybe we'll ask you if you want, pause here, go back and listen to special episode number one at the end of season one with an interview between Simon and Paul Freedman, the historian from Yale who wrote the book. He's a medieval historian, but as a sidelight, he wrote a book called, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America.” And we used that book to create a dinner using a signature dish from each of those 10 restaurants to, again, suggest the ways in which American culture and cuisine has shifted over the centuries and how it's also been reshaped by the global flows that have transformed American society and the way we live and the way we eat. And in that meal, what was so exciting was not just to sample these 10 spectacularly prepared dishes.

 

SM:    

Thank you.

 

SA:

Spectacularly prepared dishes by Simon. But also to, again, have Paul there to comment and Paul and Simon to exchange ideas about why these dishes, why these restaurants. And indeed, it seemed to me that, you know, out of that discussion came . . . in part came what now Paul has in his paperback edition, which has just been released. The new section on Ten Restaurants That Are Changing America, I think in part came out of our discussions that evening in which we started talking about what was left out of the book and what was…. what were the current trendsetting places.

 

But, you know, again, to think about how much, you know, I love Paul Freedman's book. I think Paul Freedman's a wonderful historian. I wonder if his . . . the fact that he lives in New York and teaches at Yale gives him a certain perspective. I mean he is born is California and raised in California, but other than a few restaurants, it's a fairly New York and East Coast centric book. And I don't think, in that sense, it does complete justice to the wide variety of cuisines. And I think the Eat My Globe podcast gives us an opportunity to sort of really reflect on more globally on both world cuisine and American cuisine.

 

SM:    

Just to speak to that, just to mention the next meal we're going to be doing in the Convivium series of dinners here in Los Angeles, and to find out more about it, please go and connect to @EatMyGlobePcast on Twitter where we'll be announcing it, is going to be a meal showing the last meal served on the Titanic. It's going to be a really fun, one hates to use the word fun with the Titanic obviously where there was such tragedy, but hopefully we'll have a fun evening looking at some of the meals served in each of the different classes and also showing the differences between the way that the classes were treated.

 

But let's talk about finally, I know we don't have too much time, is the Eat My Globe podcast, where we might go with that. I know you have lots of ideas whether it's live events and really adding to this outreach program and where you think Eat My Globe or other events that we could do together might take place.

 

SA:

Well, one thing . . . first of all, we are so excited to be partnered with you on this. And as I said, I think the UCLA History Department has such a range of global specialists who may not have eaten as widely around the world as you have, but they have traveled and studied the histories of the world so extensively. And we are really excited to be working with you in developing some of those upcoming episodes and to contributing to them. We'd certainly welcome, if we get feedback from people of things they'd like to know more about, we'd be delighted to work with you on helping them know ... What's our tagline?

 

SM:    

Things you didn't know you didn't know about food. So in many ways, my . . . the reason I like that title is I think it's . . . it’s . . . You may not necessarily be an academic or want an academic interest in food, but you hear a fact about food and you go, "Oh, I didn't know that." You didn't even need to know it, but it's actually quite fun to hear the story of “X” or the numbers. So. . .

 

SA:

One thing we're really excited about doing and again, look for the announcement on your website and on the UCLA History Department's website coming up as we get this scheduled, is we'd like to do a live episode of the podcast, invite people from our community, from our “Why History Matters” community, come join us for a discussion of a live broadcast of the Eat My Globe podcast. We can range widely about possible subjects on that one too.

 

SM:    

So, if people do have great ideas for Eat My Globe episodes, if they have any feedback they want to give on the episodes, if they want to suggest anything that we could do for live podcast, do go to the Eat My Globe website. Press the contact button and let us know and we will share all of that. But if you also want more information on the outreach programs from the UCLA Department of History, where should they go and look?

 

SA:

Take a look at our UCLA History Department website. Click around. We have lots and lots of exciting things there, but especially in our events and calendar page and our “Why History Matters” page and our Public History Initiative pages, you'll find listings of all sorts of programs, lectures, workshops, seminars open to the general public in which we share with you our enthusiasm for all things historical including cuisine with you.

 

SM:    

You can also ... Obviously not everybody is here in Los Angeles and you can look at these things online as well. So as with all great institutions of learning, they're trying to share it as widely as possible and have a great digital program here. So do go and have a look. It is a remarkable department, terrific people, and I cannot tell you how honored I am to be working with you because it gives me credibility. If it was just me, if it was just muggins here, people would be like, "Really?" But the fact that I'm working with people like yourselves and your department makes, I think, the whole Eat My Globe program much more powerful.

 

So I want to thank you very much for coming and spending some time with us on this podcast.

 

SA:

And I want to thank you so much for partnering with us, working with us, and feeding us so well as well as teaching us so much about food.

 

SM:    

Thank you very much. I really appreciate that.

 

Make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www.eatmyglobe.com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode along with all the references and resources we use putting the episodes together in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There's also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover. And, if you like what you hear, please don't forget to subscribe, recommend us to your family and friends, and give us a good rating on your favorite podcast provider. Thank you and good-bye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we will speak to you soon on the next episode of Eat My Globe: things you didn't know you didn't know about food.

 

The Eat My Globe podcast is a production of It's Not Much But It's Ours and ProducerGirl Productions

 

[chuckle]

 

and is created with the kind cooperation of the UCLA Department of History and its Public History Initiative Director, Karen Wilson, PhD. We would also like to thank Sybil Villanueva both for her help with the research and in the preparation of the transcripts.

 

This episode of Eat My Globe was recorded in the UCLA broadcast studio.

Published: February 11, 2019

Last Updated: March 20, 2019