In Love with Food
By John McLain
Evergreen students are passionate about solving the global challenges of feeding the world.
Brittany Newhouse came to Evergreen four years ago and fell in love with food—not in the dining hall but in the classroom. The former student trustee has studied plenty of other subjects. Her transcript includes ample helpings of foreign languages, health, social history and government policy.
But ask what she cares about, and it’s likely to come around to the complex wonders of food. Newhouse can tell you about the more than 800 volatile molecules you taste in every sip of coffee, the chemical processes that make eggs turn white and meat turn brown, why bread rises and milk curdles, how cucumbers became pickles and pork becomes prosciutto. Her interest has led her into crop science, small farming and agriculture movements through history.
She thinks too many Americans have become disconnected from food, to the peril of the next generation. “We don’t talk with kids about what they are eating,” she says. “Instead we have rules. You have to get your kids to sit down for dinner. You have to make them eat their vegetables. But we don’t make eating interesting and enjoyable.”
Newhouse is one of many Greeners who have taken the study of food in new directions. They include vegans, vegetarians and meat lovers. Some are experienced chefs. Others never prepared anything more complicated than a can of soup before coming to college. They want to be teachers, farmers, health practitioners, scientists and activists. Despite their differences, they hold three things in common.
Students in the program Food, Health and Sustainability apply concepts they’ve learned in class and strengthen their learning community through cooking together and sharing homemade dishes at multiple potlucks throughout the year.
— Dan Bolduc
They love good food, and by that they mean nutritious, ethical and tasty. They want to understand food socially, scientifically and aesthetically—how to cook it, how to grow it, how it defines us, what makes it good for us. And they’ve concluded that our food system is broken and must be fixed if we want a just and sustainable society.
Food has been part of Evergreen’s curriculum from the day the college opened, when faculty member Bob Sluss assigned Georg Borgstrom’s 1965 book, The Hungry Planet, to his political ecology students. Forty years later, the world’s population has increased by three billion and food sits at the center of our most daunting global challenges—poverty, disease, climate, energy. No wonder the subject still ignites so much passion at Evergreen.
Donald Morisato, a geneticist who joined the faculty in 2002, discovered that passion as he settled into Olympia. Raised in a family that “always cared about food,” Morisato became a regular at the Olympia Farmers Market, where he discovered that many vendors were Evergreen students and graduates.
“I really liked these students,” Morisato says. “There was something really admirable about them—a sense of idealism and intellectual honesty—values that I really liked and respected, and I thought: why aren’t these people my students?”
Morisato, who had largely taught straight science programs up to that point, figured if they weren’t coming to him, he would go to them. He proposed a new program to his colleague, agricultural ecologist Martha Rosemeyer. It would explore food from many angles, including science. And it would involve cooking—a lot of cooking.
Rosemeyer signed on. “I never thought I’d do anything too far from agriculture,” she says, “but food is such a great vehicle for teaching culture, society, biology, physics, chemistry, botany, public policy.”
When Food, Health and Sustainability launched in 2008, the timing couldn’t have been better for Jesse Thurston. He was facing a choice: go to culinary school or return to Evergreen. He’d been enrolled at the college before, studying politics and activism, but he left after a year. He was hired by a local pizzeria and later learned about fine dining at a waterfront bistro and wine bar. He also became an autodidact about all things food, devouring biographies of chefs, books on cooking techniques and anthropological studies of the culture of food.
“Cooking will always be a passion for me,” Thurston says, ”but I wanted to take my interest in food further than that. I wanted to learn about the cultural history of food, the hard science behind the way food is prepared, to understand food distribution systems.”
The program allowed him to explore his concerns about the concentration of food production in the hands of a few corporations, the impact of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on climate change and how globalization wastes vital resources.
It also allowed him to cook and enjoy others’ cooking, to value food for its pleasures and sustenance, while thinking about ways to improve the current system.
“Our potlucks were to die for. We had people gathering wild foods, people doing their own preservation and smoking their own meats, bringing egg dishes from their chickens in their backyards.” All that passion around the breaking of bread together, Thurston says, helped the class grow close over the course of a year.
After the program’s first run, faculty knew they had a winner. Although Morisato had other teaching commitments, Rosemeyer decided to offer it again this year, linking up with biologists Amy Cook ’90 and Jim Neitzel.
On the last Friday of winter quarter at the college’s farmhouse, Rosemeyer stands in front of 75 students and a collection of chipped, scorched and discolored cookware. It’s their twentieth weekly food lab, and they’ve studied antioxidants, animal husbandry, kosher foods, knife sharpening, fad diets, fisheries and a lot in between. Later in the day they’ll conduct an experiment and bake cookies. Some will complete a workshop on special cuts of pork they’ve processed. But first, Rosemeyer says, “I’m going to show you how I ruined all these pans.”
What follows is a lively discussion about metallurgy, the physics of heat transfer, why Teflon flakes into your scrambled eggs, and praise for cast iron (with some notable caveats).
For Dan Bolduc, who has been a professional cook, the program inspired a new career focus. “It sparked my first interest in science by connecting science directly with something I do everyday.” In the spring, Bolduc is conducting a lab-based inquiry to determine how feed, pasturing, fresh air, exercise and other factors affect the flavor and nutritive qualities of beef. After Evergreen, he and Newhouse both plan to enroll in Oregon State University’s graduate food sciences program.
Kate Savkovich, who studied with Rosemeyer in another program, Seeds of Change, celebrates the rising food consciousness in the U.S. She also worries that the movement may be passing by those who need it most. “The drive for food security, food choice and food autonomy has become a really liberal and progressive movement,” she says, “and in some ways it has become less accessible or at least less appealing to low-income and underserved communities.” After she graduates, Savkovich plans to return to her hometown, Louisville, Ky., to help marginalized communities gain more control over how their food is grown.
Meanwhile, Savkovich, Thurston, Bolduc and other students have put their values and food knowledge into the Flaming Eggplant, Evergreen’s student-run café now in its third year of operation. There are free-range eggs on the menu, sausages from pastured animals, wild salmon patties, wholesome soups, plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, and organic espresso. A map on the café’s wall shows the locations of the Eggplant’s suppliers. Most are within 30 miles of Olympia; the farthest is in western Oregon.
Providing an alternative to the corporate-run campus food service was at the heart of the student movement that created the Eggplant, says Sarah Rocker, the café’s staff advisor. “The students were learning about food justice, health, sustainability, all these things in the classroom, but they didn’t have a place to put that in practice with their forks,” she says. “Whether it’s in meetings of café employees or through our always-open comment box, consensus decision making helps us ensure that the café is in tune with what people need.”
They say you are what you eat. For many Evergreen students—in academic programs, as food vendors and preparers, and at the Flaming Eggplant—how we meet that most basic need speaks volumes about who we are.
They are demonstrating that it’s possible to feed ourselves in ways that hold out the promise of life for all of Earth’s seven billion people, and that still taste delicious.
Kate Savkovich and Jesse Thurston share a passion for food and food consciousness, which they put into practice working at Evergreen’s student-run Flaming Eggplant Café.