At 1,800-student Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., a class called Food for Thought has been educating students about health, sustainability, the history of food and nutrition. This semester the class added a laboratory component to the class, which gets students out of the classroom and into either the campus garden or dining hall kitchen. Frank Sciacca, professor of the Food for Thought class, and Patrick Raynard, general manager for Bon Appétit at Hamilton College, spoke to FSD about how they work together to make the class a success.
How did the class get started?
The class has been going on for several years. It is an interdisciplinary investigation into food. It covers all types of food issues. It not only discusses a scientific approach to nutrition and gastrointestinal issues but also a study of the development of different cuisines. Our first experience with breaking out of the classroom was a couple of years ago, we planted a historical garden called the 1812 garden. Our goal was to recreate a kitchen garden of central New York around 1812, which is the founding year of Hamilton College. The garden is part of a larger project called the community farm, where heirloom vegetables are produced. There are two projects running side by side.
Our first experience with Bon Appétit was a dinner we did called a Galaxy Dinner. Years ago the college had put these dinners on. We did some research on some recipes and we used strictly early 19th century techniques and produce. So we had that relationship and last year we wanted to get the students not only growing the stuff in the historical garden but also learning how to cook it and work with it. We came to Bon Appétit to see if they’d be interested in helping us learn how to process foods. They were delighted to do so.
How does the class work?
It’s a seminar. We’ve been letting in about 20 students a semester. It’s a regular class at the college. The group of students range from all years. We meet in the classrooms for lectures two days a week and then Friday afternoon we have what we consider our lab work, which is getting them out of the classroom and into the kitchen or garden.
The kids that sign up for this class are already predisposed to eat more carefully than your average college student. That’s good and bad. We do our best at trying to reach out to those kids who are not automatically drawn to it. Those students who need little more educating. It’s interesting because we have a few proctoring exercises to get the kids out there and talking with families and friends about food choices, and they’ve got some of the readings on the ethics of what we eat. Get them thinking about it. It works very nicely.
What have the labs been like?
One of our recent workshops in the dining hall was we worked with the chefs on using some of the produce that came out of the 1812 garden like squash. The first one we did was smoking meats. Because Bon Appétit sources locally we were able to have a whole conversation about local sourcing and eating locally. We also made tofu during that workshop and taught students how to make it themselves using soymilk. For the second workshop we had a Hamilton grad, who is the chief executive chef of Legal Sea Foods in Boston. He was on campus and Bon Appétit let us use their kitchens and he did a workshop and brought a lot of fish with him, so we were able to talk about fish sustainability. We were able to complement what he brought with some of the produce from the 1812 garden. We may do something like a final dinner after Thanksgiving.
What were some of the challenges in setting up the class components?
We’ve gotten to be pretty good at it. We added the labs this semester so the challenges are more organizational like trying to get everyone to get over the nerve-wracking sensations that occur when you haven’t cooked something before. When you are presenting you want it to work well. We’ve had some success and failures. We’ve gotten into the habit of doing prep work to make sure all the kinks are worked out.
It’s interesting that we have a lot of other schools inquiring about the garden, how we work with Bon Appétit, how we bring that into a classroom. Cooking isn’t considered an academic subject, but it’s becoming more and more legitimate.
What kind of advice would you give to other operators?
Just be open to everything. We are very open to helping any class on campus because we believe it is part of our job to educate students. The biggest thing is to have an open mind and find a way to do it to strengthen the community that you are in. From the faculty point of view just be bold and jump in and ask. This group of people is so willing to jump in for some wacky ideas. We are getting a great reputation not only for the class but also how we work with the foodservice. Colgate University [a Sodexo account] have been using our garden and community farm as an example of the kind of sustainable initiatives that can be instituted. Down the road we’ll have a nice impact on what they were doing down there.