Stanford class mixes cooking and eating with politics

Stanford Professor Rob Reich uses cooking, eating and discussion to encourage his students to think about food as something more than just what shows up on their plates. Food and Politics digs into the production and distribution of what we eat.

Elena Jordan's fingers are busy during her first class at Stanford this year, but they're not curled around a pen or tapping on a laptop. Instead, they're covered with flour and carefully folding, pinching and curving pasta dough around dollops of roasted eggplant puree.

L.A. Cicero Food and Politics class

Students discuss the reading assignment as they eat food they prepared in the Sophomore College seminar taught by Rob Reich.

Cooking tortellini makes for an unusual lesson plan, but Food and Politics makes for an unusual class. Offered before the academic year officially begins later this month, the two-week course mixes practical skills with intellectual discussion to examine the everyday act of eating.

"I've been in the kitchen ever since I could ride on my mother's back," said Jordan, who grew up on an organic apple farm in Mendocino County. "But I never really talked about the role food played in the rest of the world. Having the chance to do that and cook at the same time is really exciting."

The idea to prepare a feast and discuss the production, distribution and consumption of food while enjoying the meal comes from Rob Reich, an associate professor of political science with modest culinary skills and a long-simmering desire to make what we eat a topic of scholarly inquiry.

He structured Food and Politics – a for-credit class open to about a dozen students as part of Sophomore College – around the premise that an eater's awareness should be elevated from the plate in front of him to the world around him. Assigned readings draw from the works of Michael Pollan, Bill Buford and other authors who focus on the relationships between plants and animals and the people who eat them.

Organic or conventional?

The class digs into the rights of farm workers, the science and ethics of genetically modified food and the politics behind corn subsidies. The students consider why cheap and plentiful food often has low nutritional value, and whether it is better to buy a bunch of asparagus that was grown organically in Argentina or conventionally on a local farm.

L.A. Cicero Food and Politics class

Noura Elfarra grated beets for a salad she helped to prepare for Rob Reich's Food and Politics class.

Whether a student's academic perspective comes from social science, hard science or the humanities, there's an intellectual way for them to relate to food.

"Eating is a political and ethical act," Reich said. "It's also incredibly personal. It's the daily thing which nourishes us, but we know so little about the path that ingredients take from where they were produced to the point where they get into our mouths."

Reich wants his students to unravel some of that mystery by having them take turns planning lunches and dinners, shopping for groceries and cooking the ingredients. Considering what to buy and how to prepare it forces them to reckon with their food, he says.

Kitchen classroom

The class gathers just before lunch at the Terrace Café, one of the campus eating clubs, to prepare the midday meal that sustains them for about two hours of conversation.

Under the direction of Sarah Grandin – an incoming junior who has cooked professionally at restaurants in San Francisco and Paris – the students use mostly locally produced ingredients and vegetables grown on the Stanford Community Farm to roll out fresh pasta, fry squash blossoms and bake nectarine upside-down cakes.

Some are just learning their way around a kitchen. Others chop, slice and mix their way through the ingredients with ease.

"If they get nothing else out of this class, they'll at least walk away having learned how to cook," said Reich, who calls Food and Politics "something of an advanced home economics class."

But the students are getting more out of the class than good knife skills.

"I've always had a big appreciation for quality food," said Evie Danforth, who said she's started thinking more about working conditions at meat processing plants and farms, and the disparity in the types of foods that are easier to get in wealthy neighborhoods compared to poor ones.

"Food has always been an aesthetic thing to me," she said. "But food is also a social justice issue. There's an ethical component to it that I didn't always think about."

Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,