Food We Can Live With

collage of food: corn, grain field, cherries, clouds

Eating, one of the most basic of all behaviors, has become extraordinarily complicated in recent years. We eat too much, or too little, or things that don’t belong on our plates to begin with. And food has become integrally related not only to how we look but also to our roles as citizens. We should eat local, organic, natural, humane. We should not subsidize cigarette manufacturers, who, it turns out, also manufacture lots and lots of things to eat. We should grow what we eat. Eat what we grow. Reap what we sow. And bring a calculator to the table: carbs, calories, food miles, carbon footprint, value added. Instead of pleasure, eating has become a series of rules and obligations and, sometimes, guilt.

In fact, it could be much easier. According to the now famous slogan on the cover of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, people should simply “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Pollan’s appearance on the Stanford campus in March was akin to the arrival of a rock star. Kresge Auditorium was jammed a half-hour before he made his way to the stage. Disappointed would-be listeners had to resort to Stanford on iTunes U.

There are issues that appear suddenly, containing the essence of the zeitgeist. Such is food. And such is food at Stanford. It is a matter combining science, civic responsibility, health and enjoyment. Food is being served up not only at Stanford Dining, but also in the departments of Economics, Linguistics and Human Biology, interdisciplinary programs, international centers and university community outreach programs. For a university concerned about its place in a globalized globe, there are few things more interesting than understanding where our next meal is coming from and what the cost of that meal will be to us and to the rest of the planet.

The Barbara and Bowen McCoy Program in Ethics in Society captured that sense perfectly in winter and spring with a series called “The Ethics of Food and the Environment,” at which Pollan was one of the featured speakers. Beyond the organizers’ wildest expectations, meeting halls were full night after night as audiences watched movies about the economics and politics of food and discussed matters afterward with an intensity befitting headier social movements of prior years.

“We were completely surprised by the large turnout,” said Joan Berry, coordinator of the ethics program and organizer of the series. “What was most gratifying was that the series brought together students, faculty, nutritionists, public health specialists, chefs and interested community members, and we were able to have some really powerful conversations.

“It was clear that people care deeply about the food they eat, the environment, mass marketing and a host of other related topics. We hope to continue looking at the issues again next year.”

Beyond the purely physical aspects of food, there also is a cultural aspect. At this point, Stanford has tried a few courses of “food studies,” a field comprising sciences, humanities and the arts, but the menu may grow. The University of California Press has a Studies in Food and Culture series, there is an international Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Davis Humanities Institute is one of many such centers that hosts a food studies group. According to a 2005 review article in the Journal of Modern History, “Food has acquired an intellectual presence as a subject all of its own.”

Gastronomica, a beautifully designed journal of food and culture published by the University of California Press, is directed by a professor of Russian with a Stanford PhD.

“Back in the 1970s, when I was at Stanford, I wanted to write my dissertation on food in Russian literature, but the proposal was met with considerable scorn by my adviser,” said Darra Goldstein, the journal’s founder, who teaches at Williams College. “I’ve probably been trying to prove him wrong all these years!
“Food can be a symbol of power, an aesthetic display or an ideological expression,” she said. “It can introduce students to foreign languages, literature, film, psychology, art, religion, economics, anthropology, sociology, classics, biology, chemistry.” In founding the journal, she said, she wanted to establish a place where the appetites of food enthusiasts and scholars, often the same people, could be sated. It’s not simply a middle ground between Gourmet and scholarly journals, she pointed out, but a liberated, eclectic forum for everyone with a passion for food.

Marion Nestle, nationally known nutritionist and writer whose appearance on campus last quarter also attracted crowds, shares with Goldstein a conviction that food is a good thing in the classroom.
“You can talk about anything through the lens of food,” she told a campus gathering of scientists, food activists, nutritionists, students and just plain eaters last March. Referring to her courses for undergraduates at New York University, she said, “I can teach them molecular biology, current events, climate change, health, politics and genetics, all by talking about food.” At Brandeis, she remembered, she had students in a biology class dissect squid and then eat them.

At Stanford, food-related classes tend toward agriculture and land use, but they also include several offerings in the departments of History, Political Science and Human Biology. Political theorist Rob Reich offered a sophomore seminar, Food and Politics, that was so popular it will become a regular 5-unit course.

Linguist Dan Jurafsky in winter taught The Language of Food to 15 freshmen whose reading material included cookbooks, articles in Gastronomica, studies in semantics and language histories. Class presentations included such themes as fussy language to advertise expensive potato chips, the ways in which people describe chocolate and Mexican mole as fusion food. Plus field trips and class treats, of course. Though no squid.

On the panel with Nestle was David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. He, too, has a professional interest in food.

“The foods we choose to eat embody moral choices,” he said. Obviously, animal welfare, but also agricultural practices and regulatory systems. Those are moral spheres. And there is an ethical component to the unintended consequences of the success of the sustainable food movement. Organics is a booming field, which attracts capital, which leads to consolidation, which leads to undermined standards. Shareholders’ interests are balanced against those of consumers.

Food, Magnus said, is a social issue, not an individual one. Just as the autonomy model in medicine overlooks the social and systemic nature of medicine, so an approach that looks only at alleged individual choice (e.g., I’m autonomously choosing Pringles over whole wheat crackers) misses the real story.

“It’s the most wonderful thing that this is happening!” Nestle exclaimed. “It’s a social movement. And we can all do something about food. We have tremendous people power now. This is what America is about, so let’s use it.”