Thinking, and doing: Willa Zhen on Teaching Anthropology of Food at the Culinary Institute of America

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

This month, we hear from Willa Zhen, Associate Professor at The Culinary Institute of America. She discusses teaching anthropology at an applied institution, and many of the excellent hands-on activities she uses to engage her students.

If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate an excellent instructor for the interview series, please email LaurenRMoore@uky.edu.

Lauren Renée Moore: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s like to teach at the Culinary Institute of America?

Willa Zhen: The students here—especially those in the new Applied Food Studies major, which started in January 2015—love food. They love cooking, they love eating, and many want to do more with their careers than become traditional restaurant chefs. They’re thinking about food in complex ways, but also have a very hands-on, grounded approach. They understand food at a very practical and sensory level, and also at a cognitive level. That’s what our program is like, in a nutshell.

LRM: What is it like to teach students with such an applied focus?

WZ: When I taught at my doctoral institution, I taught very traditional undergraduate anthropology classes. We read classic texts—and I was in the UK, so we were reading things like Malinowski, very heavy and descriptive. It was very different teaching those types of students and a lot of the students there were very internationally focused, many of them were international themselves. Me included, I was an American living in the UK. Convincing them to read about far-flung places and cultures was pretty easy.

Here, students are working from a different set of experiences, and I try to ground class in what they already know and have experienced. Many students come from working backgrounds and have limited international and cross-cultural exposure. I’m not able to use the classic ethnographies to the same degree. In fact, I actually ground them in current issues and current debates, to really make it relevant. The goal is to get them to dive more critically and thoughtfully into their everyday experience. So it’s kind of a different way of thinking about things.

All photos provided by Willa Zhen.

All photos provided by Willa Zhen.

LRM: Can you tell me a little bit about the structure of your class?

WZ: My students don’t have intro to anthropology and we don’t have an anthro major. There are other classes which explore anthropology in some way, but this is the only anthro class. So I wrote it as an intro to anthropology. I’m trying to get them thinking about classic anthropological concepts and methods of inquiry, but through the lens of food. I actually have two books that I have them read. One of them is an anthropology textbook, and it introduces concepts like kinship, community, etc., and then I have them read Counihan and Van Esterik’s Food and Culture Reader. Then, we do a lot of activities.

For instance, when we talk about kinship, family, commensality, and family structure, I have them do kinship charts. I have Grinding grains - 5them draw their own kinship chart, and then ask them to think about feeding, commensality, and kinship. They use colors to do this. They take one color—I have crayons or colored pencils—and have them shade in everybody who’s fed them. And then they use another color to shade in all the people they feed. I ask: are there overlaps? For most people, elders feed them, and then when they hit a certain age, they’re feeding younger family members. But sometimes, students’ charts don’t fit that characterization. Maybe they didn’t have anyone who fed them, because their parents were working or maybe their parents were unable to feed them due to physical disability. And it creates ways of thinking about feeding and structure and commensality. With that exercise, we read Psyche Williams-Forson’s work “More than Just the ‘Big Piece of Chicken’: The Power of Race, Class, and Food in American Consciousness” on African American family relationships and chicken. It becomes a very tactile way to think about these anthropological concepts.

LRM:  Can you give me an example how you bring current debates into the course?

WZ: One of the ways I teach them about agriculture, technology, and the domestication of plants, is by sneaking it in through a hands-on activity. What you often hear is that food way back when—like your grandmother’s food, which is what Michael Pollan likes to say—was great and romantic and pastoral. It was wonderful! Or, with the Paleo diet folks, we hear that our ancestors ate so much better, right? They foraged, there was no domestication, and everyone was healthier, leaner, and sexier back then. We talked about these different ideas, and then I have them grind grain by hand. We went to the kitchen, I put them in different teams, I had them set a timer and everybody got different tools to work with. Some teams got mortars and pestles of different compositions, others got stone, other a cutting board. I had them see how long it took to grind the grain down to usable flour. They also measure the start weight, and when they got to a point where they had a usable grind, they weighed it again.Grinding grains - 3

This activity was a little bit evil, because some students were very frustrated. That’s the point. To make them think. Smashing things with stone is not as effective as a mortar and pestle, which is not as effective as an industrial mill. It gives them an appreciation for the amount of labor and time it takes to get usable food. They also gain an appreciation for agriculture and storage technology. This got them thinking about the notion of romanticizing the past and the idea that things were better. They quickly realize that it sucks to do things by hand. But, a lot of people on the planet still have to process food in very backbreaking, difficult ways. Grinding grain in class gave them an appreciation of how physical and backbreaking it is. And these students are people who have a lot of manual dexterity. They have all been trained as cooks, and they know how to use a kitchen and work with food. But none of them were prepared for how difficult it was. We were in the kitchen and they were upset because their hands were hurting and their ears were ringing—because it’s very, very loud to hit things with rocks for a long time. They can see why these different technologies may have developed.

Later, I took mercy on them, and had them mix some store-bought commercial flour with what they’d ground, in order to make it into something cookable. The point of this was to grind your flour and then eventually cook it into some kind of bread. They had an option of making any type of bread they wanted. It was open for them to decide because one of the points about agriculture and the development of technology is that our ancestors had to figure this out. They didn’t have a recipe book. So students started asking questions like, “Are there ways we can make this process happen faster?” I asked them to look at the kitchen. What technologies would they have had available to them in the past? Perhaps they had fire. The students started roasting grains, to see if that would make it easier to grind. Some of them boiled their grain down to a paste to see if that would make it easier. As they did this, I said, “This is what our ancestors did, too. They figured it out, because I’m sure they came to the same conclusion you did, which is: this sucks. I’m hungry, how do I make this faster?”

Grinding grains - 2

LRM:  Do you usually teach in a kitchen setting?

WZ: I’m usually in a traditional classroom, with the whiteboard and computers and desks and chairs. We do have kitchens available. The trick here on campus is that the kitchens are usually occupied. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to finagle my way into a kitchen and use that space, but I try and use activities that work in a classroom setting, as well. If I got stuck and couldn’t get a kitchen, I wouldn’t be able to do the part where they had to figure out other adaptive technologies like fire or boiling, but they could still do the grinding part where they get mortars and pestles and grind at a desk.

I try as much as I can to plan things that don’t necessarily require kitchens even though the kitchen is ideal for some of them. I try to think outside the box a lot, how to make this engaging and also pedagogically and academically valid. It takes a little bit of thinking out of the box, and the lot of willingness to trust your gut and experiment and to be willing to have it flop.Grinding grains - 4

LRM:  I wonder if you have other activities you could share that might work well in a traditional classroom setting?

WZ:  One of the things I have done with my anthro class to think about concepts like community and identity is have them look at community cookbooks. You can also do this with ethnic or international cookbooks. One of my favorites is the White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler. It’s a best-seller.  Students can think about how communities self-identify. Who are the self-identified people who buy a white trash cookbook? I have them pull out who the community is, what their values are. Are there certain types of foods that seem to be present? How do they describe themselves? Then, we talk about the narrative of the community, and how we present ourselves, and how much of this describes what the community actually is.

I also have them do mini participant observation either as part of class time or outside of class. It helps them understand sociocultural anthropology methodologies. I find that with students who have been trained as cooks, the challenge is not getting them to do the assignment, it’s actually getting them to reel back that chef’s hat. I have to say, “This is not a restaurant review, you’re not describing the food, you’re not describing the meal, or how you would have plated in it. But, what was actually going on around you?” I often get something that’s more of a restaurant review, and I have to say, “What was actually happening? What was the action, the drama in front of you? Or was there no drama?”

LRM: What do you want students to take away from your class?

WZ:  When I’m teaching the Anthropology of Food, I don’t expect them to remember who Franz Boas or Margaret Mead was. What I want them to get out of it, and remember a couple of months from now, or ten years from now, or maybe when they are very old and in their rocking chairs is: I want them to think outside of themselves for just a moment, and ask, how do I know this? Where am I getting this information? That’s always my key goal. It’s part of the nature of anthropology, to think about where cultural values and norms come from. That’s the one thing I always want my students to think about. To take a step back, and think, where is that coming from?

LRM: Do you feel like you achieve this?

WZ:  I hope so. For one ethnographic project, I had a group study people who drink alone in bars. They went to a local watering hole and they get permission from the owner to hang out there. They started the project assuming different things about why people drink alone. They assumed that these people are losers who didn’t have anybody to drink with. They found in their interviews that why people drink alone is much more complex. Some people didn’t truly drink alone. They went to the bar alone, but they ended up socializing with everybody at the bar. That was their way of socializing. Or people go to the bar alone to socialize without committing to a specific time with specific people. Other people like drinking alone just for the solitude, or it was just a quick drink to get out of the house. The students’ assumptions were really challenged. They always thought that drinking alone was embarrassing, but it wasn’t, necessarily.

LRM:  I wonder if you could speak a little bit to graduate student readers about working in an applied environment like the Culinary Institute of America?

WZ:  For anybody who’s coming from a traditional academic background or institution, teaching at a non-traditional institution can be incredibly rewarding and fun. For me, I’ve always had one foot in applied work anyway, and I felt like that was missing from traditional institutions. Here, I can do a lot of things that I’ve always wanted to do, that I wish I could have done in classes. It’s so rewarding to be able to do these hands on activities. And I think that’s something, particularly with this tight job market, and the difficulties of getting anything in academia. If you want to work in higher education, don’t discount these institutions. The students I have are very focused and driven because they are career minded. They are determined to do well and succeed, and they understand that they have to work hard. Those concepts make sense to them because they have to work in the kitchen from day one here. My advice would be to not dismiss these institutions. It’s so gratifying to be able to do this mixture of academics and also be very grounded. We get to think, and get to do at the same time.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology of food, Food Studies, teaching

One response to “Thinking, and doing: Willa Zhen on Teaching Anthropology of Food at the Culinary Institute of America

  1. Pingback: Anthropology Matters & Open Anthropology #AmAnth17

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