Susan Swetnam is Professor of English at Idaho State University. She has lived in Idaho since 1979. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She has been named ISU's Distinguished Teacher, Distinguished Public Servant, and Distinguished Researcher. She researches and writes about narratives ranging from Idaho pioneer life stories to novels, and about Intermountain West history and culture. Her book Lives of the Saints in Southeast Idaho: An Introduction to Mormon Pioneer Life Story Writing appeared in 1991. She is also a freelance essayist who has published in numerous magazines, including Gourmet and Redneck Review of Literature.
Anthropologists and food scholars, though, have assembled a great deal of evidence which suggests that the rituals connected with how, what, when people eat are actually products of their particular culture. This culture can reflect ethnic group and nationality, of course; it can also reflect region, religious background, social class, and individual family traditions.
It’s been said that “you are what you eat,” and that was certainly true for three groups of early Idahoans: the northern Idaho Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce Indians, the miners, and the agricultural pioneers. Although all lived in the same state, what they ate, how they prepared it, and what the food meant to them varied tremendously. That variation, this talk argues, reflects not simply taste, but important cultural differences among them. By describing the groups’ contrasting foodways, this talk invites listeners to think about how intimately eating practices in general are tied to cultural norms and values.
Based on the disciplines of the history and psychology of religion, and on social history, this talk traces the evolution of the distinctive Catholic practice of devotion to the saints, a much misunderstood and resonant aspect of human faith across the centuries. A local, informal phenomenon in the early church, the practice of honoring saints has evolved in ways that make it a touchstone for larger religious evolution and controversy, evoking questions of central authority and orthodoxy, “folk Catholicism,” gender issues, twentieth century reforms, and contemporary globalization of Roman Catholicism. Recent scholarship and numerous examples and anecdotes (some of them humorous) illustrate the presentation. Though the speaker is a liberal Catholic (and the author of a book about the saints that has become a best-seller for Loyola Press, Chicago), the talk takes an inquisitive, research-based, humanities-focused perspective rather than a devotional, sectarian one.
PLEASE NOTE: If a group is interested in a focus on women saints as they relate to gender history in the Catholic church in particular, the author can adapt the talk with advance notice at the time of scheduling.
From the earliest days of settlement in Idaho, women writers have produced fiction, poetry, and nonfiction literary forms like personal histories and journals. This presentation provides an introduction to the state’s rich heritage of women writers, ranging from those who wrote primarily for themselves and their families (LDS pioneer women, for instance), to nationally known writers like Mary Hallock Foote, Carol Ryrie Brink, Grace Jordan, and Mary Blew. It includes an overview of the variety of themes, styles, and forms that Idaho’s women writers have chosen; biographical sketches of several representative writers; and samples of their work. Bibliographies for further reading are included.
This presentation (60-90 minutes, depending on audience needs) offers a brief introduction for those interested in gathering oral history. Basics of technique to be covered include how to conceive and focus a project, how to identify interviewees, how to frame questions, and how to conduct an interview that encourages interviewees to open up. We’ll also discuss the ethics of oral history, effective use of technology, and things one can do with the information gathered. A CD player is required to listen to sample interviews; participants should also plan to do hands-on practice work and bring a pencil and a notebook.
Loss of dignity, depressing nursing homes, expensive measures to preserve life even as the quality of life declines—for many years, these concepts have been associated with aging in America. During the past few years, though, discussion about growing old has been invigorated by a group of writers—medical professionals, ethicists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and geriatricians—who are suggesting revolutionary new interdisciplinary perspectives on what it might mean to approach the end of life in human as well as in medical terms. This talk introduces the ideas of some of the most important of these writers, including Atul Gawande, Angelo Volando, Ira Byock, and Fran Smith, also drawing anecdotally on the speaker’s ongoing work as a hospice massage therapist in eastern Idaho. Come prepared to be challenged by complicated, open-ended questions.
In the twentieth century, Americans have embraced “old-fashioned” food with a vengeance. Food festivals have proliferated; cookbooks celebrating the food of eroding traditions or regions formerly considered “backward” are topping culinary best-seller lists; the slow food movement has gained many adherents among professional chefs and serious eaters; comfort food shows up regularly on restaurant menus. What’s up? Why, when someone could have anything in the world to eat, would he or she choose grits or apple pie or deliberately lumpy mashed potatoes? Why do hoards of people go out of their way to travel to self-consciously quaint festivals celebrating potatoes or garlic or okra? Drawing on current scholarship about food and culture, this talk suggests an answer (besides the fact that much of this food tastes good).
Around the turn of the century, ten Idaho towns successfully applied (and two unsuccessfully applied) for public library building grants from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. What is interesting is not that the grants were awarded (Carnegie gave money to most towns that applied) but that the citizens of those Idaho towns, many of which were relatively poor at the time of application, voted to tax themselves 10% of Carnegie’s award annually for library support (as Carnegie stipulated). This slide presentation explores the internal politics of Idaho’s Carnegie library grants, with emphasis on the role of women’s groups and on other issues such as the local dynamics, which made an application successful or unsuccessful. Though the presentation’s primary focus is statewide, groups interested in a particular town’s application can request special emphasis on local details (Boise, Burley, Caldwell, Idaho Falls, Lewiston, Moscow, Mountain Home, Nampa, Pocatello, Preston, Twin Falls, Wallace).
Although everyone is interested in eating, people don’t usually think of food as a subject which can tell us a great deal about human culture, values, and psychology. In fact, though, food has been the subject of much work by humanities scholars and social scientists, and their studies have suggested that “foodways” are intimately tied to people’s sense of identity, and to cultural continuity and change. This talk gives an informal introduction to such study of food. It provides a sampler of the kinds of questions that scholars ask, gives examples (from Idaho and beyond) of how food can reflect culture, and invites listeners to think about their own foodways and what they might mean. You’ll never think about dinner (or breakfast, or lunch, or holiday meals) in quite the same way again!
Dr. Swetnam presents evidence to challenge the myth that pioneer women contributed to their families’ economic well-being only by the unpaid household work that they performed. Drawing on a large archive of memoirs and biographies, southeast Idaho pioneer women’s various wage-earning work is described both statistically and anecdotally, drawing on passages from women’s accounts of their own lives and their mother’s lives.