University of Kentucky
This month, we hear from Lois Stanford, Associate Professor of Anthropology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Dr. Stanford teaches a popular upper-level undergraduate course titled “Food and Culture Around the World.” In our interview, she describes how she uses New Mexico’s rich ethnic and culinary diversity to engage her students, the three-project structure of the class, and her film recommendations for the classroom.
If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate an excellent instructor for the interview series, please email LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.
Lauren R. Moore: Before talking about teaching, can you tell me a little about your research? I attended your presentation at the AAAs last year, in the food sovereignty session put on by Culture & Agriculture, I really am interested in some of the work you’re doing with seed saving.
Dr. Lois Stanford: Yeah, I’ve gotten really interested in it. I’ve done a couple of workshops with Native Seeds and I have a colleague here at NMSU who is a plant breeder. He works in traditional open-pollinated varieties of corn. I’m really interested in working with him, and with Native Seeds, to work with farmers and how they use [seeds]. I think there’s a lot of possibility for working with [farmers] in a way that would be useful to them. One of the things Native Seeds does is keep really good records on the seeds they are reproducing, but not enough from the farmers’ perspective. They don’t have the resources to look at how communities respond to them—you know, what kind of food they’re making, and what people prefer. I think there’s some potential there.
LRM: Tell me a little about this class, ANT 360: Food and Culture Around the World.
LS: Most universities have courses that are general education, because they want students to broaden their perspectives. At NMSU, we have classes that are general education at the freshman level, but we also have classes at the junior/senior level. These juniors and seniors are required to take at least one class outside of their college. It regularly draws from all over the college, and outside of Arts and Sciences. This class is also an elective for several of the majors in dietetics and nutrition and the College of Health and Human Services. Many students are studying dietetics or nutrition. They often go on to work in issues in public health or social work or dietetics. I just hope the class will get them thinking about these things more broadly, and will affect how they work and how they think about things, as well.
I try and get [students] to think about the relationship between food and culture, the way our culture shapes how we look at food, and how we use food to communicate and create social bonds—to really think about food differently.
Since this is a Hispanic-serving institution, I’d say easily half of the class is Hispanic. So, a lot of what we talk about is how much food has been an important part of their lives, their families, their identities. That’s something that I think really helps them look at food differently, too.
It’s a class I teach once a year; it fills within 24 hours after the registration opens up. It’s students who haven’t had anthropology; they’re also not students who are used to reading a lot of material, and they’re not students that have lots of experience writing. So, it’s kind of a class where I have to do a lot of teasing and cajoling. I’m using a new textbook, Gillian Crowther’s Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food.
In the past, I’ve used Counihan and Van Esterick’s Food and Culture: A Reader, which I really like. When I teach anthropology students and graduate students, it’s a really, really good book. But the students in this class… Counihan and Van Esterick sent them right over the edge. They can’t read the articles and put it all together in a framework, so I’m using a different text for that reason. I have to structure things much more than I would with anthropology students or with graduate students.
LRM: Syllabi are such a great resource, but one of the hard things about consulting syllabi is that you don’t always have a sense for how the classes function day-to-day. I wonder if you could give us a picture of what one day in your class looks like?
LS: I tend to be very structured. The class is run in a lab, so there are tables, and everyone is sitting in order. And then, it depends on what we’re doing in class… over the course of a week, I would do a lecture and would do a PowerPoint (I can’t lecture without PowerPoint). I have lots of pictures, and I tend to lecture standing in front of the slides and then asking questions and drawing people into the conversation. And then, those days are interspersed with films. When we have films, I usually give students a list of questions for stuff that they’re supposed to watch, and we then have a discussion after we a watch the film. We tend to alternate between something that’s more structured, like lecture with discussion and participation, and films that are followed by group discussions.
LRM: How do you have the course organized?
LS: First, I’m a cultural anthropologist. I know a lot of scholars may teach food from a biocultural perspective. I have the biocultural for one week at the beginning of the semester, and then we talk about subsistence and hunting and gathering lifestyles. Then, I domesticate food, and we talk about the fact that food is cultural, because most of what we eat is food that was domesticated. Then, I talk about food and history, followed by food and social relations.
Towards the end of the semester I move into talking about the transformation of traditional food systems. So, talking about globalization and the industrialization of food and the impact that has on us and on our health. We talk about some of the movements that can be looked at as forms of resistance to that industrial food system. So, talking about food and borders and identity, and then talking about local food systems.
LM: How does the New Mexican context shape the course?
LS: Because of where we are, [there are issues with] trying to revive the local food system and improve food security. It isn’t really food studies like Indiana University…we’re in a very poor state, in a Hispanic-serving institution, we’re in a public land grant institution, and we are in the middle of a drought. We have food production issues, we have a very low income and very ethnically diverse population… the context makes food studies much more applied.
I think a lot of people don’t really realize how important food is to them and to their own identity. In many other areas of the country, they might look at New Mexico and say, “Well, they eat Mexican food.” But, here in New Mexico, food is a really important marker of the geography of the region and your identity. When people start talking about those issues toward the end of the semester, they’re starting to loosen up a little, and they start realizing how important these things really are.
People who come from northern New Mexico think the food’s really different down here. We use more chile, it’s spicier, we use more oil; we’re influenced by Mexican food. Northern New Mexico is very “comida la ranchera,” it’s more peasant food, stews, and they just use red chile. The Mexicans who immigrate across the border, they make their enchilada sauce with red chiles but also with mulatos, anchos [dried poblanos], güeros [banana peppers] and different kinds of chiles.
All these kids recognize that the tastes are different. So the minute you start talking about ethnicities and boundaries and borders, you start asking, “do you use yellow cheese or white cheese?” “What kind of chile do you use?” “Would you put oregano on your posole, or would you put cilantro?” They realize how we use these things to create boundaries and differences, and it really is important to them. It’s a lot of fun.
Also, because here in New Mexico… I don’t mean any disrespect, but it’s not Vermont! We have kids that are Hispanic from northern New Mexico, who never considered themselves Mexican. They’re Chicanos, they’re descendants of Spanish. We have New Mexican border culture down here. We have immigrants, people from El Paso who are Hispanic and have grown up on the border, and have immigrants from Mexico. And I’ll often have Navajo or Mescalero [students], or students from the Pueblos. All of a sudden people start talking about their own experiences.
I think it’s really interesting for the white kids, too, because we have a tradition of farming in New Mexico, and many of them… they don’t have to go back far before they start realizing their own ancestry and their own foodways. They may be third or fourth generation immigrants. They don’t speak the language, they don’t have any ties, but often times food is that last thing that you kind of hold on to a sense of your family and who you are. They never really thought about it that way. They have a culture, too. I like to tell them, “those of us from the South, we have culture too!”
LRM: This sounds like it gets to be a really lively point in the course. Do you have particular activities that get these kinds of discussions going?
LS: One of the things we do at the end of the semester, when we’re talking about ethnicity and borders, is I have a PowerPoint slideshow, and we go through and talk about “What is a burrito? What do you put in a burrito?” Because in California, where I grew up, we have “California burritos,” where you put the rice and all of this stuff in them. And the students are like, “Oh, god! That’s disgusting!”
Then I talk about posole, and ask, “Your posole, is it white or is it red?” They get into these arguments about what kind of cheese you’re supposed to use. Are you supposed to sauté the rice before you put the tomato sauce in it or after? At that point, they really realize how important these little tiny differences are, and it’s because we make them important. We assign value and importance to them.
They also do a series of projects in class. The first project they do is to write a history of a food, they have to pick a food and write a short history of it. The second project they do is an observation at a meal. They have to document how the food is used, what kinds of social values are being reinforced through the sharing of food and how it’s organized. The last assignment is an interview with someone with a list of questions I provide that focuses on someone either from their family or somebody from another ethnic group, someone who is an immigrant or who has grown up in a different food culture. It’s a narrative interview to look at how that individual uses food as a way of maintaining their ethnicity.
LRM: What kinds of questions you have students ask in that interview?
LS: Well, if somebody’s immigrated, students ask what kind of foods they ate while growing up? What kinds of challenges did they have trying to maintain those foods when they came to the United States? How did they find them, how did they learn how to fix the foods, who taught them? Do they still eat these foods? When do they eat them?
What we find a lot here is that when people assimilate, they don’t fix traditional foods on a daily basis. But for feast days, for Día de Los Muertos, there are tamales all over town. Everybody has to have tamales for Christmas, and it’s a really big deal whether you make them yourself, or if you go buy them…that’s considered cheating. That’s a really big deal.
A lot of times, the kids don’t realize how much of those foods are still a part of their cycle. It’s part of the seasonal cycle, not what they eat everyday. But when it’s somebody’s birthday, when it’s Lent, it’s really important that those foods are served.
LRM: Is there one assignment or one section of the class that students seem to enjoy the most?
LS: I think it’s probably the interview. I think that it’s often an interview they do with someone who’s a member of their family. So it’s often educational and also more rewarding. But it’s also towards the end of the semester, and I think that we all get a little loosened up moving ahead.
LRM: Is there anything that you have kept consistent throughout the years of teaching the course that really seems to go well every time?
LS: The three projects have worked fairly well. With the history of a food, they don’t have to go out and talk to people. There are so many websites now. I post a link to the food timeline, and the Smithsonian’s got a lot. They can get their feet wet, you know… start thinking about these things, but they don’t have to go out and interview somebody or do something that engages. So, I think that’s a good start. Then, the other two projects involve them in doing a little anthropology… one is an observation, and one is an interview.
LRM: Is there anything that you have tried and jettisoned?
LS: When I first started teaching the class, I moved very quickly into local foods and organics and alternatives. And, this is a generation of kids that have grown up at McDonalds, and most everybody shops at Wal-Mart. You know, and some of them are gardeners, and some of them have a very different relationship with food, but I feel like it’s very important to not be too judgmental, to not be too dogmatic, to lead people into thinking about these things as opposed to beating them over the head with it.
I also like to talk about the contradictions and the realities of our lives. We can’t all be pounding corn and making tortillas every day; we’ve got to do something else. And they may occasionally see me at Wal-Mart, picking up laundry detergent. I think that trying to get people to think critically and reflect on it, and to not be too heavy into the organic kind of stuff. That’s definitely improved my teaching evaluations.
LRM: Do you feel like there’s anything you do differently with this group? While they aren’t anthropology majors, they are juniors and seniors. Does that change your approach at all?
LS: Yeah, in the sense that they’re older, they’re more mature. We often have students who are returning students, so they often have families, they’re parents. We have a lot of veterans, we have a long tradition of military service with students coming back to finish their degrees. So I feel like maybe one of the reasons I like the class is that although they may not be aware of the concepts and may not have had the anthropology, a lot of them have had world experiences. They’re raising kids, and thinking about these kinds of things in their own lives. They served in the Middle East and they’ve been exposed to other cultures… so they’re not anthropology students, but they’re grown ups. That experience is nice.
LRM: You mentioned that you use films. Do you have particular films that you’d recommend?
LS: I really like the… they are dated now, but the PBS series that was done on food, The Meaning of Food, that Marcus Samuelsson interviews and narrates. They’ve got three parts: Food and Life, Food and Family, Food and Culture. They do these short vignettes, so they’re thematically organized then you get to see these different cases.
I’ve shown Food, Inc. before, and thought that was a little “rhhm-rhhm-rhhm-rhhm” (heavy handed).
I really like an ABC News special that Peter Jennings did (it’s really old now [aired in 2003]) called How to Get Fat Without Really Trying. It’s about the industrialization of the food system. Very Marion Nestle-ish—how they convince you to eat more and you don’t even realize it. They’ve got some great quotes, where some of these advertising people are talking about how they changed the formula of cranberry juice so there’s no cranberry juice in it, but people can’t tell the difference! And they just say these things…. it really gets the students going.
And there’s also a really nice film called Ingredients about local food systems. It’s organized around the whole annual cycle, with local production coming full circle. It’s very nicely done, and it really focuses on CSAs, locals, and organics. And it’s in Washington state, with white people in Birkenstocks and stuff. So we watch that and everybody really likes it, and then I say, “What’s not in here? What’s missing?” and they’re like, “There’s no Mexicans in here!” There’s no desert, except for maybe a short five-minute clip in Tucson. So people have the sense that it’s not… it’s really good, but how does it get extended? How do other people participate in it? But it’s a really nice film, I like it.
And, I use a series of films that… well, I’ve done work in Mexico on food as cultural patrimony, and so there’s a short film that Mexico’s tourism department did and then presented to UNESCO as part of their food as their heritage. And then France did one, and France presented it. And so we watch the two of them, and they’re very different because Mexico is presenting its indigenous heritage, the farming, and the land. And then France…well, it’s all Paris, it’s French and Parisian, it’s urbane and cosmopolitan, so they’re presenting a different national image. It’s a nice contrast.
LRM: For instructors who are developing a food-related course for the first time, do you have any thoughts or suggestions for things to consider?
LS: I think the syllabi that have been provided by SAFN are a really good place to start because you can really see how different instructors have approached the same topic. Somebody who has a background in nutrition or who has more of a biocultural background, there would be different elements that they would include, and the course would be organized in a totally different way. I think it would help somebody who’s starting out to see what the different options are. Play with the syllabus, and make it yours.
LRM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
LS: In addition to the undergraduate program, we have a Master’s degree, and we have a graduate level minor in food studies. New Mexico is a really neat place because there’s so much really interesting fieldwork that the students can do right here. Some students have done stuff that is food security related, designing curriculum for a school or something like that, others have done projects that have been more like food studies. I had a students who did a MA project on an ethnography of the matanzas, which is the tradition of the ritual slaughter and roasting of pigs for a feast. I had another student do an ethnography of an old, Hispanic, border restaurant, interviewing and cooking with the sisters who are behind the restaurant. We’re in a really culturally diverse area, where there’s a lot of opportunity for students to do really neat research, even at the beginning graduate level.
LRM: Thank you so much for your time!