Dr. Corrie Norman

Dr. Corrie Norman is the associate director of the religious studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was formerly an assistant professor of religion at Converse College in North Carolina. During her time at Converse, Dr. Norman became an affiliate of the Pluralism Project and engaged her students in “Gender, Food, and Meaning: Mapping Religious Diversity in Charlotte, NC,” a two-part study of religious diversity in the city of Charlotte and of ritual and festival life of new immigrant religious communities.

Phase One: Mapping Charlotte

Dr. Norman writes of the project’s first phase:

Charlotte, North Carolina is the quintessential “New South” city. “Little Atlanta” has seen phenomenal growth since the 1960s and now approaches a population of two million in its metropolitan area. Much of that growth is due to the arrival of international business, primarily in banking and industrial production. While its religious landscape remains overwhelmingly Christian, new religious communities are becoming visible and vital in Charlotte. A large Hindu Temple, four Buddhist, and two Islamic centers are the most obvious witnesses to the influx of new immigrants who attempt to practice their faiths in a city with a major parkway named for Billy Graham.

Converse College is located in Spartanburg, South Carolina, about one hour southwest of Charlotte. Many Converse students come from the Charlotte area and practically all Converse students become familiar with Charlotte as our nearest large city. Converse, Spartanburg, Charlotte, and indeed our students have in common the advantages and challenges of a growing region. Questions about identity, tradition, and diversity loom large. For our students, studying how groups and individuals make meaning in this context is not just interesting; it can be personally transformative. We propose to begin with the most obvious religious communities mentioned above and then pursue smaller , less visible groups as the project continues. Our intention is to fully map the Charlotte area, primarily over the summers, for the next three years. While we will examine the range of factors suggested by the Pluralism Project, we will also pay particular attention to gender roles and foodways, central to our study in the second phase of our research.

Students participated in the mapping project based on application to Professor Norman. They must have taken one introductory course in Religion that examines religious pluralism. (We currently have four courses that include units on religious pluralism: Introduction to Religion, Religion in America, Comparative Religion, and The Christian Tradition (which contains a unit on Christianity and relationships with other religions). A new course, “Religious Contact and Exchange In Charlotte,” was offered during Winter Term 2002 and focused on the Pluralism Project research. Students were selected in the Spring Term 2001 for work in Summer 2001. They were urged to attend a session on teaching Asian religions in the South at the Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Charlotte. At that session, students and faculty from two Pluralism Project Affiliates (Furman and UNC Chapel Hill) discussed their experiences. Students also participate in the development of a website on which their research was posted.

Selected Links and Publications

Phase Two: Studying Food, Gender, and Identity among the Religious Communities of Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina

Dr. Norman wrote of Phase Two:

Food is one of the first things people think of when they think of the South. For southerners, the South is food. In this region, the only places more prominent than churches are meat -and-three restaurants, fried chicken stands, and barbeque shacks. Joining these in growing numbers are a variety of “ethnic” restaurants—Thai, Cambodian, Indian. Often, in these mostly modest establishments, religious images can be found. While many “native” southerners no doubt think of these as “idols” or decoration, they give silent witness to religious faith as the “natives” enjoy the new cuisines that speak to them of distant, exotic places in a language they may find appetizing, but often unintelligible. At local festivals, along with pound cakes baked by Methodist missionary societies and rumballs soaked and rolled by Episcopalian altar guilds, foods of Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern origin are increasingly offered for sale. They too, often represent religious traditions and are the most visible signs of these new communities. Eggrolls and curries speak of the presence of Cambodian Buddhists and Indian Hindus. Food is of central importance to most religious peoples. It ties the sacred to the everyday; and participants to each other, the ancestors, sacred places, and the gods.

The good Christians of the South are not the only ones, however, who can enjoy “foreign” foods and yet understand little of the significance they speak about cultures. For all its significance, food is among the most overlooked aspects in the study of religion. Perhaps among the reasons for this have been its very ubiquity, its mundaneness and its association with “women’s work.” While men may preside over most aspects of religious traditions visible to the public, and even dominate the public performances of food rituals in many cases, there is often another world of “women’s religion” centered on food or in the kitchen and out of the public eye. In new situations, women’s formerly private activities may take on new public significance , for food is a vehicle of communication. While many of its messages go unheard, the message of hospitality is usually understood. Food can be the bridge between new communities and their past; it can also be the bridge between new communities and their new home.

The research team intended to learn how to hear what the foodways and food rituals of the newest immigrant religious groups are telling us about faith, identity, and meaning in the New South. Dr. Norman articulated several reasons why Converse College had an interesting vantage point from which to pursue this study:

First, it is a women’s college. Its main mission is the education of women; central to that mission is the study of women and the analysis of gender. It also seeks to be a resource for women in the community at large and to serve as a base for understanding the history and current status of women in the area. Second, its location places Converse not only in a region undergoing transition,but also in the vicinity of several important , growing southern cities of varying personality. Spartanburg is an hour or less from the mountain retreat of Asheville, the business hub Charlotte, and its “sibling rival” for dominance in the upstate, Greenville. Each of these cities has seen the emergence of new religious groups in the past two decades. Third, two schools in the region have already conducted work with the Pluralism Project on which we may expand. Furman and Warren Wilson have or are currently mapping Asheville and South Carolina. Professors Stulting and Sommers have been consulted about our proposal, are supportive of it, and have graciously agreed to cooperate with us. Finally, Converse has recently developed an Honors Program for its academically gifted students. This program seeks to provide special opportunities for learning, emphasizing interdisciplinary work and student research.

Dr. Norman, whose current area of research concerns food and religion in early modern Italy, developed a year-long Honors course in 2001-2002 in which the research for Phase Two played a central role. In Phase Two, building on the mapping projects, researchers identifed several religious communities in the region for which foodways and food rituals were central to their community and identity. They examined the following :

  • how foodways help to maintain identity in a new context for immigrant religious groups.
  • how religious ritual/activity involving food develops/adapts among immigrant groups in a new context.
  • how foodways serve as a bridge to the community for immigrant religious groups.
  • how foodways serve as a window into women’s religious identity and devotion in new religious groups.

The research team also compared the foodways in new groups with some established Protestant churches, a new Hispanic Catholic community, and two minority religious communities that have quite successfully employed foodways in their public identity: Greek Orthodox and Jewish.

Besides information preserved in text,  foodways were documented via videotape and photography. Students participating in this phase were enrolled in REL330Honors: “Gender, Food, and Meaning” and were eligible to continue their research in the summer of 2002.

In Phase Three, the team aimed to produce a high-quality film documentary based on their research in cooperation with a regional Public Broadcasting Service affiliate.

Selected Links and Publications