This profile originally appeared in the Left Hand Valley Courier
Many have dubbed America to be a “melting pot” of cultures that has coagulated into something totally unique. Other scholars argue that the country is more of a tapestry, where some cultures are maintained and others are transformed. For Francesca Ciancimino Howell, this tapestry metaphor seems more relevant–as an Irish-Italian-American, her unique heritage greatly inspired her academic studies. These studies, in turn, inspired her 2018 academic work Food, Festival and Religion, which will be discussed in more detail at an Inkberry event.
“As a college student, I lived in Florence, but I’d been interested in these misty mountains of the north,” Howell said. “I started to think about themes that would make a cool doctorate topic…I was also very interested in the theme of ‘sense of place.’”
She believes that, while “edgy and unconventional,” books and research investigating place as it relates to other topics, is extremely powerful for academic and lay readers alike.”We’re made from the earth and the stars. When you eat food, you’re eating ‘place’.” She argues that when we as a community havemore of an awareness of these intersections–of environmental studies, sustainability, philosophy, etc.–we might live better, and that’s some of the impetus for her book.
Howell has a vast array of academic experience–she graduated from Georgetown Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Italian, earned a Masters in Latin American Studies from Cambridge, and eventually a Doctorate in Religions Studies from the Open University based out of the UK. This, combined with her theater studies, personal history and passion for the environment brought her back to Italy for her graduate and even post-doctoral studies.
After publishing a number of articles and speaking at conferences, a colleague of hers suggested compiling her research into a book. So, after a year and a number of proposals, Bloomsbury gave Howell the green light and she began her ethnographic research.
At its core, ethnography looks at individual and group customs, usually by way of conducting interviews. “You go and listen to people’s stories. I’m a professional listener, as well as a professional storyteller,” Howell said with a laugh. After hundreds of interviews–most of which were in Italian, and some which were in local dialects–Howell had to sift through transcripts to find themes, then compare them to existing literature, and her book was well on its way.
Food, Festivals and Religion is an academic book, so it isn’t necessarily for the casual reader. Even still, there are many concepts and anecdotes that may be of interest–for example, in a surprising overlap of her own personal history, Howell found that there is a somewhat significant presence of Celtic and Druid influence in Milan, for example.
“Strange, mysterious Milan was actually founded by Druids,” she said. “Even though I’ve been a scholar of the Celts, I didn’t make the connection with the Gauls of the Roman wars… I would look at place names [toponyms]…and I’d find out, ‘holy cow, that’s a remaining bit of history right there in the place name.’”
While the book isn’t a new release, as the hard copy was actually published in 2018 due to COVID, Howell has been somewhat limited in terms of author events. As a longtime bibliophile and lover of bookshops, she was excited when Inkberry invited her to host one of her own.
“I’m a consummate performer,” Howell said with a laugh and an offer to recite Shakespeare. “I’m an extrovert and have both taught and done public speaking for decades…I want to please people, keep them interested.”
The event, which will take place at 7 p.m. in Cottonwood Square on Friday, Feb. 25, will include an author chat, a powerpoint presentation and more.
For more information about Howell and her research, please visit https://www.francescachowell.info