December 2015 Features

Food for thought

Red_AppleFaculty members across the curriculum are engaging in farm-to-classroom pedagogy.

By Elizabeth Mosier ’84

Airline food isn’t often cited as inspiration, but for a student in Shiamin Kwa’s class, Food and Culture in East Asia: Everything but the Table, an in-flight meal served as a provocative primary source. On a long trip to Vietnam for a family emergency, while suspended between two countries and between college and home, she pondered what food represents to people in transit and in crisis. Says Kwa, an assistant professor of Chinese studies, “The student interpolated concepts from the course and drew upon theoretical frameworks in order to write a sophisticated, complicated analysis for her final project.” Her paper demonstrated mastery of the course material—and illustrates how food, fundamental and often unexamined, is an entry point into culture and history as well as a useful lens for students learning to apply tools of cultural analysis.

Like other food-themed courses at Bryn Mawr, Kwa’s class—with its rigorous syllabus including an analytical essay, a fieldwork project to practice ethnographic research methods, and 500 pages of reading per week—is serious fun. And fun is pedagogically strategic, says Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jonas Goldsmith, who uses food in the laboratory to make intangible concepts tangible. “I think students often find chemistry esoteric, not rooted in what they know of the world, when in fact chemistry is around us all, all of the time,” he says. “It’s just human nature to have more fun doing bomb calorimetry on a gummy bear than on a sample of benzoic acid. This isn’t pandering—it’s a straightforward way of making that connection a bit closer.”  

Food is an essential subject. The history of civilization, after all, is the history of food production shifting from nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers to agrarian societies to farmers feeding urban communities. In Archaeology of Agriculture and Urban Revolutions, taught by Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology Professor Peter Magee, students investigate the motive behind this movement in Egypt and the Near East. They examine the evidence for animal domestication (cattle, sheep, and other livestock) and paleoclimatological research to try to better understand why, 10,000 years ago, some humans shifted toward agriculture and raising animals.

And eating and drinking aren’t only biological necessities, says Annette Baertschi, an associate professor of Greek, Latin, and classical studies. “They are also historical, cultural, and geographical constructs contingent on where we find ourselves in time, in space, and in society.” With support from a Mellon Digital Curriculum Seed Grant, students in her new course, Food and Drink in the Ancient World, will create a digital food map to track certain foods—like lemons, first brought to Greece from India by Alexander the Great—that traveled (or didn’t) from one place to another.  

“In Classics,” she says, “we have been looking at patterns of food production and consumption for a long time, but we’ve shifted from a more historical focus to studying the social context. What we eat, where we eat, with whom we eat, how we eat, and why we eat or don’t eat—all of this says a lot about who we are and how we construct identity.” Her course surveys food-related material culture and literature (including Homer, Greek and Roman comedy and satire, ancient cookbooks, and the works of medical writers and philosophers) in order to familiarize students with the ancient Mediterranean world and train them to read scholarship critically. “We want students to recognize the lens a writer applies to analyze material,” she says, “and to understand how asking certain questions shapes the answers you get from the sources—not just in Classics but in other disciplines, too.”

Food in Bryn Mawr’s curriculum isn’t new, says Professor of Chemistry Michelle Francl, whose former

students recall a problem she still assigns in General Chemistry, involving phase transitions and combustion reactions to calculate how many M&Ms you’d need to eat if you fell into a lake and then had to dry your wet clothes with body heat. “What’s new,” she says, “is that we’re using food to make connections—and encouraging students to make connections—among courses, among faculty, and between the classroom and the campus. We’re starting to model how students, when they leave here, might integrate their academic lives with their ‘real’ lives.”

Cake Across the Curriculum

“Eating and reading have a lot in common,” Associate Professor of English Kate Thomas points out. “Most of us have been doing both things for so long that it feels as natural as breathing. But whenever anything feels natural, you have a lot of critical, theoretical work to do.” Oliver Twist is among the texts she assigns in Food for Thought: Gastronomic Literatures and Philosophies, a course on the philosophy and history of food writing. “Dickens is an author who asks you to put yourself inside the skin of somebody who’s hungry, to drive home the point that poverty has feelings,” she says. “In class, we talk about the novel in terms of the politics of poverty and the socioeconomic conditions in 19th-century England. But I also press hard on the issue of the physicality of human experience, and the adequacies and inadequacies of text to talk about that.”

When Thomas taught her first food studies course, she was dismayed by the paucity of critical language for food her students demonstrated. “We may look as though we’re a food-obsessed culture, talking about food all the time in terms of thinness and fatness and goodness and badness, but we’re not really being analytical about the experience of eating,” she says. “When we talk about food, we tend to reduce it to calories or quasi-medicine. There’s been a cultural plundering, and the classroom is a place where we can begin to repair that damage.” Thomas started by assigning food reviews, so that her students could practice appreciation and analysis—and she ended up creating a new course, team-taught with renowned Philadelphia food critic Craig LaBan. Seventy-five students signed up for Writing Taste, taking Thomas’s challenge to transfer their literary sophistication to food, to “be as analytical about a piece of cake as we can be with a piece of poetry.”

“The kinds of everyday things that we take for granted are actually rich sources for theoretical frameworks,” says Kwa, recalling student fieldwork in which studying cake yielded an important clue. As her student gathered data at a store in Philadelphia’s Chinatown and at the Bakery House in Bryn Mawr, she noticed that Chinatown customers purchased sweets they ate at tables in the store, while the Bakery House customers took theirs home for dessert. Though she’d set out looking for cross-cultural differences in cake, she found different cultural conceptions of what makes a meal. Comparing the standard American sequence of appetizer-entrée-dessert to the Chinese presentation of many dishes served simultaneously, she was able to theorize a cultural grammar for eating.

Bryn Mawr students come from all over the world and bring experience with a wide variety of cooking techniques, ideas of what’s edible (or not), and memories of treasured childhood treats. This diversity in the classroom underscores the idea of food as a medium of communication, the theme of a new 360° cluster to be taught by Thomas, Kwa, and Associate Professor of Spanish Rosi Song next spring. Their three concurrent courses—Eating Empire: Food, Diaspora, and Victorian Britain (Thomas), Food in Translation: China to Chinatown (Kwa), and Food and Identity in Spain (Song)—will culminate in a trip to Barcelona, where students steeped in the power, politics, and trade of colonialism and in theories of linguistic and cultural translation will investigate the increasingly multicultural city’s efforts to brand a national cuisine.


Food Fluency

The shared experience of eating invites these interdisciplinary conversations. “A food activist, a chemist, and a chemical engineer look at ingredients differently,” Michelle Francl explains. “A food activist advocates for organic foods, but a chemist—for whom ‘organic’ simply means containing carbon and hydrogen atoms—doesn’t distinguish between natural and synthetic forms. For a chemical engineer, changing an ingredient increases its monetary value—for example, whipping cream to disperse air through the composition as bubbles, which makes it useful for decorating desserts.”

“If you are a practicing scientist, your job may be to write a piece for the public,” says Francl, who cogently and wittily refutes food bloggers who erroneously link chemicals—and chemists—with evil. “Malicious metonymy confuses the source and uses of material with the molecules themselves,” she explains. “Oxidane, for example. Better known as water, it’s a primary component of urine, and it’s in your coffee. That doesn’t mean you’re drinking urine! There’s a big industry in selling panic, and when I see it, I push back.”

Her new course, Physical Chemistry of Food, explores what thermodynamics and chemical kinetics can tell us about constructing food with desirable aesthetic and hygienic properties. “If we eliminate preservatives, we’re back to risking eating spoiled food or throwing food away,” she argues. “In order to formulate the right questions [about chemical additives], we must shift focus to what happens to molecules as they react in the body. For example, the body knows how to break down azodicarbonamide (a stabilizer used in both bread and yoga mats). But since it causes respiratory issues when inhaled, is it ethical to expose workers to the chemical?”

In a concurrent course, Chemistry of Food, Goldsmith’s students examine how food is deconstructed and retro-engineered for safety reasons. The two courses will culminate in a shared meal at a Philadelphia restaurant that uses molecular gastronomy cooking techniques.

While improving what Francl calls scientific “processing fluency,” students in both classes will practice skills prized in the chemical industry. In collaboration with college dietician Nicole Patience, Francl’s students will calculate heat transfer to cook a large-scale meal in the dining hall and will apply the same principles of process chemistry that are used to “scale up” pharmaceuticals. Goldsmith, an electrochemist, will instruct his class in methods of analytical instrumentation not commonly taught to undergraduates, including an electrochemical technique to detect levels of arsenic, a heavy metal, in rice, and high-performance liquid chromatography to analyze flavor components in artisanal chocolate.


Fueling Careers

“So many students today are interested in the environment, sustainability, and food justice,” says Kate Thomas, “and they know that the food on their plate is a topic for their era.” For example, Piper Martz ’16, a political science major, received funding from BMC’s environmental studies program and LILAC (Leadership, Innovation, and Liberal Arts Center) to study how the quinoa boom in Bolivia has affected the socioeconomic, environmental, and cultural conditions of the farming community. Her interviews with smallholder farmers near the Uyuni Salt Flat will inform her senior thesis.

Anne Claire Grammer ’16, a psychology major, is interested in the complexities of maladaptive eating. Her thesis comparing three different short-term therapy interventions for college women with high levels of body image dissatisfaction is based in research she conducted as part of a Praxis III independent study at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Eating Disorder Assessment and Treatment Program.

Martz and Grammer co-initiated Bryn Mawr’s Real Food Challenge (a national effort to bring ecologically sound, sustainable, local, and humane food to collegiate institutions). Both women cite the same seminar, Food for 9 Billion with Professor of Biology Peter Brodfuehrer, as the academic inspiration for their interest in pursuing solutions to global food insecurity and healing eating disorders.

“Classes like these change the way you see, and speak to the point of a liberal arts education,” says Shiamin Kwa. “Why do we spend a semester thinking about the sonnet form or looking at paintings? What we’re doing is not esoteric or separate from the ‘real world.’ When we leave college, we live and work more richly because we’ve been trained to look closely and critically, to see everything in a disciplined, rigorous way.”