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   Date: 10/10/08

Course Offers Food for Thought

By Rachel Miller ’09

Professor Nancy Sternbach’s house smells like Spain.  

A pan the size of her stovetop sizzles with whole garlic cloves, onion, red pepper, tomato, and olive oil: the makings of Spanish vegetable paella. Students chop more vegetables and watch Sternbach as she leans in to her shelf full of spices, choosing some delicate Spanish saffron and red “el angel” pimentón, also Spanish but, she admits, purchased in Brooklyn.

“It’s so beautiful,” says Sternbach, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and the Study of Women and Gender. “It doesn’t even matter if it tastes good. Who could resist something this beautiful?” The students, craning to smell, nod in agreement.

Students in Nancy Sternbach's course prep ingredients for Paella.

Welcome to—or more appropriately, bienvenidos a— “What’s In a Recipe?” The first-year seminar combines Sternbach’s many areas of expertise. Students will learn about the culture of Spanish-speaking countries by reading recipes and focusing on the global routes of specific ingredients, like tomatoes and chocolate, thereby gaining even greater insight into the economic and political lives of Spanish-speakers.

A portion of the course will focus on women using recipes as a form of resistance, and a majority of the readings Sternbach assigns are by Latina authors.

Unfortunately, cooking is not a regular aspect of Sternbach’s class. It’s an ideal way for students to connect concepts they’ve read with a good meal and even better conversation, but often the chat is life-related, not text-related. In the classroom students discuss readings, watch films, and take turns analyzing family recipes. This in-class recipe work also helps students make connections between the world’s food and their own.

Hannah Hastings ’12 shared her mom’s recipe in a recent class for pão dolce, Portuguese sweet bread. She stands in front of a picture of sugary loaves. “Because we only make it once a year, we make tons of it,” explains Hastings. “When I was little I watched my mom with her arms up to her elbows in dough, kneading, and I would reach in and fold up her sleeves if they got in the way. That was my job.” She raises her arms and squishes a healthy bicep, proving that Portuguese women have very strong arms.

That same day, other students discuss Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a close look at how America’s food choices estrange eaters from what food actually is and how it was traditionally eaten. The class first read about food crime in Deobrah Barndt’s Tangled Routes, the story of a tomato’s journey from Mexico to the United States. Barndt investigates the various chemical alterations required to keep the fruit bright red and firm.

“It’s really gross, about the tomatoes,” explains Krissy Morgan ’12. “You’ve just got to buy local, it’s so much safer.”

The Omnivore’s Dilemma brings it even closer to home. Previously, producing food locally kept costs low, cites Shannon Pettit ’12. Using modern methods, it takes so much energy to bring a piece of meat from the field to the table that it would be impossible to feed everyone on earth—“which is partly why I’m a vegetarian,” adds Sternbach. Several students laugh when Dianna Kim ’12 suggests everyone should eat insects.

Anna Leversee ’12 discusses Pollan’s observation that Americans don’t give proper respect to mealtimes. One in every five American meals are consumed in the car, she quotes, and Americans’ propensity for eating while mobile doesn’t allow the stomach’s digestion to keep up with the brain. The class agrees, shaking their heads in dismay.

This reminds Sternbach of a call she received while chopping ingredients on Paella night. It was her son’s high school, phoning to remind her that “the family who eats together stays together,” and that the child who eats with his family will undoubtedly get better grades, too.

At the time she brushed it off as one of countless annoying pre-recorded messages she gets each week, but now it serves as the perfect example of food awareness.  We must remain aware, instructs Sternbach, that our sense of power over food can make us immune to food’s power.

And that’s precisely what her class begins to understand when they share a meal together.

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