Mergen Palmer Lecture 2013: Dietary Independence: Food from the Founding Fathers to the White House Garden

The Inaugural Mergen-Palmer Lecture

In October 2013, the Department of American Studies held the first Mergen-Palmer Distinguished Lecture in American Studies. This annual lecture is named in honor of Professors Bernard Mergen and Phyllis Palmer. Barney and Phyllis are both professors emeriti of American Studies, and each has played a major role as a scholar and teacher at the George Washington University. These two scholars share a broad interest in American Studies as a field, and specific interests in sustainability, food studies, and the environment.

Dr. Melanie DuPuis, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of “Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink,” gave the inaugural lecture, entitled, “Dietary Independence: Food From the Founding Fathers to the White House Garden.” Her lecture explored the origins of food politics within the United States, and how the linkage between independence and diet gets in the way of solutions to current crises involving food, nature, and health.

The evening also included brief presentations by and about the honorees. Professor Howard Gillette gave a moving testimony about both Barney and Phyllis. Howard, who recently retired from the history department at Rutgers University-Camden, taught in the American Studies department from 1970 to 1999. He, Barney, and Phyllis were all colleagues. Howard recounted some of the challenges and adventures they faced in the early years of building up the American Studies department from its days as a small and under-funded program. You can hear a recording of Howard’s comments (with some sound quality issues) by clicking on the image above.

The highlights of the evening were the presentations by Barney and Phyllis. Barney spoke hilariously and lovingly about what American Studies actually is—and what we actually study. He talked about how Phyllis and other colleagues funneled the rich, eclectic energies of diverse faculty and students into a coherent intellectual program. He ended with a cheer: “Hooray, American Studies!”

Phyllis spoke briefly and very movingly about her struggles with cancer. She read from Audre Lorde’s “Cancer Journals,” and, with her characteristic grace and honesty, said how meaningful it is for her to take pleasure in the joys and richness of each day.

The lecture was followed by a reception, where the numerous faculty, students, and alumni in attendance were able to continue conversations and catch up with Professors Mergen and Palmer.

If you’re interested in learning more about the lecture series, or would like to be notified of upcoming events associated with it, please contact the department at [email protected].