Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Friday, October 1, 2004
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 2
Fall 2004

Food for Thought
Professors give students something to chew on
By Jessica Grinspan ’05
When the French finish a meal, they don’t just leave the table, they sortent—which means, literally, that they come out of it, says Catherine Beaudry, associate professor of French. In the French mind, dining is an experience theoretically separate from reality; the table is a place you go to escape from everything else, an emblem of cultural identity.

That’s why Beaudry makes food a focus of her introductory French course. “You can’t learn about the culture without studying the food,” she explains. “The French seem like rationalists, but they’re sensualists, too. They enjoy the aesthetics of everyday life, and I hope to give students an appreciation of life like this.”

To Beaudry, this means teasing the senses by teaching her students to concoct elaborate French cuisines. “I teach them the verbs of the five senses and the rules of grammar, and when I teach them how to cook, it all comes together,” she says. “It’s amazing how cooking brings the grammar to life. The language shows us how the culture focuses around the table; nowhere is this more pronounced than in France.”

What might you find on a French 101 student’s plate? “We have four cooking lessons—labs, really—throughout the semester,” Beaudry explains. Recent dishes have included la pâte à crêpes, zesty ratatouille with rice, balsamic vinaigrette with blue cheese, and the finale—puff pastries with ice cream. (See recipes, page 26.) “Students love doing it,” says Beaudry. “It creates a real esprit de corps.”

“By working on food, by doing things that are physical, they increase their comfort with the language and the culture,” Beaudry adds. “A meal in France is not just visually beautiful, but a very important social occasion.”

Beaudry isn’t the only faculty member to bring a flavor of culture to the classroom through the study of food and eating. Adrienne Su, assistant professor of English and poet-in-residence, teaches Writing about Food and Culture.

“I always wanted to be a food writer or food editor, so it was perfectly natural for me to teach a course on writing about food,” says Su. “Students write about food as an art, as an aesthetic experience and also as a moral act. And then I have them write a paper on their own culinary identity, which can be difficult for a lot of people to find.”

To help with this task, Su has students read such texts as Mark Winegardner’s We Are What We Ate: 24 Memories of Food, an eclectic collection of essays on eating as a personal, meaningful experience. The course also entails a visit to a local restaurant and completion of a restaurant review.

“We explore food from all different cultures,” Su says. “And food is an important part of that. I want [students] to come out with a broader understanding of what constitutes culture. All of these identities are dynamic. I hope to shake the idea that culture is fixed.”

Su’s passion for food is a frequent theme of her poetry. “I guess I’m just obsessed with food—with cooking, cookbooks, eating,” explains Su, a talented chef in her spare time. “I think I write better if I’m exposed to food. And I don’t try to write poems about food; food just crops up in my poetry. (See poem, page 25.)

“My interest in writing and interest in cooking balance each other,” she adds. “Poetry alone
wasn’t physical enough for me, but cooking by itself wasn’t intellectual enough. Poetry has a history that’s masculine, while cooking is traditionally feminine, and I think the brain needs elements of both the masculine and the feminine to work best.” \

Michael Poulton, assistant professor of international business and management, is another faculty member who uses food to demonstrate cultural truths; the power of food advertising is a regular topic of lectures in his marketing courses. An international grain trader before he came to Dickinson, Poulton teaches a class on world trade, where he focuses on the “hyper-regulation” of bioengineered foods.

“There’s a preconception about bioengineering that it’s dangerously manipulative, when really it’s produced some great miracles,” he says. “We talk too much about safety and don’t often look at the real result of things. I don’t want students to be afraid of genetically engineered food. We need to look at the empirical evidence and encourage it. People need to realize that we can use, and have used, science in incredible ways.”

It’s hard to talk about food without mentioning what many believe is one of America’s great contemporary crises, obesity. Amy Farrell, associate professor of American studies and women’s studies, makes what she calls “the cultural ‘crisis’ of obesity” the focus of her scholarly research. “It’s amazing how contradictory our culture is,” she says. “We have the biggest fast-food industry in the world, but also the biggest diet industry. Compared with other countries, we also have more food taboos.”

This fall, Farrell is teaching a senior seminar, Feminist Activism and the Body, in which she leads discussions about fatness in American culture. “Feminist activists haven’t looked so much at what it means to be fat women, men and children,” she explains. Students taking Farrell’s course are reading Fat! So?: Because You Don’t Have to Apologize for Your Size, a celebration of fatness by Marilyn Wann, a 275-pound “fat activist” and champion for the overweight. “I’m always surprised by the level of animosity from students when we talk about fat activists,” Farrell explains. “Just because we keep getting fatter as a society doesn’t mean there’s less stigma. The biggest misconception is that fatness is a choice.

“It is important for people to make healthy decisions,” Farrell adds. “But we need to couple this with fighting fat stigma. It should go hand in hand.”

Two first-year seminars this fall also have a food focus, Garden Coordinator Jennifer Halpin’s Food 101 and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Karen Weinstein’s The Biology and Culture of Food and Nutrition. The overarching goal of both seminars is the same: to teach students the impact—biological, social, political and economic—of their food choices.

Halpin’s students explore how food is produced, through field trips to local farms and guest speakers from the agricultural sciences, and Weinstein’s course examines the link between biology and the environment by comparing food and nutrition in developed and underdeveloped nations. In addition, students from the seminars will convene six times throughout the semester to discuss relevant issues or take food-related trips—such as a visit to a local food bank.

“I want to provide a visual into how food can be grown in different ways,” says Halpin, an advocate of sustainable organic-food production. “I want to instill a mindset that thinks outside the box—outside supermarkets like Giant and Weis. My hope is that students can make a choice with their food dollars. If people become aware, they can change the way food is produced in the future and help the greater good.”

“I think it’s important to have students explore the world where malnutrition is a huge problem and compare their nutritional content to that of other countries,” notes Weinstein. “Food is a means of survival, a means of cultural expression as a species. I hope students learn that we are cultural creatures that manifest in biological ways. I hope they come out with an understanding of their own food intake and also of their place in the world. I want them to learn ways to be healthy about the choices that they make while learning something about the world.”

 


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