Thursday, March 21

Kitchen to Classroom: Tools for Teaching Food History

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
"Kitchen to Classroom" is a weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley. You can follow Professor Cooley on Twitter at @foodandrace.

 Last year Oxford University Press elevated the academic standing of food history by dedicating a volume to the subject in its well-regarded Oxford Handbook series. The book includes essays that cover food’s relationship to gender, religion, nationalism, social movements, and tourism, among other topics.

As a scholar and educator, I particularly appreciated the essay “Teaching with Food.” Authors Jonathan Deutsch of Kingsborough Community College (Brooklyn, NY) and Jeffrey Miller of Colorado State University, both former chefs who teach culinary arts, encourage teachers to use food in the classroom “as a uniquely multisensory tool with which to investigate history, culture, and society.”

It sounds obvious, right? Well, maybe not. Their review of a syllabi collection available to members of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) reveals many food studies classes that don’t incorporate food as an integral part of the course. Food studies professors often rely on traditional methods of reading, writing, and class discussion.

The authors identify three ways that professors can engage with food in their classes. First, use food as a “lens to explore diverse social and cultural issues.” Students can analyze advertisements, conduct oral histories, or visit an ethnic food market. Such assignments can help students understand food within traditional historical narratives.

Second, food is often “a topic worthy of study in its own right.” In this case, food helps to revise the standard narrative. Because contemporary food authors often rely on a mythical notion of our culinary past, the authors suggest that students interested in sustainability will benefit from a more accurate historical understanding of food systems.

Anna Hamilton (l) and Kate Hudson, Southern Studies graduate students at the University of Mississippi, engage with food in Professor Cooley's class.

Third, food can be used “as the physical material for academic inquiry and learning.” The authors suggest bringing food into the classroom. At the University of Minnesota, for example, professor and Oxford Handbook editor Jeffrey Pilcher’s world history students celebrate an annual “Aztec banquet” during which a few “nobles” feast on tamales while the rest of the class eats one nacho chip. (Status is chosen by lot.) I’m sure few of Dr. Pilcher’s students forget the inequitable social system of this pre-Columbian American culture.

Source: Jeffrey M. Pilcher, editor, The Oxford Handbook of Food History (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Editor's note: This fall, UGA Press will release
The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the South, edited by John T. Edge, Elizabeth Engelhardt, and Ted Ownby. It will be another great resource for students and teachers of foodways. Stay tuned for more details.