Building a “Web of Intrigue”: Teaching Food Studies

Pamela Runestad
Allegheny College

I presented a framework for building a Food Studies syllabus at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy on June 10, 2022. Thanks to positive responses from participants, I’ve converted the talk to blog form so that it can be easily found, adapted, and cited.


Strawberries in a hanging basket to avoid chipmunk predation. Photo by author.

There are infinite ways to teach food studies. Today, I’d like to talk about how I do it using my experiences teaching as an anthropologist in a global health program as an example. But rather than be prescriptive about what works in using food to teach global health, I present a framework for thinking about how scholars can build a “web of intrigue” that suits their research and teaching goals regardless of expertise or program. I hope this will be useful for people planning to write new food studies or food-related syllabi or revamp existing ones.

Both Global Health and Food Studies are sprawling fields, but I find students can generally be meaningfully drawn into multi-faceted conversations through food. Because of their general interest, food can be a starting point to encourage participation in discussions of higher order problems or questions crucial to global health such as how power, privilege, and justice influence health. Building a “web of intrigue” that connects food to pressing social issues can encourage students to relish the complexities of everyday life instead of being scared by them or reducing complexities to trite soundbites. Using food-related questions or problems, students can develop skills, too – something many people in the US think graduates of liberal arts colleges lack.

In 2015, anthropologists Candice Lowe Swift and Richard Wilk interviewed Sidney Mintz for their volume, Teaching Food and Culture. They asked him, “How did you manage to keep your students – and yourself – from being overwhelmed with such a wide variety and density of material?” To which he replied, “… A course in food studies must be organized in terms of a coherent series of questions or problems” (Lowe Swift and Wilk 2015, 29).

Mintz’s point is helpful, but how does one operationalize it in light of current pedagogical and social justice realities? A usable framework needs to utilize concepts such as backwards design (building assignments starting from learning outcomes); integrate justice, equity, diversity and inclusion principles; and navigate the labyrinthine options in food studies. In this way, it’s similar to cooking: You can make a lot of things in a kitchen. Having some parameters helps one decide what to make and how to do it.

The framework I propose includes:

  1. Academic Context
  2. Intellectual Frames/concepts
  3. Desired Skills
  4. Appropriate Assignments (methods specific)
  5. Source Selection
  6. JEDI

I discuss each of these points below, punctuated by pictures not from my research, but from everyday life with my family. This is the same move I make when I teach: it builds rapport with my students and gives them a chance to see that faculty have lives outside of the classroom. This is an important step in making connections between what we learn from academic study and how to connect that knowledge to everyday life. Note also that there are many points to start from, so even though this framework is numbered, syllabus creation is an iterative process like research and writing.

Chocolate-orange scones, baked in my mother’s kitchen. Photo by author
1. The Academic Context of Scholar and Course
My 8 year old, showing me that she likes to eat frozen broccoli. I try not to yuck her yum. Photo by author.

Let’s start with Mintz’s suggestion. How do you decide what that “coherent set of questions or problems” will be? Or, in my terms, how do you build that web that will draw in your students?

A question to think with is, whose questions? Who are the stakeholders, what are their goals, and where are the points of synergy?

The answers to these questions depend on the academic context in which a scholar is working and their training. Although it might seem like navel-gazing, demonstrating critical reflexivity by reflecting on positionality within your institution (and beyond it) can be instructive about what and how you teach. What is your discipline? Who trained you (think beyond academic mentors to include the everyday ways in which you learn)? What are your personal and academic blind spots? What can you offer your students that your colleagues cannot? Where can you improve? Who are your collaborators (how are your students your collaborators)? Write a blurb about yourself. If the instructor can think critically and honestly about their positionality, then the students can be encouraged to do it, too. Here are some things I share with students at various times, depending on what we’re talking about:

I’m a medical anthropologist who specializes in infectious disease and the role of food in health. My geographic area is Japan. I teach at a small liberal arts college (or SLAC) in Northwest PA with about 1550 undergraduates (we do not have graduate students), where there is no anthropology program and very little Asian Studies. I am housed in a Global Health Studies program, where I was hired specifically to teach ethnographic methods. I am one of a few people who do ethnographic research on campus, and the only one to identify as an anthropologist.  I’m one of 2 people in the program with expertise in food studies. I also used to teach a grad-level nutritional anthropology course at a previous position. (I find it helps to explain to my students why I focus on anthro and Asian and Pacific regions in particular, and how the ways we approach things might be practically different if I were teaching a class of 50 or 100 students, or in an anthro program.)

Nutritional anthropology has different origins in different places, but American nutritional anthropology developed out of the Society Medical Anthropology in 1974. I was trained by Nina Etkin, who occupied that space between medical and nutritional anthropology (as well as ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology) as it emerged; upon her death, I was also trained by medical anthropologist Eirik Saethre, and Japanologist and occasional food studies contributor Christine Yano. (We talk about formal teachers sometimes, and discipline vs field a lot – more on that below.)

I’m also a white, cis-het woman who grew up in Alaska, trained in Hawaii and South Dakota, and lived in Japan for 10 years. I have an extensive fictive kin network of people who I credit with teaching me everything from how to read Japanese food labels, how to beach comb for edibles, and to how to build a fire and cook over it.  Experiences in Alaska and Hawaii especially have taught me about food sovereignty and colonization, and the difference between food acquisition circumstances like subsistence, commercial, and sports fishing. I’m a mom and wife who loves to cook, so I’ve learned about cooking for and with children and food shopping on a budget. I’ve worked in various restaurants in both the front and back of the house so I also have some experience with both commercial food preparation and safety, and how customers make decisions about what to order, what to finish, and what to send back to the kitchen. (We talk about informal teachers, positionality, and experiences a lot!)

Of course, the instructor is only one stakeholder. Here are the other stakeholders (and some of their frameworks or expectations) that I consider when building a syllabus:

  1. The College: the College wants to train global citizen scholars, which is underpinned by our Mission, Statement of Community, and Institutional Learning Outcomes. (The Statement of Community is something I use in class and becomes the entry point for me introducing the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion as I aspire to do justice in teaching).
  2. The Global Health Studies Program: the program has learning outcomes that stress Global Health as an interdisciplinary field that solves health problems by being attentive to individual and population level circumstances, and uses a dimensions approach.
  3. My GHS colleagues: my team needs me to teach qualitative methods applicable to Global Health (in addition to core courses that *could* involve food)
  4. Me: I want to promote anthropology and Asian Studies, in a way that supports my commitments to justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion (JEDI)
  5. Students: my students are interested in contemporary social problems and trends
  6. Student supporters and future employers: they want students to learn “life skills.”

Finding the points of synergy and building a set of questions or problems based on that has been helpful to me. Not everything will always line up. Nothing is that perfect. But getting course outcomes to align with program and institutional outcomes and philosophical ideals can be achieved by mapping it out; meta-teaching some of these as appropriate can help students value what they’re learning. Research is not inherently interesting or understandable and must be explained or justified; similarly, why instructors are teaching what they’re teaching and how also need explication sometimes.

2. Theories, frames, concepts
My daughter (age 5) poses with a taro leaf in Hawaii. Photo by the author.

Setting the course also probably involves deciding on what frames, theories, or concepts will help organize the exploration of the issues so that the learning outcomes can be met.

So, what tools do you need as the instructor to organize the connections between the questions/problems and possible answers, or solutions, or perspectives?

In that same interview, Mintz compared food studies to area studies – a comparison that is particularly useful to me because I work in the field (not discipline!) of Global Health. And Willa Zhen, who is also trained as an anthropologist, published her very accessible Food Studies book in 2019, where she parses out clinical nutrition, gastronomy, and hospitality, alongside other disciplines like anthropology, sociology, economics, and history.  For me, it’s useful to compare global health, Asian studies, and food studies in class so I can work with my students to create an intellectual framework that we can use to organize our ways forward.

Discipline-specific terms like culture and positionality, types of anthropological theory such as biocultural vs cultural interpretive lenses, and methods like ethnography all play a strong role in my 200-level Anthropology of Food course, while field vs discipline and the contributions of x discipline to y studies is part of the background there. The reverse is true in more global health-oriented courses like the 400-level Global Health Nutrition.

For example, I can compare Food Studies (FS) and Global Health Studies (GHS) by giving 200-level students the following:

FS Definition: A field of study that utilizes interdisciplinary collaboration/perspectives to explore human relationships through and with food

FS 5S Framework (mine): we can consider food in terms of 1) Safety, 2) Security, 3) Sustainability, 4) Sovereignty, and 5) Sociality

Another possible framework: Food systems vs foodways as food landscape or foodscape (see Zhen 2019 for a summary appropriate for undergraduate students)

FS Terms (we usually build a list as a class): food, cuisine, meals, authenticity, satiety, famine…

GHS definition: A field of study that utilizes interdisciplinary collaboration/perspectives to explore population-level health issues (and individual experiences of those) that transcend political borders

GHS 4S Framework (Paul Farmer): 1) Staff, 2) Stuff, 3) Space, and 4) Systems (this is just one of many frameworks, and Farmer’s most policy-oriented one).

Allegheny’s GHS 4 Dimensions: Science and the Environment, Cultures and Societies, Power and Economics, and Ethics and Social Responsibility

GHS Terms: health, illness, disease, ultimate vs proximate causes…

By putting such frameworks side-by-side, we can talk about the role of taro, for example, in Native Hawaiian culture. We can talk about how the dispossession of Native Hawaiians is linked to the difficulty of maintaining foodways such as the natural resources and knowledge sharing required to grow taro and process it into food, and health disparities resulting from a colonizer-imposed diet. We can talk about the kinship relations between Native Hawaiians and taro, and why Hawaiians protested when the University of Hawai`i tried to genetically modify taro. We can discuss poi as a food staple and an acquired taste, and the nutritional benefits of letting it ferment. I can ask students where we find sustainability, sovereignty, sociality, safety, and security in the stories of taro in Hawai`i. I can ask them how they intersect. We can talk about research questions, and how we might go about finding answers to those questions.

Because my Anthropology of Food course is an elective in Global Health Studies, we can also talk about how food studies and global health approaches overlap or differ from one another and from a discipline like anthropology, and the ways in which questions and methods from different disciplines can help us understand the same topic from different angles. Contributions of various disciplines, rather than competition, can come to the fore.

3. Desired skills
My parents teach my daughter how to make a root beer float. Photo by author.

Another fundamental question: What skills or proficiencies do you want your students to work on?

There are many possibilities here, depending on what roles the course is supposed to serve in the larger curriculum. Some examples may include:

  1. Research literacy (such as critical reading, library use, source use)
  2. Writing, speaking, listening skills
  3. Collaboration skills
  4. Cultural fluency/positionality
  5. Field/discipline literacy
  6. Application of concepts/theories
  7. Application of methods

In my cases, some of my 100 and 200-level courses count for general education courses in writing and speaking or another graduation requirement, while others are methods courses or required or serve as electives for the Global Health major.

Another question to ask yourself: How can I facilitate the development of skills so that the students do the bulk of the work, but they have support and guidance?

For example, to respond to the dread some students express about group projects, I started to charge students with creating a collaboration agreement after groups are set. They negotiate their preferred communication form. They talk about their work patterns, their strengths, and their weaknesses when it comes to assignments. They agree on portioning out work and roles they will play (such as team leader, proofreader, etc.) so that they make use of one another’s talents, and can challenge themselves and each other. They agree to talk things through with each other if they have a problem, and come to me only when they need help solving a problem. I sometimes ask them to reevaluate their agreement if things are not working. I started this as a COVID measure, and it’s worked so well that I’ve started using it in most classes. I remind them that a lot of the work (service) I do on campus is collaborative, a lot of research is collaborative (pointing to our readings), and that employers across the board want employees who have a collaboration skillset. We talk about pitfalls like the person who takes over and the person who bails, and what personality and structural issues might lead to those realities. We talk about how to avoid those situations before we get into them rather than leaving it until I have to help them do damage control at the end of a term. I build reflections on collaborations into the attendance and participation portion of their grade, and I call that “Professionalization.”

4. Appropriate Assignments
Wailua Coffee Plantation, O’ahu. Photo by author.

Another fundamental question: What assignments will help students grapple with questions and hone the desired skills?

Again, this really depends on the overarching goals of the course in terms of content and skills, how it fits into the curriculum overall, and what level the course is. Some examples:

I taught a 100-level COVID-specifc course called “Eating through the Pandemic,” which was designed to engage our returning students in the summer-fall of 2020 after we experienced a hard shutdown in March 2020 and sent the students home. The College wanted faculty to build courses that would foster social ties between the students, faculty, and the College after that traumatic time. Personally, I wanted to teach a food class and I wanted to help students (and myself) process all the discord we were experiencing – from food shortages to isolation to racialized violence. I worked with the students to develop their final: they opted to make a cookbook that highlighted their recipes, and was bookended by the specialist knowledge they acquired through reading experts like Seth Holmes and Michael Twitty. You can see their work and the essay I wrote about it for Practicing Anthropology here.

In a writing and speaking focused 100-level course on material culture (called “Stuff that Matters”), I included a section on kitchens and the relationships that are forged in such spaces and through kitchen-specific items. We had the privilege of having Michael Twitty as our guest. You can read about the essay I wrote about that here on FoodAnthropology, in the post entitled Pandemic Ruminations.

In my 200-level Anthropology of Food course, students seemed to enjoy creating food kinship charts. Following Willa Zhen’s suggestion, I asked students to write out a kinship or chosen family chart (after talking about the history, uses, and problems of these as anthropological tools). They proceeded to mark the charts according to who had cooked for them, purchased food for them, taught them a recipe or some kitchen know-how, eaten formal or holiday meals with them, or shared food with them informally. (This list can be made with the class.) The final included a curated set of the projects they had done in class, and almost all the students included this chart in their final project. Others included meal ingredient mapping exercises, family recipe exploration, food video analyses, and food labs (such as making beverages, dumplings, or ramen).

My homemade blueberry jam, made from PA blueberries my family picked. Photo by author.

In my 300-level Ethnographic Methods course, students collaborate to create a research methodology centered on a food-related research question that can be answered by participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and a focus group. They do not conduct the research, but build the protocol based on American Anthropological Association ethics guidelines and a 20-source literature review/annotated bibliography (the bib is the midterm). They prepare for this by doing ethnographic activities much like those described by Janet Chrzan (in Lowe-Swift and Wilk 2015) and Carole Counihan (ibid). When helping them come up with their research questions, I give them my article in AsiaNetwork on maternity clinic foods in Japan.

5. Selecting Sources

Fundamental questions: What sources do you want to use to help your students engage with questions/problems? What examples do your sources set?

Snack spread at a “mama relaxation break” during a workshop. Photo by author.

There are a number of ways to choose sources. I often choose mine by thinking about the genre, the author, and the topic to make sure I have a variety and that the students become familiar with the various ways that anthropology can look in my 200-level course. For example, I have used:

Book Chapter: Cwiertka on Japanese expats’ experiences in the Netherlands

Peer-reviewed article: Allison on Japanese boxed lunches or Fukutomi on ramen

Monograph: Noodle Narratives by Gewertz, Errington and Fujikura

Ethnographic film: Brown’s “Can’t Go Native?”

Professional websites: SAFN, AAA

Popular sources: Parts Unknown in Okinawa, or Beryl on Japanese Sando

Notice these sources are all focused on Japan or Japanese diaspora so I can work in Asian Studies. There is inclusion of Japanese scholars, and not all non-Japanese scholars are American (although many are). If my course privileges a certain topic or source or type of author, it needs to be purposeful.

The 400-level nutrition course is interdisciplinary, so the sources range from nutrition science, epidemiology, econ, and history; it only includes some anthropology, so it looks a lot different than this list.

6. JEDI: Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Salmon caught in Kenai, Alaska through sports fishing. Photo by Jeff Runestad, used with permission.

Justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are not part of the class; they are built into every step of the course that precedes this section. It is common now to do course audits when you’ve built your syllabus to look for blind spots, but going into new courses – instructors can do this from the start. JEDI in my courses starts with me talking through our Statement of Community with my class (see the first section), so if your institution has one, it’s a good place to start when planning and it can be helpful for framing classroom rules of engagement. The questions I ask myself are:

  1. Who are my students, and how can I find out where they’re coming from so I can meet them where they are? (How will I continually build rapport?)
  2. Do my sources cover a range of authors and topics that are diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, religious experience, gender identification, sexual orientation, class, health status, and ability? Conversely, am I over- or under-privileging a topic or type of author in ways that don’t fit my goals?
  3. Are my sources diverse in terms of genre? (Different types of academic and non-academic sources, including readings, films, websites, and artwork)
  4. Do my assignments build on one another? (Are they incremental so that they build on one another or are they piecemeal)
  5. Are my assignments diverse in type so that one learning style is not advantaged over another? (Presentations, papers, illustrations, fast writes, discussions, quizzes, field exercises? Individual work versus group work? Graded vs drafts?) Does every student have a chance to show me what they learned? Does every student have the chance to be challenged and receive constructive feedback, but not feel punished if they struggle?
  6. If the goal is learning, am I rewarding that learning? Or am I too focused on “grades”? Are my students overly focused on grades? How can I help them value learning as a process rather than striving for a grade?
  7. Have I constructed a syllabus so that the students know what is expected of them, but is also flexible enough that I can change it if needs arise?
  8. Am I leveraging professional codes of ethics and/or institutional aspirations in helpful ways so that students can participate in the process of negotiating and challenging rules and norms?

In the sections above, I’ve operationalized Mintz’s suggestion to build a coherent set of questions or problems to build a food studies class. Although I’ve numbered these sections and put them in a particular order for readability, there are multiple possible starting points: alignment of goals, skills, sources, and assignments is an iterative process. I have been part of many discussions on backwards design of courses and assignments starting from outcomes, JEDI-specific approaches, and alternative grading schemes. There are several classic examples by researchers like Carol Counihan, Janet Chrzan, and Penny Van Esterik, to name just a few on classroom assignments for food studies. I’ve tried to put these points together to provide a de-mystified, flexible structure that can be used to build food studies syllabi so that scholars can use it to highlight what they want in their classrooms in strategic ways.  For me, it’s meant that students have become able to talk about liberation and oppression and the quest for justice; worker’s rights and agricultural policies; the politics of taste; climate change and the ramifications of food systems; and relationships between health and nutrition. They’ve become better versed in anthropology and Asian Studies, and developed a lot of practical skills like critical reflexivity (understanding positionality) that are useful in everyday life. It’s also my hope that by channeling their curiosity and intelligence, they’ll be better equipped to recognize and call out conspiracy theories and pseudoscience rather than get wrapped up in them.

They’ve stepped into my “web of intrigue” by engaging with food, and rather than run from complexity, they’ve embraced it – and found ways to connect their experiences to scholarly concepts and ideas. Those are the skills that I hope will make them responsible global citizens, valued workers, and generally fulfilled adults who I hope live happy and productive lives long after they leave the classroom. 

Elbert Laza and my daughter preparing to make paiai (pounded taro that is the basis for poi) using the board he carved by hand. Photo by author.
Helpful Resources

Counihan, Carole, Penny Van Esterik, and Alice Julier, eds. 2017. Food and Culture: A Reader, 4th Edition. New York: Routledge.

Crowther, Gillian. 2018. Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food, 2nd Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Dufour, Darna L, Alan H Goodman, and Gretel H. Pelto. 2013. Nutritional Anthropology: Biocultural Perspectives on Food and Nutrition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Klein, Jakob and James L. Watson, eds. 2017. The Handbook of Food and Anthropology. London:  Bloomsbury Academic.

Lowe Swift, Candice and Richard Wilk, eds. 2015. Teaching Food and Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Zhen, Willa. 2019. Food Studies: A Hands-On Guide. London:  Bloomsbury Academic.

Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition

Association for the Study of Food and Society

There may be institutional support for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts through a DEI officer or Dean at your institution, or through affiliation with LACRELA (Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance), which was started by Shaun Harper at USC.

For information on backwards design, see the work of Wiggins and McTighe, or check out an explanation here.

For a look into the world of ungrading or alternative grading, see the work of Jesse Stommel.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the Umbra Institute in Perugia for the invitation to participate in their food conference in June 2022, where this post was given as a talk. Director Zach Nowak and organizers Clelia Viecelli, Chris Fink, Manuel Barbato, and Olivier de Maret were wonderful hosts. Fellow panelists Matt Mariola and Whitney Barr made for a very thought-provoking panel on pedagogy with a lively Q&A. Krishnendu Ray and Viviana Rangil offered support in publication – many thanks for this encouragement. At Allegheny College, I wish to thank Ken Pinnow, Caryl Waggett, Rachel Weir, Catharina Coenen, Alexis Hart, and Heather Moore-Roberson for their continued mentorship and collegiality. Thank you to my students, too, who are often my best teachers. Thank you to my family members for letting me pull you into this project. And last but certainly not least, a special thanks to my husband Matt, and to my friends “The Harpies” who are always there during the hardest days and remind me what I love when I’m too exhausted to remember. COVID challenged us all, and I’m privileged to have each of you in my life.

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