This Scholarship Winner is Religious About Her Studies
JBF National Scholar Kendall Vanderslice on food and faithMaggie Borden
May 07, 2019
Applications are now open for 2019 James Beard Foundation scholarships! Each year, the Beard Foundation offers tuition wavers and grants to students across the country eager to further their education at a culinary school or hospitality institution, college, or university. Whether you dream of running an award-winning restaurant, aim to discover ways to make our agricultural practices more sustainable, or hope to spread connection through the exploration of food history and culture, there are opportunities and scholarships available to you.
During this year's application period, we're checking in with previous winners to learn their stories and see how the scholarship has impacted them. We caught up with 2018 JBF National Scholar Kendall Vanderslice, who is pursuing a master's degree from Duke Divinity School focused on the intersection of food and faith. Below, Vanderslice explains how a passion for baking and a teenage stint at Panera developed into an academic pursuit of the ways we eat and pray.
JBF: What was your relationship with food growing up, and why did you decide to focus on it for your studies?
Kendall Vanderslice: Growing up, my mom was very concerned with health and with healthy eating. It was right when Whole Foods started opening and we were really into the early `90s health food movement. At the time I hated it because it made me look so weird among my friends to be eating all these homemade wholegrain breads and sprouts. But it meant that I had a much stronger sense of how to cook, and a broader understanding of different types of foods.
As I grew up, I became really interested in baking and pastry. In high school, I would spend all my evenings making cookies and cakes to bring to school. My very first job was working in the bakery at Panera Bread. I was allowed to take home leftovers every night, so I would bring things to school the next day.
When I got into college I started thinking about the ways that my family ate growing up. There are all these varying understandings of what it means to eat healthy, which made me ask, “What is healthy? What is good food? What is eating in a way that’s good for the environment? What is eating in a way that cares for farmers?” It all began for me with this confusion over what is good food.
JBF: When did the intersection of food and faith start to interest you?
KV: That also began while I was in college. I went to a small Christian liberal arts school and their philosophy of education is to approach each academic field and think about how it rubs up against one’s faith. So when I began asking questions in the field of food studies, that mode of thinking already shaped the way I learn. The more I dug into it, the more I realized that there is a lot of need and space for religious communities to address food insecurity and environmental justice issues.
JBF: You’re now working on your second master’s. Have all of your degrees been focused on food?
KV: Essentially. For undergrad, I studied anthropology, and I knew that I wanted to go into a career in food. I had in mind that I would graduate and then go immediately to culinary school, but in my final year, two new professors came to my school who both had experience in food studies. I hadn’t known before that time that there were options for studying food outside of culinary school.
So I worked in questions about food into my undergraduate program and once I graduated I started working in the restaurant industry and kept writing and thinking about these bigger ideas around food. That led me to Boston University’s (BU) gastronomy program. I focused on commensality, or the social dynamics of eating together.
I really thought I would go in more of the nonprofit world or food justice advocacy directions, but as I was studying commensality it began to bring up some theological questions for me about my own faith tradition. A meal of bread and wine is the center point of our worship—of all things, why a meal?
We use the language of a meal or a supper, but in my tradition we don’t really think about it as a meal. Yet at the same time, eating together is a central part of a lot of religious communities. That led me to study churches that have meals as a center point of their worship practice. They call themselves dinner churches and they have their service around the table. That became kind of the crux of my studies while I was at BU.
JBF: What made you want to go to Duke Divinity School?
KV: As I finished my program at BU I realized that I have a strong understanding of what’s at work with these dinner churches from the food studies side of things, but I also wanted to understand what was happening from the theological side. There are just a few seminary or divinity school programs that are really thinking about food and how food intersects with faith, and Duke Divinity is one of those and so that’s what brought me here.
JBF: Your book, We Will Feast, comes out May 14—can you tell us a bit about it?
KV: It was born out of my master’s thesis while I was at BU. It’s about churches that eat together. I traveled the country and visited eight or nine different Christian churches from a range of traditions and backgrounds. The one thing they all hold in common is that they have their service around food: some meet in a restaurant; some meet in church basements; some meet in people’s homes; some meet in a garden and they garden together as part of their process. I was really looking at what happens when we eat together and how that changes our understanding of how communities function.
This summer I will be traveling the country again, kind of on a little book tour. I’ll be visiting churches to actually host meals and talk together about what happens when we eat together, and my plan is to use Instagram stories and maybe Instagram TV to carry on some of these conversations.
JBF: Where do you see yourself after you finish your degree at Duke?
KV: My current interest is to go on and do doctoral work. I love teaching. Just this past semester, Duke started an undergraduate experiential learning and interdisciplinary semester-long food studies program. I got to work as a TA for the program and really get involved with thinking about how undergraduate food studies could work.
I’m also interested in the ways that podcasting and online publications and journalism can play a role in the transformation of food systems and how we think about what we eat. So, my goal is to go on in doctoral work and to be able to teach, but also to keep participating in these more public-facing writing and media outlets as well.
Learn more about Kendall's work at kendallvanderslice.com.