Scholars’ Conversations: Merin Oleschuk

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website:  the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster (jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).


Scholars’ Conversations: Merin Oleschuk

By Jordan Foster  

I had the great opportunity to talk to Merin Oleschuk, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work appears in journals such as Social ProblemsGender & SocietySociological Forum, and Poetics. Oleschuk’s paper “‘In Today’s Market, Your Food Chooses You’: News Media Constructions of Responsibility for Health through Home Cooking” received the 2019 Student Paper Award from ASA’s Consumers & Consumption Section. She received her Ph.D from the University of Toronto. 

In this interview, Oleschuk talks about her most recent project, “Cooking for One.” Specifically, Merin addresses the inspiration behind this project, its relationship to consumption, and her own evolution as a scholar in the field.  

Jordan: Can you tell me a little bit about your most recent project?  

Merin:  This is a project that’s still in the early stages of conceptualization, but it will examine the foodwork of people who live alone. With it, I’m hoping to better understand how foodwork is enacted and given meaning, including the role it plays in connecting us to others. The project will also draw attention to some of the gaps in nutritional support for single-living people, especially those who are also otherwise vulnerable like BIPOC communities, older adults, and those who are food insecure. 

 
Jordan: How did you come to the work on this topic? 

Merin: The idea for this project came out of the tenure track interview process where those on the job market are asked to think about, and kind of “pitch,” their next research steps. I had a couple different ideas about where to take my research after my dissertation–and actually this isn’t the project I originally presented at Illinois–but this is the one that I just couldn’t let go. It nonetheless feels like there’s a lot weighing on this decision because this project will make up the bulk of the work that will bring me up to tenure. So, there’s lots to consider. Beyond the big questions about the contributions of the research to science and to society, it seemed important to me to also think about practical, or some may say strategic things like, is this interesting and timely enough to attract the interest of external funders? Is it scalable in size and scope to adapt depending on how funding ends up playing out? Does it fit with the mission and priorities of my department? Will it produce outcomes that they and others within the university value? In today’s research landscape these types of questions seem necessary when starting something new, particularly when on the tenure-track. 

 
Jordan: What sparked your interest in this?  

Merin: Well, my dissertation research dove deep into the topic of home-cooked family meals, and in undertaking that research it became very clear how fetishized those meals are. Home cooked meals eaten together around a dinner table are this quintessential ritual for a lot of reasons: for fostering health and well-being, for socializing children, for expressing love and care, and for just connecting to each other and our communities. But it made me wonder, where does that leave people who live alone? Cooking for one sits uncomfortably in a cultural context where home cooking holds immense value due its role in maintaining social and family life. 

The same can be true for living alone more generally, and Eric Klinenberg actually wrote a great book on this a few years back. But people who live alone are still embedded in social and familial relationships, they just don’t live alongside them. I’m interested in how cooking and eating work to connect, or maybe fail to connect, this group of people to their families and communities. The thing that excites me the most about this project is the possibilities it holds for better understanding why we value the work of preparing meals and how we connect with others through that work. And I think these meanings are especially poignant at the moment when the COVID-19 pandemic has re-centered the role of cooking in our lives and cast renewed light on the meaning of our relationships with others.  

There’s also a more practical arm to this project as well, because the current emphasis on cooking within family life holds very real implications for the resources available to single-living people for health and nutrition promotion. People who live alone face a number of food-related challenges that are particular to their living situation. They have to deal with large food quantities that are expensive for their purposes and often lead to waste. They have to work with recipes that are largely designed for cooking for a group. They regularly cook and eat in isolation and are usually solely responsible for all of the work involved in producing meals – grocery shopping, preparing, cooking, cleaning etc. 

Since public and policy attention have been directed at families, there are very few places for people in this situation to turn to help them cook and eat well – and this is especially true for those who are otherwise vulnerable and need that support the most, such as those who are food insecure or recent immigrants. I hope that this research will help inform nutrition outputs that more effectively help diverse groups of people cook and eat in ways that nourish their bodies and souls and help connect them to their communities. 

 
Jordan: How was the process of transforming your curiosity for this topic into a research question and a project? 

I’ve been lucky to have had some space over my initial semester here at Illinois to think deeply about what the project is going to look like and what questions drive it. That has included speaking to a variety of mentors and colleagues about it to get advice and feedback from people who have much more experience than I do leading larger-scale projects. There’s so much to learn in your first year on the tenure-track so I’ve really tried to absorb as much as I can from folks around me. 

One of the things that attracted me to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is that it’s a very interdisciplinary, collaborative research environment. That aspect is really exciting because it’s encouraged me to think about the research from different disciplinary perspectives, which ultimately will help broaden its relevance and its reach. Plus, I just really enjoy working with others. It makes the work more fun, and it’s usually also more productive, so I’m excited.  

 
Jordan: What does “consumption” mean in your work? 

Merin: I approach consumption in a couple different ways. I’m interested in how consumption is embedded in the work or labor that people (especially mothers) do at home. This includes the various roles that consumption plays in social reproductive, care and body work within households, as well as how that work reflects and reproduces, but also at times challenges broader inequalities. Given that women still perform most of the food labor within households, this work is highly gendered, and much of my research interrogates why this is still so. This may seem counterintuitive while initiating a project on cooking for one, but I think it’s going to produce some really interesting insights that open up new possibilities for thinking about how social reproductive labor happens through food.

For example, I was just talking to someone the other day who commented on how food played a key role in assessing the well-being of her aging mother who lived alone. Questions like, “What did you have for dinner?” and “Did you eat enough?” are key ways that care is performed across distances. I think the pandemic has also really revealed how food-oriented care can operate beyond the boundaries of a household–like through mutual aid operations, for example – so I think this is quite timely to be thinking about.  

I’m also a cultural sociologist, so I pay a lot of attention to consumer culture in my work. I’m interested in how consumption is framed in public life and what implications these framings hold for people’s everyday consumption acts. This also means I pay attention to how certain forms of consumption are legitimated, while others disparaged, and how those framings work to reinforce broader social inequalities, boundaries and exclusions. A focus on culture then helps draw attention to how seemingly mundane consumption acts are moralized and politicized in insidious ways.  

JordanWhat book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work? 

Merin: Oh gosh, there’s so many, but thinking to my dissertation specifically, Marjorie DeVault’s Feeding the Family and Sharon Hayes’ The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood have certainly served as foundations. Those books sit on my desk as a regular reminder of the multifaceted emotional, physical and cognitive work involved in feeding others as well as the myriad ways that labor is tied to femininity. The work for my dissertation is also very indebted to Sarah Bowen Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton,  whose amazing bookPressure Cooker, and other research on foodwork was coming out as I was writing and really acted a critical base from which to build on.  

About the Interviewer  

Jordan Foster is a graduate student in the department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His research lies at the intersection of consumption, culture and inequality. Learn more about his most recent project which focuses on social media influencers.

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