Online High School students gather on campus to study 'The Problem of Food'

Students listened to guest speakers, took field trips to San Francisco, viewed 18th century cookbooks in Green Library, conducted chemistry experiments, calculated carbon footprints of various foods – and collaborated on a website, The Story of a Meal.

L.A. Cicero Noah Herbin and Scott Ray

OHS students from left, Noah Herbin and Scott Ray listen to Stanford Dining's Chef Gerald Grant as he explains how to cut a barbecued beef tri-tip.

Standing elbow to elbow at the stainless steel counter in the kitchen of Branner Hall, the fledgling pastry chefs sliced strawberries, patted sweet dough into pans, set golden brown crusts on a high counter to cool and stirred sweet white cream.

The counter was crowded with the fruits of their earlier labors – bowls of sliced peaches with rosy centers and finely diced crystallized ginger.

Their seasonal peach and strawberry tart with ginger cream was the final dish in a five-course dinner served Monday, Aug. 20, to 100 people – instructors, counselors, special guests and fellow students enrolled in the summer residential program of Stanford University Online High School.

The high school, which serves grades 7 through 12, is a fully accredited, diploma-granting, online independent school that attracts students from around the world.

Working in the kitchen earlier this week were teenagers whose homes were  as close to Stanford as Fremont and as far away as Paris.

The two-week summer residential program, which began Aug. 7 and ended Aug. 21, introduced incoming students to the virtual classroom environment and offered academic programs – including labs in AP physics, AP chemistry and AP biology – to returning students. The summer session gives students the chance to reconnect with old friends and to make new ones.

Or, in the case of two students who had become friends online – Nathaniel Mahlum, 13, who lives in Seattle, and Laura Harris, 16, who lives near Tokyo –the summer session gave them the chance to meet face-to-face and to work together on the bread crew.

L.A. CiceroRoma Forest

Online High School student Roma Forest of Guadalupe, Calif., works with Stanford's Chef Kumar Devinder on baking dozens of rosemary baguettes.

"We've only Skyped before," said Mahlum, who was chopping red and green bell peppers for the rosemary baguette with goat cheese and roasted sweet peppers.

The dinner, which was the culmination of a two-week course, The Problem of Food, also included rosemary baguette topped with tri-tip and cheddar; grilled peaches and blackberry salad with raspberry vinaigrette; summer squash and flavorful pasta; and creamy Cajun chicken.

During the dinner, the students gave presentations on their choice of recipe, its ingredients, the dish's carbon footprint considerations, its cultural background and its affordability.

The two dozen students enrolled in the course had begun their studies before arriving on campus by reading The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, the 2006 book by Michael Pollan. They had also completed their first assignment: "Analyze one meal you eat at home, and determine where it came from. What are the food chains Pollan identifies, and which apply to the food you ate? Does it matter where our food comes from? Why?"

The goal of The Problem of Food was to produce a website that told the story of their five-course meal from an interdisciplinary perspective. Students developed semi-original recipes for each course of the meal. They wrote carefully considered descriptions of each course, including information about the way each one reflected social, economic, scientific and environmental issues.

L.A. CiceroSpencer Dahl and Ayla Besemer

Spencer Dahl of Barcelona, Spain snags a sample of cooked pasta before Ayla Besemer of Boulder, Colo., assembles the summer squash dish the students planned.

On campus, the students viewed rare books in Green Library, where they explored the history of cooking by poring over recipes in 18th century English cookbooks, including The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a 1748 cookbook by Hannah Glasse.

"I've always loved English and history, so seeing those rare books was incredible," Harris said. "I found an apple pie recipe I'm planning to try when I get out of school. It would be fun to try a recipe used so long ago. They added a lot more ingredients to the apple pie than we would – candied orange and lemon peel and raisins. I want to see what it tastes like."

The students also conducted chemistry experiments, including one in which they made ice cream with sugar, cream, vanilla and liquid nitrogen.

They put on blindfolds to taste tomatoes grown four ways – locally, sustainably (within 40 miles of campus), mass-produced organic and non-organic.

They calculated the carbon footprints of lobster mushrooms (so-called for their bright red color), chicken and summer squash.

They watched The Great Famine, a documentary film about the American effort to relieve starvation in the new Soviet Russia in 1921.

They visited the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco to scout out ingredients for their recipes. There, the fragrant scent of herbs led Harris and fellow bread baker Roma Forest, 15, of Guadalupe, Calif., to choose rosemary from the White Crane Springs Ranch in nearby Healdsburg for their baguettes.

Asked to describe one of the lessons she had learned from the course, Forest said she learned that organic crops are not necessarily produced in a sustainable manner that protects the land. Organic farmers may use non-synthetic pesticides on their crops, a practice that may harm the environment through runoff, she said.

"I was very surprised," Forest said, as she cut warm baguettes into one-inch slices. "I was actually kind of shocked. I will definitely shop at the local and sustainable farms in Guadalupe, and encourage my parents to shop at them more often."