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You are what you eat

An interdisciplinary look at a universal experience: food

By Donald Challenger

"Tell me what you eat," the pioneering food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825, "and I will tell you what you are." Given the dietary inclinations of most students, that's a risky proposition on any college campus. But at Hamilton this spring, four professors and 51 students took Brillat-Savarin's insight as a manifesto. In a new sophomore seminar titled Food for Thought: The Science, Culture and Politics of Food, they explored everything from the biochemistry of nutrition to the corporate transformation of farming. And for some of them, those pepperoni pizzas and Gummy Bears will never taste quite the same.

Consider, for instance, the humble potato. It's one of four occasional "roundtable" topics around which Food for Thought is organized; the others are obesity, the Mediterranean diet and, as a sort of late-semester dessert, chocolate. On an April afternoon, a dozen students introduced their classmates to the pleasures and particulars of the potato in a series of presentations stretching from the Irish famine of the mid-19th century (a third of the population died or fled) to the postmodern fast-food french fry in all its golden glory (that entrancing perfume is synthesized at a plant on the New Jersey Turnpike).

potatoesScience? Potatoes are fat- and cholesterol-free until we start slathering on the butter and sour cream, but -- Atkins disciples beware -- each packs an average of 26 grams of carbohydrates. (Each also packs a few highly toxic glycoalkaloids, but usually not enough to matter.) Culture? Van Gogh chose not sunflowers or the firmament for his first great work, but potatoes and the peasants who subsisted on them. The hardened faces and pitiless gloom of his 1885 painting, The Potato Eaters, upended many of the art world's conventions of class and color. Economics? Idaho potato farmers are so efficient that they could give everyone on the planet three pounds of potatoes annually, yet they are victims of their own success, making just two cents on each $1.50 order of fast-food fries. By the way, those fries are given their perfect symmetry not by the human hand, but by a water cannon that slings hardy Russet Burbanks through steel blades at nearly the speed of a Randy Johnson fastball.

And Mr. Potato Head? Don't even start.
 

 

Combine Ingredients and Mix Well

Food is natural ground for an interdisciplinary approach. After all, our very humanity is rooted in what and how we eat. "It is a less intimidating subject than many, perhaps, because we've all got experience with food," said Naomi Guttman, associate professor of English. Guttman, who once "cooked and baked for a living and even considered going to culinary school," conceived Food for Thought in the fall of 2002 and was quickly joined by several colleagues who had been thinking on parallel tracks. One, Shoshana Keller, had been toying with the idea of using cookbooks from different cultures and eras as texts. Keller also had been considering teaching a seminar on disease and society. It was a good fit.

"One of our goals for the course," said Keller, associate professor of history, "has been to make the students aware of the many economic, nutritional, political and cultural factors that shape what they eat as individuals and how American society views and uses food, and I think we've done that."

Sarah Walsh finds that the smorgasbord approach works well. "We talk about food in such a variety of contexts," the sophomore said. "We have discussed the causes of famine in Third World countries, the art of the restaurant review and the U.S. fast-food epidemic. This course would lose its richness if it had to be classified under a single discipline."

Yet with four professors and four fields figuring into the equation, a sophomore seminar about food also demands focus. Without it, the course might come to resemble one of those roadside diner menus with endless laminated pages of omelets and club sandwiches -- all quantity, no quality. After months of work, Guttman, Keller and their colleagues -- David Gapp, professor of biology, and Carol Drogus, professor of government -- settled on four themes. Food and the body focused on biology; food through time, on history; food and power, on politics; and food and culture, on the arts and human activity. The entire course would follow that broad sequence, they decided, but on most weeks classes would meet in small sections of a dozen students, where professors could employ their expertise, and students could define their own interests and goals.

That mix has made for some surprises. "I spend so much time fulfilling requirements for my major and taking writing-intensive classes that I figured I earned myself a semester with a class totally unrelated to my major," said Lisi Krainer, a cultural anthropology major. Now, "Ironically, I realized that food has a whole lot to do with my major." At one point she found herself pushing her own limits to explain an archaeological theory, with which she had only passing familiarity, not only to her fellow students, but to a professor as well. She was, for that topic and that moment, the resident expert.

"This pooling of students' and professors' resources has forced me to make connections between different and seemingly unrelated classes," Krainer added. "And I believe that the ability to make these connections is ultimately one of the most valuable lessons I learned in Food for Thought."

That sense of mapping new territory as one ventures beyond one's comfort zone is not just for students, Drogus said. Despite having well-developed personal and professional interests in food -- she says that "many of my closest friendships have been formed around food," and she often incorporates hunger and global food issues into her courses -- Drogus found that "there was a certain excitement for me in teaching such a multifaceted course and getting ?outside our box.'"

One way of putting it, Gapp said, is that the course is about both crossing boundaries between disciplines and respecting them. "It's not difficult conceptually," he said. "It's difficult because there's a language barrier unless the faculty are in closely allied fields. But I think the fun is finding the common ground. And there is a lot more of it than we tend to think."

Right, fun. Have we mentioned the cooking?
 

 

Simmer Over a Hot Stove

For a course that is "not a cooking class," as the professors warn regularly, there's a whole lot of cookin' goin' on. On top of roundtable reports and frequent papers, students were responsible for a final project that included a full group meal; in addition, several special outings during the semester were devoted to trying recipes and picking up tips from the pros at Bon Appétit food services. The standards, though, admittedly leaned more toward hot cuisine than haute cuisine. One wry assurance on the course syllabus notes that the grade for the final meal "will include quality of planning and participation. It will not include culinary quality of dishes prepared."

simmering foodNevertheless, many students aimed high with their menus. Lisa Schaaf tackled Thai. Jay Russell contemplated vichyssoise and chocolate souffle. Sarah Walsh went Italian. Sarah Schmidt used an outing at Guttman's house early in the semester to test-drive a recipe for salted cod from a medieval cookbook. Lisi Krainer, who grew up in Austria, Hungary and Romania, planned an "Around the World Dinner" with her group, from Moroccan carrots to Aztec hot chocolate. "Although my project partners probably have a very different view on this, I see this ?Around the World' dinner almost as a representation of who I am," she said.

But the real impact of Food for Thought is likely to go beyond a few exotic recipes. Samir Majmudar was a vegetarian coming in -- "I like to think I eat healthy when I do eat," he said -- but he is paying more attention to advertising claims and food labels. "I've also tried to convince my parents to start using more olive oil so that they can get more monounsaturated fats, which are better than saturated fats," he added. Krainer has dropped beef and pork from her diet and is "trying to go completely vegetarian." Leigh Trucks, whose parents are caterers, is making an effort to eat organic foods and avoid meat from animals raised on antibiotics and hormones. And even those students who have not made changes now see food production and marketing through clearer eyes.

"I know that several of my kids who went to Hannaford [supermarket] will never look at a grocery store quite the same way again," Keller said of one field trip, "which was exactly the point."
 

 

... and Serve with Good Conversation

Given the state of the American diet and global food policy, much of any course on eating is necessarily devoted to deconstruction -- dismantling the advertising pitches, disrupting the sheer force of habit, questioning the myths that even the best intentions sustain. "Over break, a student was telling her mother about how she would instill good diet and taste in her future children by giving them a wide variety of good foods from an early age," Keller recalled. "Her mother laughed."

But for a subject as large as food, there is much to be said for serendipity as well as skepticism. Amber Gillis, a science major who took the course to expand her knowledge of the chemistry of cooking, found herself fascinated by the history of food preparation and eating habits as the semester unfolded. Lisa Schaaf, who came to the course "to get a broader perspective" on her own love of cooking, was drawn as well to the stories of female saints who "were usually revered because of their ability to survive seemingly without any food."

Guttman captured another side of this neglected dimension of eating -- the communal, the soulful, the remembered -- as she mused with students about Passover and the seder on a sunny April afternoon. "There's something that taste does to us that stimulates the spiritual in us," she said. "I find myself using that word -- spiritual -- a lot when I talk about food."

That sense of exploration, grounded in real experience yet venturing into what is unknown and unspoken, ultimately made Food for Thought more than a mere intellectual buffet.
 

 

Donald Challenger is a writer, editor and teacher who lives in Clinton, N.Y., and enjoys the occasional french fry.

Turning the Tables, Reversing the Roles

Drop in on the four small-group sections of Food for Thought some afternoon, and you might have trouble matching the professor with the discipline. David Gapp, the biologist, is guiding his students through four centuries of still-life art, from the 16th-century Dutch market paintings of Pieter Aertsen to the contemporary work of Tom Wesselman. In one painting, Wesselman captures beer, cigarettes and submarine sandwiches in all their dubious glory. "That's what's become of the still life," Gapp observed as students laughed. "That says it all."

Across campus, Shoshana Keller, the historian, coaxes her section through a discussion of how literary conventions are used in Ruth Reichl's food memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. Naomi Guttman, poet and teacher of literature, is talking about per capita spending of food and the economics of bulk buying. And Carol Drogus, the political scientist, is encouraging her group to consider how the techniques of creative nonfiction can help readers "understand what it means to be hungry in a way statistics don't."

All interdisciplinary courses are intended to give students and professors a chance to operate outside the confines of a narrow specialty, but Food for Thought operates constantly on such leaps. "I think what you saw was pretty typical," Drogus said. Still, the professors are cautious about claims that four disciplines can be neatly integrated in a sophomore-level course. Keller, in fact, suggested that "multidisciplinary" might be a better description.

A few students, too, noted that "what sounds great on paper does not necessarily work out in the classroom" every week, as Lisi Krainer observed. Occasionally it's best to have an expert on hand to help students negotiate a complex topic. Even so, the excitement of an intellectual adventure is contagious.

"I'm a double archaeology and classical studies major, so needless to say, I've never taken a course in history, biology, English or government," Sarah Schmidt said. "So if I'm able to learn something about these disciplines through one of my favorite things in the world -- food -- then my response was an overwhelming ‘Sign me up!'"
 

Setting the Table for ‘Food for Thought'

Carol Drogus, professor of government, and Shoshana Keller, associate professor of history, quickly followed; both were already incorporating food-related themes into their own classes. The four received a Richardson Grant to do research for the course, and by last fall they were meeting regularly to choose readings and develop the syllabus.

With four disciplines to integrate and a body of research and literature that could fill a library, "there were many choices to make, and it wasn't always easy," Guttman recalled. They settled on four general themes -- food and the body, food through time, food and power, and food and culture -- that intersected with four large "roundtable" gatherings on obesity, the Mediterranean diet, the potato and chocolate. The large-group meetings were balanced with more frequent smaller classes that shared a common syllabus but could also branch out in unique directions.

"This is the first chance I've had in my career to teach with other colleagues in this way, and it's been a great experience," Guttman said, and her colleagues echoed the sentiment. But with one semester of the course behind them, they will make a few changes in 2004-05. Two sections will be offered in the fall, with Guttman and Drogus teaching; in the spring, Keller will be on leave, so Gapp will team with Barbara Gold, professor of classics.

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