Anthropology Graduate Student Highlight Series: Margaret (Maggie) DeCoste

In our second of Anthropology Graduate Student Highlight Series we are focused on Maggie DeCoste

Allyson Brinston - 5 July 2024

Welcome to the University of Alberta’s Anthropology Graduate Student Highlight Series! This series will showcase our graduate students' incredible work and research as they navigate their unique academic journeys. Each student is on their path, progressing at their own pace, and we celebrate the diversity of experiences and achievements within our department. Through these highlights, we aim to inspire and motivate our community by sharing our students' stories, challenges, and successes. Join us in celebrating their dedication and contributions to the field of anthropology.

Exploring the Culinary Heritage of Ukrainian-Canadians: Margaret (Maggie) DeCoste Groundbreaking Research

With a generally dry, harsh climate and a small, dispersed population, the prairie province of Saskatchewan is not the most prominent site for anthropological fieldwork. Nonetheless,  University of Alberta MA student Margaret (Maggie) DeCoste, a former resident of Regina's provincial capital, is drawn to the region's historical and present-day cuisine. Her thesis, centred on recipes and recipe sharing among Ukrainian-Canadians, will offer a glimpse into how these foodways have shaped the culinary landscape of the prairies. One particular feature of this landscape is the community cookbook, a collection of recipes provided by community members and published by a local organization such as a church or a school. Unlike commercial, mass-market cookbooks, these compilations are tangible manifestations of recipe sharing as an oral tradition. Maggie finds these books fascinating, viewing them as valuable cultural artifacts that provide insight into rural communities' food-related values and practices. In addition to acquiring and studying compiled cookbooks, Maggie’s research involves interviewing Ukrainian Canadians in Moose Jaw, a small city near Regina. Through these interviews, she hopes to uncover how community cookbooks are used to share recipes within and between families and communities. Finally, Maggie plans to participate in cooking one dish chosen by each interviewee to gain a practical understanding of how these recipes are used in everyday life.

A Passion for Anthropology

Maggie’s career in anthropology began during her undergraduate studies at the University of Western Ontario. Initially majoring in English Literature, she was drawn to anthropology through an introductory elective course in her first year. The breadth and diversity of the subject captivated her, leading her to pursue a double major. After completing her BA, Maggie took a year off to work and reflect on her academic future, ultimately deciding to pursue an MA in Anthropology. Her passion for the discipline and her literary background have shaped her approach to studying cultural practices as texts and texts as evidence of cultural practices.

Focus on Food and Language

Maggie is particularly passionate about the anthropology of food. She is intrigued by questions about why we eat what we eat, how social contexts influence perceptions of healthy food, and the extent to which written recipe instructions or legislated food safety rules impact household cooking practice. Her research on community cookbooks explores these themes, examining how seemingly simple recipes can reveal much about their contributors' food-related values. In addition to her interest in food, Maggie's literary bent has pointed her towards linguistic anthropology. She is fascinated by how word choices and figures of speech shape and reflect beliefs and culture. This dual focus is evident in her study of cookbooks, where she considers the recipes themselves and the language used to convey them.

Pivotal Academic Experiences

Several key experiences during Maggie’s undergraduate studies fueled her passion for the anthropology of food. An actual course on the Anthropology of Food she took online during the pandemic covered various topics, from wet markets in China to the whole foods movement. The relevance of the course material to contemporary issues and its well-designed structure left a lasting impression on her. Another influential course was an English Department seminar on Food in Renaissance Literature, where she explored historical cookbooks and the role of food in literature. An assignment to prepare and present a seventeenth-century recipe highlighted the challenges and skills of early modern cooks, sparking her ongoing preoccupation with cookbooks.

Presentations and Conferences

Maggie has begun sharing her research at academic conferences, including the Richard Frucht Memorial Lecture Series at the University of Alberta. Her presentation on community cookbooks examined how these texts reflect their contributors' culinary skills and values. To prepare for her presentations, Maggie writes a full paper, practices it extensively, and creates a PowerPoint to support her talk visually. This meticulous approach helps her deliver engaging and well-structured presentations despite her anxiety about public speaking.

Engagement and Community

As the Fringe Friday Coordinator, Maggie is an important Association of Graduate Anthropology Students (AGAS) member. This series, Fringe Fridays, offers an informal yet intellectually stimulating platform for graduate students and faculty to present on niche or unconventional aspects of their research and personal interests through an anthropological lens. The talks, lasting between 15 to 30 minutes, foster a supportive community and encourage academic exploration. Last year’s topics included ethnography using TikTok, Craftivism, Indigenous language revitalization using VR, and the Canadarm. This year, there is a concerted effort to increase faculty participation, hoping to build stronger relationships between students and professors. Fringe Fridays celebrate the most trivial and overlooked elements of human existence, exemplifying Maggie’s passion for the breadth and inclusivity of anthropology.

Balancing Work and Relaxation

To manage stress, Maggie enjoys taking long walks, listening to music or podcasts, and baking. These activities provide a much-needed break from academic pressures and help her maintain a balanced lifestyle. Reading, mainly standalone fantasy novels, also offers an escape and a chance to unwind.

Influential Literature

Various scholarly works, including Joy Adapon’s Culinary Art and Anthropology, Paul Connerton’s How Societies Remember, and Michael D. Jackson’s Paths Toward a Clearing, have helped form a theoretical background for Maggie's research. These texts have provided valuable frameworks and insights that inform her approach to studying community cookbooks.

Facing Challenges

Maggie has faced several challenges in her academic career, including a particularly demanding period of time at the end of March in her first year of graduate school. She has successfully navigated these obstacles by organizing her time effectively, creating reasonable and actionable short-term goals, seeking support from friends and colleagues, and maintaining a realistic perspective on her work.

Looking Ahead

Maggie’s research on Ukrainian-Canadian food traditions in Saskatchewan promises to shed new light on the role of community cookbooks in cultural preservation. Her dedication to her work and interdisciplinary approach position her as a rising scholar in sociocultural anthropology. As she continues to explore the intersections of food, language, and culture, Maggie hopes that her contributions will have some minor impact on how we understand these indispensable aspects of human life.