This semester I am teaching a first year seminar (FYSEM) called Good Food: Eating and Culture. The primary goal of the class—in addition to all of the standard introduction-to-college kinds of things required of all FYSEMs—is to consider what makes a food “good.” Humans can and do eat pretty much everything on the planet that won’t kill them, but what makes something good to eat is primarily dependent on sociocultural contexts.
Eating is an intimate, personal act of taking something of the world and putting it into our bodies—incorporating it into our physical beings. Yet, the goodness of foods we choose to consume is mediated by the deep social, cultural and biocultural meanings that are ascribed to them in various human contexts. When we eat things we practice those meanings. We make the world edible even as we take parts of the world and make them us.
Since the course is a first year seminar for incoming students, during the semester we will be examining and discussing “good food” by reading a selection of books that spans the range from popular to academic approaches. At the same time, I have selected books and readings that offer a variety of approaches—from literary and historical to anthropological and sociological. My hope is that everyone in the class can get a taste of different approaches and ways of thinking about our relationship to the things we eat and the systems and contexts that create them as edible and give them meaning.
This morning the first-year students moved to campus and in the afternoon our class met for the first time. First days of class are always exciting in their potential and a bit nerve-wracking because everyone is new to one another. Rather than review the syllabus or launch right into coursework on their first day, however, this year I decided to do an activity that would serve as a kind of icebreaker and I hoped would begin to generate themes, ideas and relationships related to “good food.”
To do this I created an activity which involves eating and thinking, kind of like a brainstorm with food—that I jokingly called a “foodstorm.” I began by collecting a wide range of edible things—things with meanings in different places and made with different ingredients. Here is the collection I made:
I then put each of the foods in a brown paper bag and sealed it with a staple. In class I randomly gave each student a bag of their own. Everyone likes to receive a mystery package don’t they?
For the activity, the students paired up and took turns opening their bags, tasting the food inside and taking notes on reactions and comments. They were asked to describe the associations the foods evoked, how the foods tasted, what they were made of, and what made them desirable (or undesirable.) Were the foods “good” and why? What was the nature of their goodness or “not-so-goodness.”
FYSEMs at Hamline have eighteen students in each class, but I prepared twenty-four bags. I offered the extra bags to students who might have dietary issues—so that they could trade for another food. Or, in some cases, if the food they got was something they really were not willing to eat I also offered them another option.
This year’s class is a very diverse bunch so nearly everything that I collected was at least somewhat familiar to someone—although for others in the class a few of the foods were more alien.
After twenty minutes of working in pairs to address the questions that I posed to them, the group came back together to discuss the experience.
- Some folks were much more willing to try unfamiliar foods (peanut soup, Malta India, ginger candy) while others clearly felt uncomfortable and wanted to stick to the things they knew (banana, apples).
- Some complained that foods were “too sweet” (Coca-Cola) or “too salty” (dill pickle).
- Three students said that the food they ate was good because it evoked memories/nostalgia for foods they had when they were children (animal crackers) or were similar to drinks their parents made (Chrysanthemum drink, fish shreds).
- Students traded for other foods because they disliked the food (tomatoes) or were very familiar with the flavor (plantain chips) and wanted to try something more interesting.
- One student asked me where I bought the food because it was so delicious she wanted to buy some (Takis).
- Two students complained about the “strangeness” of a flavor (strawberry cheesecake chocolate and fruit flavored beef jerky).
- One student observed that his food was good because it was simple and its production was good for the environment (green pepper).
- While it didn’t come up in the discussion, during the group work period I did hear a few folks comment on the fact that their food was “good for me” or “not good for me.” I assume this was a reference to nutritional value.
- In quite a few cases it was clear that the taste of the food was unfamiliar enough that the student did not have a vocabulary to explain the experience. Lychees were “OK, but strange” or “not bad, but an acquired taste” for a few students. The Malta India drink “tasted kinda like licorice.”
We ran out of time before we could finish talking about the associations of various foods or what they could learn about them from their packaging or lack thereof. The exercise, however, did manage to generate some material for observations at the beginning of the class:
- While perhaps not unsurprising at this point taste was the primary category for considering a foods “goodness.”
- The food was desirable, rejected or embraced primarily on the basis of its value to stimulate the individual consumer.
- Foods had value as a taste novelty.
- Foods were good because of their associations in memory and experience.
- Foods were good because of their perceived health benefits.
- Foods were good if their production had a lesser environmental impact.
At the end of the hour I was satisfied that the exercise managed to get the class meeting one another, getting them to work together to make observations, and to introduce a few themes that will be useful to us as we move forward in the class.
I’m looking forward to a good semester!