Category Archives: teaching

A Food Anthropologist at the John Dewey Kitchen Institute

Rachel Black
President, Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition
Connecticut College

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the John Dewey Kitchen Institute at the University of Vermont. The goal of this three-day workshop was to “emphasize experiential education, of course in teaching about food but also as an important pedagogical approach for teaching any subject.” As a long-time believer and practitioner of hands-on learning, I was eager to hone skills and think more about how to create opportunities for experiential learning in my anthropology of food classes.

Getting our senses warmed up straight away, we passed around, smelled and identified plates of herbs and spices. The instructors then asked the 12 participants to think of a life experience we could relate to a specific herb or spice. These flavorful narratives were a great way to get to know each other. At this point, we also began to discuss John Dewey’s philosophy of education, which would provide the underpinnings for our activities and reflections over the next few days. Instructors Lisa Heldke and Cynthia Belliveau gave the class a list of 12 Deweyan tenets. These ranged from “Education is experience” to “Enquiry is value-laden”. The tenets were an attempt to answer the questions: “What does it mean to learn, and how should that understanding inform our teaching and learning in the food studies classroom?” and “What is the world like, how does inquiry work, and how should these inform our teaching/learning?”


Using all our senses to think about lunch at the Dewey Kitchen Institute.

After a brief kitchen orientation, we engaged in our first hands-on activity–knife skills. We were instructed how to chop onions and carrots and then given knives, cutting boards and ingredients. What became quickly apparent was the amount of focus the activity took, whether you were a professional chef or someone who eats out for most meals. This is when I began to understand that the goal here was not learning to cook but rather cooking to learn. It was the reflection on the embodiment of skill and the presence of the mind in the body that resonated with me in this first lab. This activity was focused on the fifth tenet “play”: “Far from being trivial, play is “interested absorption in activity for the sake of activity itself.”

A diagram of mise en place.

A diagram of mise en place.

The next day we discussed the concept of mise en place and how this type of kitchen organization task might be used to get students to think about planning and organization in new ways. As we drew out our mise en place, I began to think about the spatial relationships between sensory experiences. That was a new dimension for me. I never really gave much thought to where I put my ingredients and why. After some reflection, we  began to prepare lunch. This was an activity that not only fed us but taught us to think about divisions of labor and timing in the kitchen. This activity could be seen as an exercise in “education as a practice of democracy”. Having to organize ourselves and work together put this tenet in to action. I began to think about all the applications for such skills beyond the kitchen.

We did a number of tastings in the course, from the herbs on the first day to local craft beers on the last day. We were not provided with tasting sheets but we did discuss the different ways in which we might structure tastings in order to achieve specific learning outcomes. Here we explored the tenet “theory is practice” and how “when theory and practice operate together effectively, learners act reflectively and inquiringly, with a sense of purpose and for the sake of learning.”

On the last day, we were given a market basket and asked to cook lunch in teams. We were told that our dish had to embody one of the Dewey tenets. This was a challenging culinary and organizational task. My partner and I focused on “chance and change.” Although we ultimately produced some tasty poached eggs on toast with a romesco sauce, we felt that the experience was mediated by this tenet: we did not know what we would get for ingredients, what would happen in the cooking process, and we felt the need to adapt to the unexpected.

As an anthropologist, I kept thinking about the ways I could introduce cultural diversity in to these exercises. While Dewey’s philosophy is second nature to most of us who do fieldwork, this workshop was an opportunity to bring the worlds of food studies and anthropology together. As I prepare my courses for the fall semester, I will be thinking of ways to bring experiential learning scenarios in to my anthropology of food courses.


Cooking to learn.


Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food education, Food Studies, teaching

Review: Teaching Food and Culture

Teaching Food and Culture. Edited by Candice Lowe Swift and Richard Wilk. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2015. 209 pp. US$39.95, paper. ISBN 978-1-62958-127-9.

Review by Chelsea Wentworth, PhD, MPH
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, High Point University

In Teaching Food and Culture Swift and Wilk present a compilation of papers that use food “to transform research into pedagogy,” arguing that food is a productive medium to Teaching Food Big Coverengage students in the core themes and topics of anthropology. One of the strengths of this volume is the editors’ commitment to all four subfields of the discipline; however, every author demonstrates a commitment to a holistic approach to teaching and research that is reflective of the trans-disciplinary nature of the study of food. Several authors specifically mention that assignments can be adapted to courses in a range of disciplines including gender studies, communications, public health, religion, economics, and history, giving the volume a broad readership. After presenting an overview of the chapters and the goals of the book in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 is an interview with the late and notable food scholar Sydney Mintz. The interview took place via email correspondence and is Mintz’ thorough responses to three questions posed by the editors of the volume.

Section II of the book, Nutrition and Health, begins with a chapter on “Teaching Obesity: Stigma, Structure, and Self.” The authors of Chapter 3 describe the ways they use the topic of obesity to address key concepts in their upper and lower division undergraduate courses on anthropology and global health including poverty, discrimination, and responsibility. While they describe the sensitive nature of teaching obesity and problems that can arise in having students research and debate this topic, more concrete examples of how to avert these problems in the classroom would be beneficial. In Chapter 4, Sept describes how she structures her upper division archaeology course, Prehistoric Diet and Nutrition. Blending biological anthropology and archaeology she links studies of genetic change and the development of taste, with popular culture trends in food such as the paleo-diet. She details a related in-class scenario-building exercise that prepares students for debates on hunting and scavenging. After providing a brief history of the development of nutritional anthropology and the biocultural approach to food in Chapter 5, Wiley outlines the history and social life of milk. A detailed semester-long assignment presented in the appendix guides students through their own single-food project, yet the body of the chapter itself could be strengthened by more classroom examples.

The three chapters of Section III: Food Ethics and the Public offer the most pedagogical insight with discussion of activities and student’s responses to these approaches. First Benson (Chapter 6) describes three different assignments he has used to emphasize the role of food in the study of consumption, explaining how they “…[have] students look inside themselves at their own issues of dependency and habituation as well as upward at the powerful institutions that make the myths and realties of consumption” (111). This balance is carefully analyzed in several other chapters including Chapters 7, 8, and 12 where the notion of linking research and praxis, and demonstrating how the personal is political are emphasized. In Chapter 7 Counihan describes her research and teaching that encourages her students to reexamine the places where food is produced, purchased, and consumed. Using Lancaster’s historic farmers market, she provides students with a central research question, “Does Central Market promote a just and community-building system of food production and consumption?” This guides students through ethnographic research on the intersections of food, gender, class, race, power, economics, and politics. Service learning courses that address these same themes are the focus of Chrzan in Chapter 8. By offering readers a history of her service learning courses, she describes her successes and failures, allowing readers to avoid these pitfalls in their own courses. The active ethnographic requirements of the assignments in these chapters illustrate how students learn to apply anthropology beyond academe in ways that also promotes food justice and democracy.

Finally, the chapters in Section IV: Food, Identity, and Consumer Society discuss identity creation and how food and eating can illustrate “otherness”. Sutton and Beriss (Chapter 9) explain how place, identity, and community can be analyzed through an exploration of restaurants. However it seems that Chapter 9 would be better suited to the third section of the volume. Chapters 10 and 11 accentuate the role of language in the study of food. Stross (Chapter 10) presents a narrative of his syllabus, and highlights several innovative in-class activities. In Chapter 11, O’Connor explains how she uses food to teach semiotics with an emphasis on helping students understand the relationship between theory and method.  In the final chapter, Van Esterick reviews her decades of research and teaching on food, discussing how her research informed her teaching, which in turn informed new research. She writes poignantly about the emotional reactions experienced by both scholars and students through discourse on family, hunger, health, and disordered eating.

Several authors reflect that their courses on food attract a diversity of students making teaching both challenging and enjoyable as they learn from their experiences. As students grapple with how to analyze personal experience in an academic context, food becomes a tangible and emotionally charged vehicle for applying anthropological theory. In teaching anthropology courses, this is not an uncommon problem. However, this volume could benefit from deeper discussion of how to handle pedagogical challenges in the classroom. While ethical dilemmas such as students who struggle personally with issues such as food security and eating disorders are regularly mentioned, precisely how these problems are resolved in the classroom is largely absent (with Chrzan’s chapter a notable exception).

This volume will be of most use to graduate students and professors who are preparing to teach new courses, or wish to infuse their existing courses with new assignments, activities, and articles. Nearly every chapter includes expansive reference lists for readings and films, and many authors list website URLs for resources and classroom activities. A major strength of the volume is that most authors describe a specific assignment used in their course that is subsequently listed in the appendix. These assignments are excellent additions to the volume, providing easily adaptable teaching examples for readers.

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Integrating Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities in the Food Systems Program at the University of Vermont

Today, we will hear from Dr. Amy Trubek, Associate Professor of Nutrition & Food Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences discussing University of Vermont’s Food Systems program. This post is part of SAFN’s Food Anthropology Program series, which features an undergraduate or graduate food anthropology program in each post. If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate a food anthropology program for the series, please email the series coordinator, M. Ruth Dike.

Ruth Dike: When/how did the Food Systems program at the University of Vermont (UVM) begin?

Amy Trubek: The impetus for developing food systems programs came from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). We started with an undergraduate minor in 2008 which is now established with an average of 50-65 minors every year.  We wanted to create a graduate program that looked at the intersection of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities and extend the way that we understand food and agriculture from a systems point of view. So we wrote a proposal for a food systems graduate program. The program enrolled its first students in 2012 and we have had three years of an MS program and next year will be the first official year where we enroll both MS and PhD students.. We currently have enrolled 17 Master’s students and we have 9 that have completed the MS degree.

During this period, a group of new faculty were hired in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who had background in looking at food and agriculture from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives, but especially new faculty with a social science background. Eventually the interest in food systems extended beyond CALS and became part of a university-wide initiative to promote transdisciplinary research.Vermont flowers

MRD: What is the focus of your program and its strengths?

AT: The focus of our program lies in asking students to think about the interdependency and the complexity of the contemporary food system.  Also, we say that in order to really fully be able to analytically capture what happens in a food system, you have to use a transdisciplinary approach in terms of your conceptual framework and research questions and then use mixed methods in  terms of the form, or the ways in which you do research. So, we’re very interested in imagining research in relation to food systems related problems and creating an engaged learning experience. We don’t tend to have students doing purely theoretically driven theses. We have students do work with philosophers, anthropologists, agro-ecologists and others and they might be doing a mix of theoretical analysis and empirical research. The underlying consistency is that we always want the research frame to be posing a question about what is happening in the food system and what might be able to make it a different food system in the future.

MRD: Great. I noticed you use transdisciplinary- is that different from interdisciplinary?

AT: So transdisciplinary research can be defined as when people work together and to come up with a sort of set of problems and research questions within those problems and in that process you’re not holding onto your disciplinary frame- you’re actually moving beyond discipline to work through an engaged process of inquiry. The inquiry is driven by the problem, rather than the disciplinary frame. There’s a theory that if you have an interdisciplinary research team, the anthropologist says, “Well I’m the anthropologist on the team and this is what I do.” Whereas if it’s a transdisciplinary research team, everyone is in the entire process together.

MRD: What roles does anthropology play in your program?

AT: We are actually sort of unusual here at the university having two anthropologists who focus on food, so there are two of us actively mentoring students.  I also teach one of the required seminars for the Master’s and PhD students and we’ve also required a qualitative methods course. Also, I would say that in our graduate seminars we rely on an emergent open-ended research inquiry approach very similar to the discipline of anthropology. We want to think about understanding food and agriculture not solely from an individualistic frame or a market commodity frame.

MRD:  Would you like to talk about why you decided to do both an undergraduate and graduate degree program?

AT: I think there’s a real consensus here at the University of Vermont that food systems is a very important framework for learning and doing for the future. There’s a commitment to do that idea of addressing the complexity by using systems thinking, of moving outside the box and arguing that it would help both the academy and people on the ground if we could become more sophisticated and complex thinkers around food from a systems point of view.vermont flower

MRD: Could you talk a little bit more about what the systems point of view is?

AT: Well, you don’t want to bracket your thinking, or as is often said “stay in your silo.”  So you don’t say, “I’m interested in consumption, and I’m just going to look at consumption and the meaning of rituals and food, from the point of view of what happens- consumption of food in a ritual. But instead, with systems think you are encouraged to say, “Wait a second, how does that food in that ritual somehow work in relation to other issues in the system such as the way that food is produced or the way that food is transformed?” “How might meaning be produced through the entire system?”  So it’s pushing students and faculty to say, “Wait, am I being too simplistic, do I need to understand and incorporate other elements of the system if I’m going to try to make sense of the structure and meaning of this ritual.”

What I see in my own research collaborations is that systems thinking moves me beyond the way that I was trained in anthropology to become a broader and more flexible thinker. It’s been an interesting process for me to increasingly work on mixed methods projects and to really see the benefit of understanding what a larger scale quantitatively-based study might do for capturing some elements of the problem that I’m trying to look at. I’m doing a transdisciplinary project with a number of people from food science and nutrition and anthropology. We’re looking at a concept of food agency where we’re trying to capture how people become empowered to act in relation to meal preparation. I really see the benefits of embarking on both a fine-grained qualitative interview and observation approach but also working on developing a scale of food agency. I think there are things that we can do with the large scale that will both elaborate upon and extend anything that I could do if I just did it as a qualitative project. I think that’s the type of thing that really happens when you take a systems approach.vermont students

MRD: It’s more holistic- you get a broader point of view. Do most students attend the program full time or part time?

AT: For the Master’s program you can choose and we have about 20% part-time students but the PhD will be a full-time program. But we’re definitely moving the design of the program such that you could do it part time and where you wouldn’t always have to be resident here, sort of a hybrid. But it’s going to take a while to move it in that direction. That’ll probably happen over the next 5 years.

MRD: Are any courses being offered online right now?

AT: Yes, Food Systems & Public Health is offered online. We are also going to have an on-line graduate certificate in agro-ecology that students can pursue as part of the Master’s or PhD probably starting next year. It will be almost all online with maybe one or two intense small residency courses.

MRD: How would you describe the diversity of the students in your program?

AT: We definitely have disciplinary diversity with students coming from disciplines as far afield as anthropology, animal science, engineering, and music. We also have both traditional students and returning professional students. In terms of ethnic and racial diversity of the makeup of the student, we track Vermont, which is not typically diverse but we do have Latino students and one international student now.vermont cheese 1

MRD: What ties do you have to the local Vermont community?

AT: We have a number of different ways in which we have ties to the local community. At the undergraduate level, we have the food systems internship program. So you can get internships with different organizations in the area working in food, agriculture and/or food systems change. In the graduate program we have a required applications seminar for the Master’s program and it’s optional for the PhD. The seminar is a service-learning class and every year the students work through issues with a community partner on a project rooted in an issue of Vermont’s food system. In Vermont, we have a universal composting law that’s starting in about a year. So last year students worked with the Solid Waste Management District and the Natural Resources state-level department on social media campaigns and other issues regarding the most effective way to reach consumers. This year students will work on a project with the Vermont Land Trust on persistent multigenerational issues relating to land tenure in the state. One of the great benefits of living in a small rural state like Vermont is that there is a lot of interaction between the university and the community because it’s a small place and everybody knows each other.

MRD: Is the applications seminar the same as the immersion credit?

AT: So the travel immersion experience is a separate thing for Master’s students where students are to have some kind of immersion experience where they’re in an environment where they’re looking at or thinking about the food systems from the view of a particular environment. It can be a class and we’ve had a class that is called Milk to Maple, which is Vermont’s food system and that’s been a travel immersion class all around the state. We have something called the Break Through Leaders class which is a class where people from all over the United States and the world come together and it’s a credit and non-credit course where they have experiences exploring Vermont’s food system and developing leadership skills. This year we’re starting a travel immersion graduate class on food and migration in Mexico and in Vermont. They’re going to experience both what the food system is like in Mexico and examine the fluid dynamic migration system between Mexico and the United States, not just of people but also of foods. The requirement can also be fulfilled through an immersion internship experience.

MRD: How much is tuition for your program? Are there scholarship or fellowship opportunities?

AT: For the Master’s program it’s a 32-credit program and it will cost approximately $45,000 for out-of-state tuition and about $20-25,000 for in-state tuition. We have a limited number of fellowships for the Master’s program and we will have assistantships for the PhD program because we’re going to fund all of the students we accept into the PhD program. We believe in fully funding for four years, if you come in with a Master’s. If you don’t come in with a Master’s we will try to fund you for the full time, which will probably be around 5 years.

MRD: What’s the length of the PhD program?

AT: It’s going to be a 3 to 5 year PhD program depending if you come into the program with a Master’s and what you study. If you’re not going somewhere else to do research, it’s going to be a different experience.

MRD: That makes a lot of sense. How many fellowships are there available for the Master’s students?

AT: It’s variable but we do have a particular fellowship called the Food Systems Innovation Fellows Program. Two fellowships will be awarded per year and these Fellows will do work with UVM Dining to do a series of goals and indicators for creating a sustainable and local dining program at UVM. We use the Real Food Challenge but we’re also adding other indicators for saying what we think a dining program should be like at UVM. It’s a part time one-year fellowship, including a 10-hour a week stipend and approximately 9 credits.

MRD: Is the 32-credits for the Master’s program a 1-year program or a 2-year program?

AT: You can do our program in 12 months. Most people are going to do it in 18 months. Basically you can do it starting September 1st and be done by September 1st or you can do it September 1st and be done by December 15th. It’s really like a 12-16 month program depending on whether or not you decide to take classes during the summer.vermont cheese 2

MRD: What sets your program apart from other food studies or anthropology programs?

AT: I think it’s really the fact that we’re really trying to bridge between natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. We try to get students to become competent thinkers and doers around the food system, giving them the intellectual and practical skills that will allow them to successfully navigate. We also have tremendous engagement with the food system and food systems players in Vermont, so you can really learn a lot by being here.

MRD: What do your graduates go on to do after the program?

AT: We just started so we’ve only had a couple years of students but we have somebody working at the USDA as an agronomist, someone working at the Vermont Department of Agriculture, another working the Health Policy Institute that’s trying to integrate food systems work into health policy issues. We have somebody working at a newspaper, a couple of people working at non-profit organizations that are doing food and food-related work, and somebody is a sustainability manager for an institutional dining vendor. They have been able to access lots of different types of jobs.

MRD: That’s great. Do you mostly see your future PhD graduates as more applied anthropologists or scholars rather than just as pure academics?

AT: Yes, I think that our PhD will be robust and rigorous and you could get an academic job from it, but it will be a mix in terms of transdisciplinary approach and disciplinary specificity so it will look a certain way for a graduate.

MRD: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

AT: I think it’s a really exciting and emerging field, ripe with possibility. Although it is never easy to build new ways of thinking and doing about the world, the time seems right for bringing together the last century of disciplinary based inquiry and integrating the best ideas, methods and precepts in new ways for the 21st century, both in the academy but also beyond.

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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


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

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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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

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.

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Filed under anthropology of food, Food Studies, teaching

“It completely changed my mindset” Clara Broomfield with a Student’s Perspective on the Course “Food and Culture”

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

Last week, we heard from Prof. Aimee Hosemann about her class “Food and Culture.” In this interview, we have the opportunity to hear from Clara Broomfield, a student in Hosemann’s class. Broomfield discusses the use of popular media in the classroom, and how incorporating popular media can increase students’ ability to think critically about the media they encounter daily. She also reflects on effective ways to engage students about food, making a lecture hall a more dynamic learning environment, Canvas, and the textbook Eating Culture.

If you would like to participate, or would like to nominate an excellent instructor for the interview series, please email

Lauren Renée Moore: To start with a fairly general question, what did you take away from this class?

Clara Broomfield: My perspective on food has completely changed from before I took the class. I was talking to some other students, and they felt the same way. There are just so many things I wouldn’t have thought to consider when discussing food. Like, you really have to think a lot about race and language use. Also, there’s a big emotional aspect that didn’t really occur to me before. When you’re dealing with food, you really have to pay attention to the fact that you’re dealing with peoples’ livelihood and culture. It’s very emotional, and so I think taking this class really highlighted that aspect for me—which was a big revelation for me.

LRM: Was there a particular assignment, lecture, or reading that really revealed that for you?

CB: It was definitely cumulative, but I could feel it from the very beginning, because we had these things called commensality practicums. When we would talk, I remember… the first one, we sat down and started talking about the cookbook that we wanted to do. We were all just eating, and then everyone started to jump into this discussion… we started to share stories about our memories and our experiences with food. We worked our way around to food in the prison system and the idea of food security, and I just remember that experience was really intense, because you could tell that people were engaging on a level that was more than just academic. I think that was where I really first began to be aware of the emotional aspect.

LRM: Did you feel like Prof. Hosemann guided this conversation, or was taking you to any particular point?

CB: I think it started that way, but then she sat back, ate her kale salad, and was like, “You know what, these kids got this. I’m just gonna let them do what they need to do.”

LRM: Do you think that approach to the discussion was effective?

CB: It really was. I think that was something she tried to do with most of her classes. She may have had end goals—she’s one of those sneaky people, like that. She’ll get you to go where she wants you to go. But she always was really open to letting [the students guide the discussion] and setting aside her own agenda, which I think was helpful.

You never knew what was going to happen in that class. You’d walk in, and who knows what we would be talking about. Obviously there was a syllabus, we’d start there, but that wasn’t necessarily where we would end up, and it was an exciting process.

LRM: You’ve taken other classes in a lecture hall format, and I wonder if this course uses that lecture hall space in a different way than other classes?

CB: One thing I have not seen any of my other lecture classes do: Prof. Hosemann may be up there lecturing with the PowerPoint, but the whole time, she’s asking you questions. It’s almost like a discussion format rather than a straight lecture. You’re integrated a lot into the lecture. Everyone in the class has the opportunity to speak and say things, and if you have an idea that isn’t directly related, you’re totally okay to share that—and it may change the entire trajectory of the class.

The way she did that back-and-forth between what was on her slides versus what we were thinking is very different from any other lecture class I have taken, where it was just ‘sit down and listen to a person talk for an hour.’

LRM: How does that impact your experience of the course?

CB: I think it motivates you, because the class depends on the student interaction. You make the class what you want it to be. If you don’t come prepared, and if you haven’t done the readings, you might just sit in silence for 10 minutes and she’ll wait for someone to say something. It puts pressure on you to engage with the material, which is not something I felt at all in any of my other lecture classes.

LRM: She waited for 10 minutes for someone to speak?

CB: I warned my friends before they took the class: you have to do the reading. If she asks you a question and she wants you to answer it, she just waits for you. It might not be for 10 minutes, it might be for 60 seconds, but it felt like forever. Certainly long enough for someone to speak up. I always thought that was interesting…she wasn’t going to let you get away with not wanting to answer the hard questions.

LRM: Do you feel like more students read in preparation for this course as compared to other courses you’ve taken?

CB: Absolutely. Sometimes, we would even discuss the readings outside of class. On the other hand, I’ve had classes where I haven’t done any of the readings, because I didn’t have to. I did every single one of her readings, which is a lot. They were interesting, relevant, and enjoyable to read.

LRM: Did you find the readings challenging (beyond the page length)?

CB: Absolutely. They were challenging in a lot of different ways, depending on the subject matter. For example, we read this one piece, and it included transcriptions of children having discussions with their parents over dinner. I remember reading those and just getting angry reading them, and frustrated! A lot of times, the pieces she would give you would piss you off, or they drew some kind of intense emotion that you were not expecting.

LRM: That was Paugh and Izquierdo’s piece. What pissed you off about it?

CB: I think it was… it wasn’t just me, that was the funny thing. Several people had that reaction. It was just reading them, and seeing where the parents were screwing up and being hypocritical, and also just seeing the morality issues there… it was just frustrating to read, especially since many of us had been in that situation, and we kind of conjured up those memories of being a kid and wanting to have the lemonade but having to drink your milk, and that whole frustration. That one [reading] really got to me. I just felt for those kids.

LRM: I wonder if there were any other readings that stuck out to you ask much as this one did?

CB: There are so many different ones… definitely another one that we talked a lot about was the mock spanish article, it was Rusty Barrett’s article on Chalupatown, “Language Ideology and Racial Inequality: Competing Functions of Spanish in an Anglo-owned Mexican Restaurant” and working there. It stuck out to me because I have had a very similar experience, and many students expressed that as well, having similar experiences with these issues of race and language surrounding food.

LRM: Can you tell me about the textbook? Many courses use the Crowther textbook Eating Culture, but I’ve never heard about it from a student perspective. 

CB: That’s an interesting question. I kind of went back and forth with this textbook. I’m glad that we had it, because it definitely provided a theoretical backbone, which I think was necessary and I couldn’t really get from other places. There were parts of the book that were super engaging, and there were other chapters that were just dry and dense… it depended on the section.

LRM: Which sections were particularly dry, or that you felt like you could do without?

CB: I think I could have done without the sections on cooking, probably. Other bits and pieces throughout as well. Part 5, “Digesting,” about food insecurity, wasn’t as interesting as it could have been.

LRM: What from the textbook was great?

CB: The section on eating in and eating out, for sure. Also, the section on edibility. I really enjoyed talking about “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and our classifications of nutrition and health—I think that was really interesting. I really, really enjoyed the “Theoretical Trifle” at the beginning. The whole idea of setting a dinner party… You could use that piece alone in a class, as an introduction.

LRM: You mentioned that the course made really good use of Internet resources and contemporary materials. Can you talk about that?

CB: I think one of the things I enjoyed is that any time Prof. Hosemann would have a PowerPoint, it would always be filled with these memes or something off the internet that was ridiculous but that fit really nicely with what we were talking about. I remember that, in the beginning, we were talking about different dietary practices. We were going over some of the fit-spo or pro-ana (pro-anorexia) stuff, she had interesting memes about thigh gaps and things I was so used to seeing on the Internet, but had never really looked at with a critical eye.mybeforeandafter I really enjoyed that she pulled that stuff out. But also, throughout the class, students would send in links or things from the Internet, and she would then share it with the rest of the class. I remember her sharing this parody video of what happens when two stereotypical white hipsters go to an Asian food restaurant and try to order food, and I just thought it was hilarious. She took the things we saw on the Internet, and she used them as course material, which I think was a really interesting way to talk about food.

LRM: This particular video, for example, how would she use that video?

CB: She would play these things in class, and we would talk about how we felt, and she would relate it back to the concepts that we were going over in class. I also remember her using one of Amy Schumer’s video’s, the “I’m so Bad” video. It was when we were talking about fat talk, and the ideas of health, and how food played in with gender.

She played that video, and said, “Okay—what do you think about that?” We started a discussion about how we felt about that video, what we saw in it, the things we saw it was playing off of in society. She would frequently do things like that—find these little clips and bits on the internet, or memes or quotes, and throw them out there for, “Well, what do you have to say about this?” I think it was enjoyable because it was totally unpredictable.

LRM: Do you feel like this helped you look at things on the Internet more critically?

CB: Oh yeah, absolutely. Pretty much everything I find on the Internet these days—because my Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with food-related things—every time I see something, like this rap about being gluten free:

Normally, I would have found that really funny. Since I’ve taken this class and am looking at things critically, I now think, “Wow, maybe this isn’t the best way to present this particular dietary practice.”

Another example, she brought in this quote that I’d actually seen on my Twitter feed. It said, “If it comes through a car window, it’s not food.” Well, that showed up on her presentation the next class. Before, I would of thought, “hey, yeah, I kind of agree with that.” But now, I see classist undertones. So it’s completely changed my mindset.

 LRM: Tell me about the commensality practicum.

CB: The basic premise is that, instead of her standing up there to lecture, we all eat together. A lot of class is about what happens socially when food is involved, so I think it was important to play that out in terms of our classroom environment. It definitely changed the whole atmosphere in class when people ate and shared food with one another. It created bonding moments, and gave you the opportunity to have a more free-flowing conversation, so I think those were some of the best days we had in class.

For one of the practicums, we decided that everyone would bring in the recipe they were making from the class cookbook to try them out. We had this big eating fest, and had the weirdest combinations of food—we had everything from pancakes to roasted silkworm larvae to borscht. That day was so successful that the next week we decided to throw a class brunch. People dressed up, and brought breakfast foods, and one of the students who has a gluten free artisan waffle-making business made waffles for us. We had A Year in Burgundy playing in the background, and we were all sitting around eating. We became a kind of tight-knit group, and it all centered on eating one another’s food.

LRM: Did Prof. Hosemann have any day-to-day practices that were particularly effective?

CB: She definitely comes in with a plan, and she tries to put on a little bit of a performance for you. She uses really interesting narrative strategies to get people to engage. She may tell us a personal story, but she may tell it in a very specific way, highlighting certain aspects to spark a specific conversation. You would have no idea that she was doing it unless you went back and talked to her about it, so I think that was interesting. She would always sneak around and use these strategies to get people to discuss things that maybe they wouldn’t want to discuss before.

Also, she made sure the whole semester to include us in her practices. She would ask for our opinions on how she was teaching. For instance, and she would ask us, “do you [students] think that professors have ethical responsibility in dealing with food?” That then plays into how she teaches.

She made herself vulnerable, I think, when talking about food. She kind of let her guard down and let that difference in status level between student and professor drop. She sort of said, “we’re all in this think-tank together.” That was an interesting way to do it, rather than feeling like someone was talking at us, or food evangelizing. She made sure to… I don’t know how to explain it, but she made sure not to force opinions on us, which I liked. She never forces views on anyone, which is kind of different than some of my other professors. She made it seem like, “hey, this is how I feel about it… how do you feel about it? Maybe that will change how I feel about it.” It was an interesting dynamic.

LRM: Do you feel like that’s an effective way to approach students?

CB: I think it’s much more effective than other modes of teaching because it puts responsibility for learning on the student. Especially at larger universities and in larger classes, people tend to check out and not really actively learn. By doing that, she made the class more engaging, more bearable, more interesting… it sort of reflected back on you. If you didn’t understand something, you had a lot to do with it—it wasn’t just because she didn’t explain it well.

LRM: I know that this course uses Canvas, and I wonder if you could offer a student’s view on positive or negative ways of using Canvas in a course?

CB: Most of my classes are very Canvas-heavy, which I think is helpful. I like being able to submit papers and get responses back on Canvas, and you have a lot of access to your classmates through Canvas. I think that aspect of it needs to be utilized more.

LRM: Have you had classes that have facilitated or required student interaction (with one another) on Canvas?

CB: None of them have required it, though I think that’s a really great idea. More professors should do that. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of the functions of Canvas. In this class, other students would open up discussions or share links—but a lot of that interaction happened outside of Canvas, too. We actually created a Facebook group, which happens in a lot of other classes. That interaction is happening; it’s just not through Canvas. For many of my other classes, particularly my freshmen intro classes, a lot of them have Facebook groups. I don’t know if other universities use Facebook, but I think it’s common to have some kind of online group-making experience for classes at many different universities.

LRM: What did you think about the cookbook as a component of the course?

CB: That was one of my absolute favorite things that we did, and I think a lot of students would agree. We get this cool cookbook that we can utilize forever, but we also get to read these recipes, stories, pictures, and anecdotes… I think it’s something she should definitely keep if she were to do this class in the future. It was awesome.

LRM: What did you contribute?

CB: I ended up submitting… I have a family cookbook from about 20 years ago, that my grandmother put together with an introduction. So I submitted my all-time favorite chocolate cake recipe from that book, and included my grandmother’s introduction. Then, for kicks, I submitted a funny recipe: my family’s smothered squirrel recipe. I included family jokes and anecdotes with that. It’s a real recipe, but we don’t really eat it in my generation.

LRM: Is there anything you would add, or any suggestions you might have for others who are teaching food courses?

CB: For others, I think I would say: they should not make it about their opinions on food. Because I remember we even talked about a professor who used her class to spread veganism. We all came to the consensus that it’s not okay. Many of us felt that, if you’re teaching a food class, it’s important to be very open-minded, and to let the students also express opinions.

And then, the other thing I would say is that, even when you’re not teaching a food-specific class, you can use food and food issues in other classes. Another university in Austin is using food issues as the set-up for their composition classes. Whenever they have to write, they’ll write them on food issues. You don’t necessarily have to be teaching a food-specific course to talk about food. I think food needs to be integrated into larger contexts, because it’s so important but unfortunately gets ignored a lot in the academic sphere.

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Filed under anthropology of food, Food Studies, teaching

“You can’t talk about food without talking:” Aimee Hosemann with a Professor’s Perspective on the Course “Food and Culture”

Lauren Moore
University of Kentucky

This month, the Food Pedagogy Series is pleased to offer a special pair of interviews. Doctoral candidate and instructor Aimee Hosemann was recommended by one of her students, and both Hosemann and the student, Clara Broomfield, agreed to be interviewed about the class. We will hear first from Hosemann, and then we will hear from Broomfield for a student’s perspective on the same course.

In this interview, Hosemann discusses the use of commensality practicums and a class cookbook in her course “Food and Culture” at the University of Texas at Austin. She also reflects on professors’ responsibilities when discussing their own diets, and the challenges of teaching as a doctoral candidate.

LRM: Before we start talking about the course, I would love to hear a little bit more about your work. 

AH: My work is linguistic and sociocultural anthropology with a Brazilian indigenous group called the Wanano/Kotiria. I’m specifically interested in women’s expressive practices.

About a year and a half ago, I was drawn into reading a bunch of stuff by vegan ultra athletes. I noticed how many professional athletes were moving into vegan or whole foods plant-based diets. They were telling stories that sounded like religious conversion narratives: they reached a moment of crisis in their lives, and found plant-based diets. They’re very powerful in the same way that religious testimony is. What started as a hobby turned into what I’m going to focus on for the next couple of years.

LRM: Looking at your course description, I noticed that the last statement says you will focus on “how flows of dietary images and discourses shape race and ethnicity, gender, social class, and other identifications.” I found that an interesting phrasing, because it seems that many food-related syllabi invert that—they look at race, ethnicity, gender, and social class shaping dietary practices rather than the other way around. Can you talk about that phrasing in particular, and about your goals for the class more generally?

AH: That’s such a great question! One of the things I’m interested in is how all manner of things have semiotic content that people interpret. Thinking about food as a globalized thing, you can imagine food and images of food moving around in different social networks. When people take those things on, there’s something appealing about those objects. I think about how people respond to these things, and how that shapes some of their ideas about themselves.

I think it would have worked equally well if I had inverted those things, but I guess I’m trying to play with the concept that dietary practices, and talk about dietary practices, are enactments of something—like the discourse-centered approach to language and culture, where language, culture, and society aren’t necessary the same thing, but they are constantly reconstituting each other.

I think that that plays in really well to my general goals for the class: more than anything, I want the students to adopt an anthropological mindset, and learn to think about things, ideas, and people as reflective of, and constituting, networks of relationships. The way that I wrote the description and my goals for the class work hand in hand with each other.

LRM: Does that approach shape the topics you address or the order of the content of the course?

AH: They did, sort of. I tried to think about things that students had ready experience with. So we have readings about coffee, and a discussion about the Paleo diet and physical anthropology evidence for or against it. Then, there is another structural element to consider, which is that we used Gillian Crowther’s textbook Eating Culture. I looked in that book for inspiration about things that students might really want to know, and things that are my interests—for example, readings toward the end of the semester, about vegan sexuality, about lacking food when you’re in a detention center a migrant, or the cultural and environmental impacts of the BP oil spill. These were things that I was really interested in at this particular moment.

LRM: It sounds like you are working to keep the content fairly current—these are very current issues, migrant detentions, and the BP oil spill.

AH: Yeah, and those two things especially, it’s not too difficult to think about how they would apply to a student body that largely comes from Texas. The oil industry is absolutely integral to a lot of people’s livelihoods here, and then in Texas we have some family detention centers that got a lot of media attention because they were not doing a very good job of housing people in a humane fashion. I really wanted to be able to think about those things, and the lens of food and food practices is a way to sneak at controversial topics.

LRM: Did you feel like that was effective, like you were able to broach more controversial topics successfully this way?

AH: I think it definitely helped. One of the things that I hammered constantly in my class was the need to understand where our food comes from, and how it is interrelated with other things, like immigration. Migrant Farm Workers AlabamaIf people want immigration reform, they need to be willing to pay more for their tomatoes. In class, we talked about: How important is a tomato to a particular cuisine? Would you pay for this cuisine that includes tomatoes, and what happens if you only want to be able to pay very cheap prices for your tomato? Who actually paid for that?

LRM: I want to back up a little bit: how big is the course, what kind of students enrolled, etc.?

AH: The class had 46 students. They were a lot of upperclassmen. It was not meant to be a super high-level course, but it assumed that students had some background in anthropology. Anthropology students got the first seats, then people from other departments. There were a number of ethnic and racial backgrounds represented, as well as traditional and non-traditional college students. Many people had worked in some kind of food-related industry, and had some experience with the work of food. That gave us the ability to really talk at a higher level about what the world of food is like.

LRM: 46 students…that’s a pretty large class to think about eating together. Could you talk a little bit about the physical structure of the class?

AH: We were in a relatively small auditorium, with about 80 chairs in it stadium-style. When I was lecturing, I tried to move around the room and get people to move around in their seats to engage. For some of the people down in the front rows, they never saw some of their classmates in the back, so they didn’t always know who was speaking. So I tried to move around as much as possible, and sometimes let them take over the conversation and turn their backs on me, and look upward in the classroom. Our eating sessions helped that, because then people could move around a lot more, and talk to different people.

LRM: You’ve mentioned this “commensality practicum,” and the student who recommended you spoke specifically about this a fantastic aspect of the course. Can you tell me more about it?

AH: It’s actually something I drew on from my high school newspaper class. We sometimes had what were called “interpersonal skills test,” which were times to kick back and let the stress melt away for just awhile. I always thought that was such a good idea, because we could talk and have fun together, and get to know each other as newspaper staff in a different way.

My class was scheduled at noon, and because it was a food class at noon, there had to be some way to integrate actual food on a reliable basis. I was really taken by the idea of having something like a discussion period every so often so that if there were things they wanted to talk about, they had a chance to do that.

LRM: Did everyone bring food to share, or their own lunches? 

AH: Everyone brought food for themselves, or somebody might have a little extra something to share with people who were close by. We had a separate day, when their recipes were due, that people made food to share. They liked that so much that the next week we had class brunch.

LRM: Was there a structured discussion topic for the commensality practicums?

AH: I would start out with an idea. One time, we talked about what kind of structure we might like our class cookbook to take on. Another time, I asked them how they feel about the concept of food as a human right. I would think about something that was in the air, and then ask them to get a conversation going. They would take it from there.

LRM: You mentioned a class cookbook. Can you tell me about that?

AH: Every student had to include a recipe. It could be for anything that they wanted, it just needed to be something that they liked, and I requested that they provide cultural or familial information; pictures if they wanted them; information on special kinds of techniques or shopping, and to really have fun with it. And some of them were absolutely amazing! Some were written bilingually, in the home language and in English. Beautiful photography, beautiful stories. People scanned and took pictures of the original recipe cards. They submitted them through Canvas, our course management site, and I am compiling them into a single document that they will all get electronically.

Taste of UT LRM: It sounds like they were excited about it. 

AH: They were very excited about it! Even if they didn’t show it in class, it came out in the writing. They talked about what the food is like, and how meaningful it is to them. I could really feel the excitement in their submissions.

LRM: Could you talk a little about a couple of the concepts you really wanted to get across in the course?

AH: There were a couple that really took on lives of their own in the course. First, “What is the idea of gender in relationship to cooking?” Professional cooking and domestic cooking are valued very differently. They really got engaged in that, especially thinking about it in relation to coming up with recipes that were good enough for class. Often, they went to female family members to ask for things, and it gave many of them a new way to think about what was happening when people were cooking at home for them versus when they were eating at restaurants.

Another was food as a marker of health and a marker of security. Because we were really trying to get to an understanding of health as something that is subjective, and even though there are things that we can say about health that seem like they’re pretty objectively true, that objectivity actually hides a lot of cultural context.

Thinking about food security and how it relates to issues of health, one of the things we discovered in class conversation is that the university has a lot of food available. They could conceivably eat just about any time they want to, but it’s not actually that accessible to them, either because of time or budgetary constraints. The things they want to eat are too expensive or too far away. Even though there is food around, as college students—even at this university that considers itself a Public Ivy—a lot of them are at least temporarily food insecure.

LRM: Can you talk a little about how you bring in linguistic anthropology to teach food?

AH: I love to use linguistic anthropology with food! And I’m a big fan of Jillian Cavanaugh’s work on salami, and her work with the documentary processes around food production. There’s a piece in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, “What Words Bring to the Table: The Linguistic Anthropological Toolkit as Applied to the Study of Food,” which details how anthropologists who do linguistics have found themselves doing food, and about how those things meld together. You can’t talk about food without talking, and the way that people talk about food—the how, the why, the when—all of these are just as important to the cuisine as the food itself. We spent a lot of time thinking about how what people say reflects ideas about food and their bodies, and what they have access to, what’s appropriate. That adds a whole level of analysis, and a lot of richness.

LRM: Did students latch on to the importance of language in relation to food?

AH: I think they did. One of the pieces we looked at was Paugh and Izquierdo’s “Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction” about dinnertime arguments over food. That piece is so rich because the transcripts are just beautiful, and you really get the sense of the dynamic that’s happening. I was able to show them, by talking through these transcripts, how this discussion about food is emergent but also plays onto particular family histories.

LRM: The student who recommended you commented that this course integrates many “culturally relevant internet sources and films.” I wonder if you could talk about those?

AH: What with having a Facebook or Twitter feed, I saw all these interesting things. I’m always looking for interesting snippets to show people the connection between journal articles and real life. Then, I got a Netflix account last semester, and went through their entire holding of food movies. One of the hits of the class was the French movie Haute Cuisine, HauteCuisine-teasebecause it’s such a beautiful depiction of the gender issues between a private home cooking, and high-status chef cooking. The food photography was beautiful, the talk between the characters about food was beautiful, and it just really nicely tied together a lot of things in the class.

LRM: Were there any other films you felt were particularly successful? 

AH: A Year in Burgundy was good. We watched that while we were having brunch, and that was really cozy. Both of these movies are very cozy movies. They just make you feel warm, and want to engage with other people, and so that set a really good tone for talking, and appreciating what landscape does for food, what culture does for food. Both of those worked really well. Jiro Dreams of Sushi also went over really well.

I sent out links to a lot of things through Canvas, or through our Facebook group, so that people could look at them on their own time.

LRM: Can you tell me about the Facebook group?

AH: Yeah! It was a student suggestion in the last few weeks of class. Some of the core members of the class got along together really well, and they really wanted to have a way to keep in touch with each other and keep sharing materials. I think about 16 members of the class have joined up now and have been trading videos and having discussions about different things. I’m hoping to use it to keep touch with anyone who takes a food course with me.

LRM: Do you also incorporate those extra media items into class time?

AH: Yes. Luckily with food, things come up. For example, in Crowther’s textbook, there’s a discussion of Appadurai’s work on gastro-politics, and how being a daughter-in-law in a Tamil family can be a very difficult position around food. Well, the week after we talked about this, this news story came out about a daughter-in-law who was feeling very put upon by her in-laws, and didn’t like them messing around in her marriage. She had been urinating into their tea every day for a year to get back at them. Her mother in law was so angry, and wanted her arrested or to sue her for justice—but part of Appadurai’s point with gastro-politics is that, while the mother-in-law thinks she is having particular impacts on her daughter-in-law’s food experiences, the daughter-in-law can also approach this through subversion and claim her own kind of power in relation to her family food situation. That was one that I brought in, but students like to bring things in, too.

LRM: Do you feel like students’ interactions with the world changed as a result of the class?

AH: One of the questions they could answer on their final exam was about something that they learned about food and cultural relationships, and what kind of knowledge gaps they had before the class started. So far, what seems to be very strongly coming through in their answers is that, for a lot of them, they hadn’t really thought of food as a cultural entity, or that it was bound up in other things.

That’s an interesting thing to reflect on, because if you think of food as existing outside of social and linguistic relationships, that says interesting things about your own food history. A lot of students have starting thinking about the fact that white bread, or Starbucks Coffee, or other things that seem ubiquitous actually refer to a whole bunch of other things that they didn’t even think about.

LRM: Is there anything in the course that you didn’t feel worked well, or that you won’t continue?

AH: One of the things I want to do is get the class down to a size where I can have them doing journal reflections a few times over the semester. I’ve done that in other classes, and it’s one of the single most highly rated pedagogical things that I’ve done in any class.

LRM: Can you tell me a little about how that works in other classes?

AH: The journals are their own personal reflections, on what’s really making them angry or that they have a question about but don’t want to talk about in class. So, they write 3-5 journals over the course of the semester of about 3 pages. They submit them electronically, and then I give them fairly substantial comments so that we have an actual conversation about where they are. At the end of the semester, they have this record of how they’ve change as human beings.

LRM: You’re teaching a 2-2 schedule, and you’re ABD. Do you have any thoughts or reflections on teaching these classes while also working on a dissertation?

AH: I have a lot of thoughts about that! One of the things that teaching a 2-2 does, very obviously, is slow down your progress on your dissertation in certain ways. But it also is a lesson in time management. You have to figure out very quickly what your work style is. Do you need extended periods of time to work on certain things, or can you work efficiently in short bursts? That’s been really interesting, and it’s been interesting thinking about moving on to a tenure track position–because it’s not exactly going to get any easier from this point on. So, it’s been kind of a baptism by fire, and it really does make me consider, “is this something that I actually want to do?” On the positive side, teaching things that I’m very interested in has been actually really beneficial for my research in a lot of ways. The students get excited about it, and they ask a lot of questions, and we have really good conversations. And seeing people who are just getting introduced to my work, and find it interesting and ask me questions, then gives me new things to write about.

LRM: Do you talk about your own work in your classes?

AH: I do. I trend vegan in my own diet, and there are particularly strong reasons why I feel that way, and I will talk about them. I also have sort of a complicated worldview about food, because I am also in favor of responsibly hunting. I talk about the complexity of that, but I also try to shy away from talking about my own dietary practice too much, until a student asks me directly what I eat.

Partly, that is because my perspective as an anthropologist is, “I’m not here to tell anybody how to eat.” It’s also because I don’t know anyone else’s health or nutrition status, and I don’t want to be seen as giving definitive answers for what is or is not appropriate. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to use my position as the professor to convert people to veganism. I’ll talk about why I think veganism is interesting, and why vegans believe the things that they do across the wide variety of vegan beliefs, but I would never tell a student, “you need to be vegan.”

LRM: These hesitations about not wanting to impose your own dietary views—do you talk to students about that?

AH: Yes. That came up, too, a couple of weeks ago, when there was a story about a professor who was vegan who does use her classroom as a space for evangelizing for the lifestyle. I brought that into class and said, “what do you think my responsibility is, what do you expect to see out of me?”

LRM: And how did they respond? 

AH: They responded that they absolutely did not, under any circumstances, want me to tell them how to eat.

LRM: How would you compare this to the ways some professors might advocate for local, organic, or sustainable foods when teaching about food? 

AH: I have heard about some programs where there is more explicit focus on local and organic food sources, and push people to shift their dietary practices that way. It does seem like a more widely accepted thing, if you were to evangelize for a particular diet.

However, in another class I talked to students about this. We talked about how, once you start talking about local, organic food sources—never mind even vegan stuff—you’re often dealing with people who are white and upper middle class, and their dietary experience may be very disconnected from some of the students in their classrooms.

I may have students from the Rio Grande Valley, or from underprivileged backgrounds. When they go home, they may live in a food desert. I can tell them all the reasons why local and organic food might be preferable, but I also tell them, “If you can’t afford to do those things right now, do what makes you feel like you’re doing the best that you can with the opportunities and the money that you have. You can only do what you can do.”

LRM: How do students respond to that position? 

AH: The students themselves are very critical of a lot of the food discourses that they hear. They understand that people might think them to be good ideas and very socially transformative, but they also understand that there are people who get excluded for structural reasons. They were as openly critical of those kinds of things as I might have been.

LRM: In some of the readings you’ve assigned, you touch on topics of moral judgments of obesity. Do you feel like students’ sensitivity and critiques of local food discourse is extended to the way they understand discourses around obesity, as well?

AH: Oh yeah. There’s a video from Spokane Public TV, “Our Supersized Kids” about supersized kidschildhood obesity. When we watched it, they identified a lot of things that even I hadn’t noticed. For example, while there is talk about the unhealthfulness of obesity, there is also a lot of bullying of kids who are perceived as being unhealthy. A lot of it is framed as their fault. They caused it by virtue of being obese and unhealthy. If they would change themselves, then everyone else would change. That’s a very common logic that underlies a lot of victim blaming. The students were really able to identify those very quickly.

LRM: Aimee, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. This seems like an excellent course, and I am excited you’ve opened your teaching to commentary from a student, as well. It will be wonderful to have varied perspectives on the same course.


Filed under anthropology of food, Food Studies, teaching