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In the foothills with the food scholars

Montanans apparently like to put letters on their mountains. That’s what I’m told. The "M" in the picture is in the city of Missoula, but it stands for Montana — not the state or the university where I’m attending the joint annual meetings of the Agriculture Food and Human Values Society, the Association for the Study of Food and Society, and the Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

There’s a big concrete "L" on the next mountain over, which might lead you to believe that Montana has alphabetized its mountains, but a server at the reception last night told me that the "L" stands for Loyola Sacred Heart High School, which also is in Missoula.

There’s a concrete "B" on one of the mountains near Butte, she said.

I’m at the conference because I was asked to participate on a panel about possible careers for people with graduate degrees.

I don't actually have a graduate degree, but they wanted a journalist on the panel, I guess so I can tell them how to be a journalist with their graduate degrees, which I don’t really know. But I do have some thoughts on the topic which I’ll share. It should be a good panel.

The first day of the conference was fun. I sat in on four sessions in which people presented papers or updates on their research or similar academic things.

I spent the morning mostly listening to people talk in some way or another about animal welfare, except for one presenter who talked about using sheep to clear “noxious weeds,” which, believe it or not, is a technical term for non-indigenous vegetation that’s a threat to other plants.

Sheep will eat them in some cases, to very good effect, she said.

Three vegetarians, one whose first name was actually Seven, discussed their research into the “caring-killing paradox” that they experienced and researched as student volunteers on a university’s experimental organic pig farm. It was actually a very interesting presentation.

Then some other sociologists discussed, through narrative, the notion of using a narrative approach to develop a greater understanding of the complexities of animal husbandry — once again involving pigs.

A third sociologist in their group was asked if she ate the meat of the pigs once she witnessed them being slaughtered, and she said, “Yes, but not without gratitude.”

I don’t think anyone was accusing her of ingratitude, but maybe they were. I can’t say for sure.

In the afternoon I watched people present papers mostly on studies of obesity or eating habits, although I also attended one on how the Philippine delicacy balut — unhatched baby ducklings still in their eggs — was being co-opted by the Western media as an extreme food, simplifying it and presenting it out of context.

I asked him how it tasted, and he said it was sort of like a gristly hard-boiled egg, except the part that's liquid. You drink that first and it tastes kind of like egg drop soup, he said.

One group of researchers found indications that if you use menu-design techniques commonly used for marketing specific items — putting the items in colored boxes, or placing them at one of several key places on the menu where the eye tends to linger, or by using appealing-sounding jargon (hand-picked, chef's special, etc.) they could get senior citizens to order more healthful items.

Displaying calorie and other nutritional information had no effect, they found.

Another study indicated that chefs live unhealthy lives that lead to overeating and excessive drinking. That seems obvious, but, you know, you do need to quantify these things.

Actually, they’re still analyzing their data and it probably won’t be ready until next year.

I haven’t decided what to attend tomorrow. "Anthropology of Wine" looks promising. So does "From Food System Assessment to Food Policy: Indicators That Make a Difference.”

Ooh, and I might start a fight in this one: “Pursuing Poultry Practicalities: Adaptation and Innovation for Sustainable Eggs and Chickens.”

I think I’ll keep my options open.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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