NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Pour into a large dish one cup of economic forces, stir in a tablespoon of historical facts and sprinkle a dash of political ideas. Add a handful of students, and mix together twice a week. Serve while fresh.
You have concocted Nancy Sternbach’s new seminar for first-year students, called “What’s in a Recipe?” The answer to that question, students soon learn, is more than just individual ingredients. It is the cultural milieu from which each recipe emerges.
By focusing on food, Sternbach, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Smith, invites students to take an unusual path to understanding the culture of Spanish-speaking countries.
"A recipe is a kind of blueprint of a culture," says Sternbach. "They are a form of writing and analysis that merits our attention."
Students are learning about the politics of chocolate, olive oil cooperatives and avocado farms, and the global route of specific ingredients, such as tomatoes. Another portion of the course will focus on women using recipes as a form of resistance.
Assigned readings – all in English – also offer insight into the economics of the food industries. They include Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Deborah 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 along the way.
In the classroom, students discuss readings, watch films and take turns analyzing family recipes. The in-class recipe work helps them make connections between the origin of a recipe and how it came to be the family’s regular favorite.
Unfortunately, cooking is not a regular part of Sternbach’s class. However, because it is an ideal way for students to connect concepts in their readings with a good meal and even better conversation, Sternbach is hosting two dinner gatherings this semester in her Northampton home.
During the first dinner, students made paella, a traditional Spanish rice dish. For the second occasion, Sternbach plans to assign tamales, an indigenous American food with a complicated legacy.
The meals around Sternbach’s table are a time to relax. And they help the students avoid a sad fact about Americans that they learned early in the semester: One in every five meals is consumed in the car.