Some courses are easier to translate to an experiential learning platform. In a class I am teaching on the history of food, from Palaeolithic times to now, I first wanted to incorporate the idea of recreating recipes from various time periods on campus. It would have been fun, and extremely educational to have students recreate foods from old recipes. Of course these high hopes were dashed pretty quickly when people outside the scope said there were no facilities – and by that they really mean “it’s not safe”, for various reasons. I do understand the concern for safety, but schools in general have been far too conscious of safety at the expense of learning. So scratch that. What can be done however is tasting. People eat, and if people are allowed to voluntarily taste or smell foods from different time periods or cultural epochs, there is nothing wrong with that. Of course, given the classroom setting, this too has its limitations, obviously hot food is out. But food like baked goods, and “processed” food like cheese have no problems.
Comparison of products can help highlight both cultural and regional differences. This has been done successfully by Willa Zhen who teaches a course, China: Food and Cultures, at the Culinary Institute of America¹. An easy food to do this with is cheese. Cheese arguably has quite a long history, and today is produced all over the world. Incorporating a cheese tasting allows a series of questions to be discussed:
- Where is the cheese produced? Country has an impact, but also the culture of the country. Is there a focus on soft fresh cheeses, or harder cheeses that can be preserved for longer?
- How do geography and environment impact the cheese? Cows which graze on alpine herbs will produce milk which is markedly different from those who graze in lowlands, or those whose feed is supplemented with fodder. For example Beemster Graskaas is a seasonal cheese produced only in the summer season, when cows are fed on young spring grass.
- Describe the colour, texture, taste, smell.
- How is the cheese produced, e.g. artisanal or industrial?
- Why is cheese dominant in certain cultures?
- How does culture affect the types of cheese produced? The Greeks like brined Feta cheese, the Icelanders like Skyr.
The same can be done with other food products and ingredients: chocolate, bread, fruit (apples are good, or tropical fruit), indigenous products, or even spices. It does require some trial-and-error on the part of the instructor, and the ability to find recipes for food that can be explored in a classroom setting. Some food epochs, such as Paleolithic are especially problematic (raw meat, nuts and berries anyone?) In this case we looked at the modern Paleo diet (and its limitations), and explored various “paleo” products on the market.
¹Zhen, W., “Tasting soy sauce, teaching culture”, Education About Asia, 22(2), pp.58-60 (2017)