There is a lot of talk these days about edible gardens and the National School Lunch program which is why I think the time is ripe to implement gastronomy curricula into classrooms across the country. If Michael Pollan is right and we have a "national eating disorder," then it's crucial we cultivate our kids' tastes for good food from a young age. And while planting gardens is a rewarding way to connect kids back to their food source, we also have to teach them as they get older that their choices have lasting impacts on their health, the environment, and so much more. But it's equally important to teach them with an attitude of appreciation, not alarmism.
I teach a full load of English classes to many awesome and talented students at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at CCNY in New York City. But I try to extend my students' learning beyond the essential five-paragraph essays and literary devices. The idea is to push them past the limits of the page to grasp and discuss the passions -- and all the good food! -- of life. We celebrate out students' individuality, but they also need to know what we all have in common: our short lives and our simple joys. As James Beard said, "Food is our common ground, a universal experience." So I thought why not address these commonalities through the study of food?
So in addition to the English classes I teach, I created an elective gastronomy program which is heavy on reading in the classroom, but also exploring the good food options outside of the classroom as well. We cover a range of topics from the implications of our industrial food system on the environment and food insecurity to sustainable farming, "seasonal shopping," and locally produced food. I want to teach the students to have a greater respect for the natural cycle of life -- an awareness of what, when and where our earth produces -- so they can make mindful choices about consuming food and preserving traditions and recognize, most importantly, their (our) accountability to future generations.
Hands-on experiences are really crucial to this learning process and New York City is a endless source of thoughtful purveyors, producers, markets and taste makers. We often invite guests into the classroom like the creators of the films, King Corn and Big River, Rick Field, the founder of Rick's Picks, to chef Daniel Rose, the owner of Spring restaurant in Paris. We run weekly taste workshops to acquaint ourselves with and appreciate the traditional ways of making foods: honey, chocolate, olive oil, vinegar, you name it, we'll taste it! We'll take cooking lessons in any kitchen that will have us, tour local farms and markets, and every week our EatNYC club (an offshoot of the Gastronomy class) will try a new cuisine or neighborhood around the city.
We read a host of food lit, from the non-fiction of Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) to the memoirs of MFK Fisher. We also watch a bunch of documentaries including Food, Inc. and King Corn. There are so many ways to integrate food into the curriculum that it's difficult to list in just one post. And while I teach Gastronomy as a separate discipline, I've recently brought many of the lessons into my English Lit elective as well. Here is an example:
The NYU Hagpop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies here in NYC is a great source of information and I recently attended a workshop there and came out with a handful of fun ways to use food to study Middle Eastern cultures and identities. To accompany a recent tasting of falafel, we read the essay, National Icon, by Yael Raviv (Gastronomica, Summer 2003, Vol. 3, No. 3, Pages 20?25, DOI 10.1525/gfc.2003.3.3.20) which explores the cultural significance of falafel. While falafel originally hails from Egypt and is considered an Arab food, the state of Israel used it as a means of asserting a national identity post 1948. There is also a host of both Israeli and Palestinian examples of food in art and advertisements (such as Jaffa oranges or olive trees) used to establish a culture and a sense of nationhood, even when borders were (are) fragile. Pair this with readings of the poems, "Mobius-Trip", by Jo Milgrom and "Olive Jar" by Naomi Shihab Nye to further explore more questions of food and identity. Here is another useful link about Palestinian food. Finally, the award-winning short film, West Bank Story, is a hilarious but thoughtful way to tie it all together.
Back in the Gastronomy class, I just recently started a new unit on Food and TV. I'm using the book, Watching What We Eat by Kathleen Collins, as a way of understanding and exploring the way Food TV has been a litmus of America's taste. The shift in cooking shows from education (with James Beard and Julia Child) to entertainment (Graham Kerr), really set the stage for later live audience shows like Emeril Lagasse and reality shows like Top Chef and acts as an indicator of our tastes and lifestyles. Cooking is not just a necessity or a chore, but a means of creative expression and status. Food TV also tells us quite a bit about women's roles from the kitchen to the workplace. Collins' book is a fantastically thorough resource and she posts great video clips on her blog above.
I think we need to make a subgroup for Food studies on this site, right? If anyone has done anything cool with food, I would love to hear about it. In the meantime, check out the pictures on our Facebook page, HSMSE Gastronomy Eats NYC, to see what we're doing in our classroom.