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Students Dig into Course on History of Food

(Posted March 15, 2010)

James Tuten, associate professor of history

HUNTINGDON, Pa. - Students typically chat about how the quality of the food in dining halls or how a 30-minute trip to Taco Bell is worth the gas bill, but at Juniata College students are thinking about food as a way to study how major developments in the global food history can produce a new perspective on the development of human life.

Juniata College's course, "History of Food," examines food as part of the human experience. Roles such as sustenance, commodity, cultural artifact, signifier of identity, and art are explored to give students the opportunity to analyze national cuisines and see how different cultures have used food as a national identifier.

"It's finally being recognized that history is the study of what humans do, and food has been a huge part of that," says James Tuten, associate professor of history who created the course.

The course begins with a transnational view of the history of food in the Middle Ages. Moving chronologically and thematically towards identifying major turning points in food history such as the spice trade and the Columbian exchange (where plants and livestock were brought back from the new world to other countries after the voyages of Christopher Columbus), the course gives students a strong foundation for the course's first research project.

"A cuisine research paper is the first assignment the students are given, which gives them a chance to see how a cuisine develops over time," says Tuten.

"It's finally being recognized that history is the study of what humans do, and food has been a huge part of that."
James Tuten, associate professor of history

The course is designed to keep students interested using a number of appetite-inducing class activities. As Tuten examines new national cuisines, students will make a trip to his home as a class to eat dinner. Each student brings a different Italian dish that they cook themselves.

"At this point in the course we have been reading about how nation-states formed in the 18th and 19th centuries begin to talk about national cuisines and Italy is one of those countries," Tuten explains.

He adds, "My favorite part about this course is that students get to use all of their senses."

A longtime foodie, Tuten has focused on food in several research efforts of his own. His research interests center on the rice plantations of the South. He will soon publish a book on rice culture in South Carolina and has published several pieces on Madeira wine, most notably in the journal "American Nineteenth Century History" and the cooking journal "Slow."

Instead of centralizing the course around tests and quizzes, Tuten has conceived his course as an academic version of "Extreme Cuisine."

Two class trips count as enriching culinary experiences, a requirement for the course, which involves food-focused events outside of the classroom. A week of the course is spent on discussing drinks. During this week the class travels to Standing Stone Coffee Co. in Huntingdon, Pa. for a coffee sampling where their sense of taste is put to the test.

"The coffee sampling lets them think about flavors in different coffees and shows them how people train their palates," says Tuten."

The class also explores religion and food. The course takes students on an enriching trip to Altoona for a Seder during Passover week. The Seder dinner marks the beginning of Passover and celebrates the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

"My favorite part of the course was the Seder dinner," says Zach Wakefield, a senior from Hummelstown, Pa. "We sang traditional Jewish hymns, read Jewish scripture, all of which was followed by a large, large feast with classic Jewish foods ranging from matzo to gefilte fish."

"The big idea for this course is that students come to understand the interaction between a person or groups' identity through their shared history of food," explains Tuten. "I want students to realize certain foods in a religious context can mean something important and special."

For instance, the class studies the Japanese Tea Ceremony; a Japanese cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha, a powdered green tea.

Religious contexts are a large part of food history, but there is also science involved in the process. For that reason, Tuten invites Richard Hark, professor of chemistry at Juniata, to lecture the class on the chemistry of food.

Tuten clarifies Hark's lecture when he says, "The central point of his presentation is that all of our food is made up of chemicals and that one way to approach thinking about cooking is as a process of combining chemicals or creating reactions through heat."

Tuten adds, "Knowledge in one discipline can inform and create big leaps forward in a different discipline."

As the semester moves forward, the course takes a turn towards the 21st century discussing mass-produced foods. This section includes the revolution in food supply and industrial foods. The class will also study the backlash the industrialization of food has received from consumers.

As the course winds down, the topics become more specific, concentrating on regional cuisine in the United States. Topics in this part of the course include Cajun food history, American Italian food and discussions of fast food, a major part of the American culture.

"Students seem to be more engaged when we begin to discuss present-day food supply, industrial scale production, and contemporary issues in the United States," says Tuten.

"I really enjoyed the section we did on Cajun and Creole cuisine," says Elizabeth Van Blarcom, a junior from Columbia Cross Roads, Pa. "We read and discussed a culture that was part of the United States that I had only ever heard about in passing. It was nice to begin to understand a culture separate from mine, but just a few states away."

Students base their final projects on recipes they have grown up with or are familiar with through family ties. The students select a dish, typically one that has become a tradition in their family, and write up both the recipe for it and an analysis of its history.

"I really enjoyed the haluski dish a student made for us last semester," says Tuten. "When there is history of a particular food within a family it enriches the entire project." As time passes, Tuten plans on combing student's final project recipes and creating a History of Food recipe book.

Though the course allows students to have fun testing their palates as well as their skills in the kitchen, it also leaves them with a strong outlook on what they used to see simply as good eats.

"I learned that food has played such a pivotal role on the people, economics, cultures, and even religions of countries and regions throughout the world. It has started wars, pushed exploration, and has fueled populations for centuries," Wakefield says.

Written by: Molly Sollenberger
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Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.