Harvest Festivals and Hot Dog Picnics: Dr. Maureen Costura Discusses Active Learning and Archaeology at the Culinary Institute of America

This month, we hear from Dr. Maureen Costura, Associate Professor at The Culinary Institute of America. She discusses teaching anthropology at an applied institution, how she incorporates her archaeology background, and community engagement with her classes.

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: Will you tell me a little bit about yourself and your work?

Maureen Costura: I have a PhD in anthropology from Cornell University, where I focused on archaeology. I’ve done most of my research on 18th century societies in the Caribbean, and French-derived communities in North America. I did a three-year excavation at French Azilum, a town in northern central PA that was founded by refugees from the French and Haitian revolutions. We uncovered a roadway, what we think was an outbuilding, and verified the remains of a couple of other structures. One was a slave cabin, one was a plantation house. It was really interesting…these were people who were used to Versailles, and they were living nine days by flatboat upriver from Wilkes-Barre, the nearest big town.

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French Azilum and Wilkes-Barre, PA

LRM: You were the 2010 runner-up for SAFN’s Christine Wilson award for that project. Can you tell me how it connected to food? 

MC: One of the most interesting things that I found when I was excavating is that the diaries and the journals of the people who were living there complain about food. Practically every single journal contains entries about how there is no food, and they can’t keep the cattle alive, and the land is so poor, and there is nothing to eat. But when I was digging, what I found was a large quantity of pig bones, chicken bones, cattle bones, oyster shells and other shellfish, wine, and specialty ceramics for sugar that had been imported. Remember, it was 9 days by flatboat upriver. So these were people who had significant resources to expend on really high-end goods. And yet, to their minds, they’re starving to death.


LRM: What sense did you make of that?

MC: I came to the conclusion, from reading a lot of 18th century French gastronomy texts, that these people were not satisfied with what they had available to eat. The food would have all seemed low status. It would have seemed like food for the poor. These people were the aristocrats. They were living in hope that they would be able to reclaim their estates, and reclaim that status. I think part of the reason they emphasized how hungry they were, and how substandard the food was, was partially to reassure the people they were writing to that they were still intending to go back to the way things were. They weren’t settling in, they weren’t accepting it. They were continuing to resist these changes in circumstance.


LRM: How did you end up at the Culinary Institute of America?

MC: They were looking for someone who could teach anthropology of food, and also teach a class in French food and culture. I also really liked the idea of teaching students who are going to be using this material in a way that other students would not. These are students who have made a decision that their future is in the food industry. They have a goal, they have a destination. They know what they want to do. When they take this material about anthropology and culture, they are going to be incorporating it in a way that reaches out to a broader public than most academics get to touch—and I really like that idea.


LRM: Do you have specific goals for how you want them to apply this knowledge?

MC: Absolutely. They get very, very good at working with food, and knowing its physical properties. But the cultural aspects of food are not as widely addressed or understood. There is an assumption that the way they eat is in some way normal. And the way they’re taught to cook is in some way natural. I really want them to question that. I also want to see them use some of the stuff in an applied way. I’m really interesting in taking my students out into the doing things like a “Paleolithic day.” We do flint knapping, and grind acorns. We do this partly to show them that there are other ways of doing these things, and also to show them that people in the past were every bit as intelligent, and have as much to offer, as people today. Because that tends to get lost. And if they can take that and translate it into restaurant experiences or future business plans—that’s even better.


LRM: What classes do you teach?

MC: I’ve been here for four years, and I teach “Introduction to Gastronomy,” a mixed social sciences and humanities introduction; “Anthropology of Food”; “Ancient Foods in the Modern World,” where we look at Latin American foods, the cultures that they came from, contemporary controversies, and their introduction to the mainstream; “Food and Cultures of France,” which looks at global issues in food through the lens of French society, culture, and foodways; and the capstone project.


Image from flint knapping demonstration at CIA. Photo from https://goo.gl/vdpYHa

LRM: You mentioned grinding acorns and participating in a dig. What course do those fall into?

MC: Those are currently part of the Project in Applied Food Studies, but I’ve also done things like that in the Anthropology of Food. I’ve also done a campus-wide event in which we had a forager who came to give foraging walks, flint-knapping, and atlatl throwing, mead brewing, and things like that.


LRM: Can you tell me more about those activities, and how they fit into the course?

MC: The theme for this semester’s class is “Harvest.” The students are going to do a harvesting and gleaning map of the campus and surrounding areas. They will look for abandoned or ignored foodstuffs, gather them, process them in the kitchens, and then try to find a place that they can donate them. The lack of ability to donate—or the ability to donate—will relate to the food policy part of the course. They’re also going to look at harvest festivals, and research harvest festivals around the world. Then, they are going to put together a harvest festival. A component of that will be flint knapping, ancient grain or acorn processing, and sharing of various gathered foods. Hopefully, they will weave in some of their research on different cultures’ harvest festivals throughout the world and throughout history.


LRM: You mentioned that you have your students grind acorn. Acorns have to have special processing to be edible. Do you have your students go through that process, as well?

MC: I do. It’s very small quantities, and it’s more of an experiment to show them the type of work and skills that were needed. It’s a leaching process, because acorns are so bitter that they are inedible in their natural form, so you grind them down to flour. Then you wash the flour, and spread it out to dry, and you wash it again, and spread it out and let it dry. Depending on the acorn, and the season, and how ripe it was at harvesting, it can take several washes to leach all that bitterness out. And even then, they’re not very tasty. This semester, we didn’t have time to do this, since we had to deal with a set of demands around our new teaching garden. We ended up doing a lot of hands-on garden construction instead.

grinding acorns


LRM: How do students respond to that activity?

MC: Students here are very open. That’s one of the neat things about foodie students. They’ll try anything you throw at them. I had a student yesterday, for a class project, go out and forage and make tea out of pine needles and thyme. She brought it in and gave it to her classmates, and they all sat there eating her coulis of dogwood fruit and drinking this pine needle-thyme tea. It was great.


LRM: Since this course has rotating themes, what kinds of activities did previous classes do?

MC: The last class we worked with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt house site. They’re putting the Edwardian home garden back in. Our students did the research for them on what was grown. They got to see the archaeologists from the state start to do their work. They did a whole lot of experiential things, and then they put on Eleanor Roosevelt’s hotdog picnic as a fundraiser for the garden.


LRM: You mentioned Ancient Foods in the Modern World, and particularly the Latin America emphasis. What foods do you focus on in that class?

MC: We talk about ancient growing techniques. For example, the “terra preta de indio,” the Amazonian black earth that is very highly fertile, and could have an impact on climate change issues today. We talk about terracing in the Andes. We talk about some of the Andean crops that are no longer widely available, but are being reintroduced—things like quinoa and amaranth, which had an impact on ancient South and Central American civilizations, and are now very trendy food items. We look at the historical reasons for that, and the impact on current societies.

Image of terra preta de indio from the Pedra Chata archaeological site in Brazil


LRM: Much of what these students do is contemporary. How do they tend to respond to these historical projects?

MC: They really like them. Because they are taught to do things one way—very French, and grounded in the restaurant industry—they don’t have a lot of exposure to the idea that there are people who do things differently. What they think of as natural is based in one particular place and time. A lot of the time, something that would be covered in an introductory class somewhere else is mind blowing to them.


LRM: Do you have an example of something that’s been mind blowing?

MC: That’s a phrase one of my students used last semester. We were talking about the idea of being embedded in a place and a time, and having you own perspective be very grounded in your experience. They had never considered that! Another time, I took them on a walk to show them an archaeological site that’s here on campus, and I was talking about the politics of museums and collecting, and how museums are seeking to tell a story. There are people who pick the things that go in museums, and choose what to share about those artifacts. That idea had never crossed some of their minds. Things that, to us, can feel very basic are not for many students.


LRM: Can you tell me a little bit more specifically what it means to be teaching food, and to be an archaeologist?

MC: I find that, as an archaeologist, I have many points of similarity with my students who are chefs. They’re both studies that require a certain amount of hands-on knowledge. How do you know when a chicken is done? Well, by seeing when the chicken is done. How do you know how to lay out and dig a unit, or how to identify a feature? Well, by seeing units and features being done and learning it. That type of hands-on learning gives me an avenue to connect with them. I don’t have a lot of scope for doing excavation at this point. I’m hoping that will change in the future, but that’s one drawback—the trimester schedule here does not allow for a long field season. But there are other ways I bring that training to bear on the ways that I teach and the ways that I put classes together. Luckily, we do have this archaeological site on campus. I’m working to bring it into the classes, and hoping to start an excavation class at some point in the future.


LRM: The site on campus–is it related to food?

MC: It might be. Part of the site is a late 18th/early 19th century farm site. Another part is connected to the agricultural production of the seminary. So we can talk about food production and the agricultural history of the Hudson valley as a support center for New York City, shipping along the Hudson River, and things like that. With archaeology, you don’t really know for sure until you open up the ground and dig.


LRM: You came from Cornell to CIA. When you were teaching at Cornell, were you able to use any of the hands-on approaches you now use at CIA?

MC: I did. Cornell has this great program, the Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines. It encourages graduate students to put together first year writing class that are also disciplinary. They want us to be very creative. I taught one that was based in anthropology, called “The Sense of Place” and it was focused on this idea of embeddedness and experiential learning. Some of my current activities are taken from that. I did the atlatl demonstrations and flint knapping in another class called “So You Want to Be a Cave Man?” It was about taking experiential learning and getting students to reflect on their own experiences through that lens.


LRM: How would you compare doing those activities at Cornell to the Culinary Institute?

MC: The students at CIA tend to have a wider range of past experiences to draw on. Many of them have spent time in the hospitality industry. I would have fewer qualms about telling a student here, “Ok, we’re going to put together a fund raiser, and we’re going to be cooking the food for it, and we’re going to find out how to get permits.” There is another level of maturity. Many of the students at Cornell were much more used to grappling with the in-depth academic articles and scholarly journals, for which students here need a bit more coaching.


LRM: Can you tell me a little bit about the readings you assign? Do you use a textbook?

MC: I don’t use a textbook. I tend to assign book sections. For a lot of these students, this is the only anthropology or archaeology class they will ever take. I want to give them a good cross section. In my upcoming Anthropology of Food class, I’m going to start talking a little bit about food in human evolution—give them a little bit of Richard Wrangham, and then give them some of the sources that contradict Wrangham and provide differing evidence, and make them argue about that. I’m also going to use portions of Richard Wilk’s Home Cooking in the Global Village. I’ll be using some of Jane Fajans’ work on Brazilian food, race, and identity. I really am a huge fan of Barbara Voss’ Archaeology of Ethnogenesis, and we’ll talk a little bit about that. Then, I use some articles from the Food and Culture Reader, as well.


LRM: Can you tell me a little bit about using the Archaeology of Ethnogenesis?

51-lpcb91jl-_sy344_bo1204203200_MC: It’s dense, but I pick selections for them. It’s a way to see, through Voss’ research, a culture in the midst of change, of self-defining; an ethnicity in the midst of creating itself. I think one of the issues that a lot of researchers tend to come up against is the problem of essentializing the culture you research. You’re saying, “this is what it is,” and that misses the “this is how it changes, this is what it was, this is what it’s becoming, this is how it might have evolved if it hadn’t met this moment.” I really like that.


LRM: And how about Jane Fajans’ work? That’s another we haven’t heard about in the interview series.

MC: She wrote a recent book about food, race, and identity in Brazil. She looked at things like the idea of purity in recipes. What is taken out if you’re calling a recipe more “pure”? And what is left in, and what can that tell you about the different attitudes toward racial ingredients?


LRM: Several months ago, I read an interview with you about the CIA’s new Applied Food Studies program. It sounded like the program has an environmental focus. Can you tell me a little more about that?

MC: It has a sustainability focus. One of the things the food industry is grappling with, and that many of our students are very interested in, is this role of the chef as a social commentator or activist. People are increasingly looking at chefs to talk to them about food. And given how much food is implicated in issues of climate change—the food industry, the agricultural industry, the question of GMOs and herbicides and pesticides—all of these are things that chefs have very strong opinions about. One of the goals of the program is to discuss all the ways food is impacting our society and our culture, globally and here on campus.


LRM: Do you bring these sustainability issues into the courses you teach?

MC: To some extent. I talk about terra preta de indio, the anthropogenic soil that ancient peoples in the Amazon made. It hasn’t ever been fully replicated. But it has implications, because it can prevent things like fertilizer use. It actually sequesters carbon at ten times higher the normal rate (of soil). So, I’m talking about archaeology, and I’m also talking about, “how can we use this today?”


LRM: That’s a very forward-looking approach. 

MC: If we can’t make an impact on the future while studying the present and past, it’s a pretty dry profession.


LRM: Can you speak to working and teaching at a less-traditional institution?

MC: There are challenges here, just like there are at a research institute. I don’t have the constant publication pressures. On the other hand, that’s because there isn’t a whole lot of time in the schedule to pursue research. We finish a class and we start another one the next day. We have a new group of students coming in to the bachelor’s program every 15 weeks, and to the associate’s program every 3 weeks. That 3-month summer break where you can pursue fieldwork and research and publication just isn’t there. On the one hand, there are great opportunities here. There are fantastic opportunities for teaching. You can be involved in developing programs and developing coursework in a way that you may not get to at other places. But if you want to pursue independent research, it’s something you really have to have the passion and time for, because it’s not going to be supported the same way. And you have to make your peace with that.


LRM: Thank you for taking the time to contribute to the SAFN Food Pedagogy Series! Your hands-on approach and ability to incorporate archaeological approaches is inspiring. Now I want to teach a course called “So you want to be a cave man?”




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