notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
This past semester I moved up the academic ranks from teaching First Year Composition to Advanced Composition, where I have a bit more freedom in regards to selecting texts. Since the Advanced Comp course is mandatory and multi-disciplinary (although very research-heavy), I struggled while developing my syllabus to choose readings and assignments that would cater to a variety of majors and academic interests. The last half of the course is dedicated to students writing a research paper in their major (I have future nurses, news anchors, art historians, IT professionals, and psychologists all in one classroom) or academic discipline (anywhere from the Natural Sciences to the Humanities). But the first half, I decided, would be themed: readings and discussions all centered around food.
Food Studies is a new interest of mine. For years I lumped “food writing” under the umbrella of creative nonfiction or the genre of travelogue, but only recently have I realized what a unique and diverse field it is becoming. Universities around the country are beginning to develop interdisciplinary Food Studies Master’s and minors–my alma mater, James Madison University, is one of them–incorporating the fields of Ecology, Nutrition, Anthropology, English, and others into various hands-on classes.
Food articles–like those dealing with higher education–seem to really spark a visceral reaction in many students. (They might be studying completely different fields and have diverse professional interests, but everybody eats.) The documentary Food, Inc. and the essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” by William Deresiewicz are usually the two pieces that invite the most searing commentary in my classes, even from the quietest students.
I fly through dozens of Food Studies books in my spare time (more on those in future posts), but it was a challenge to choose accessible, relevant, interesting and occasionally humorous pieces that non-English major Sophomores and Juniors would be eager to discuss in class. (Since this was a Composition class, not an Intro to Food Studies course, I left out much of the theoretical approaches to the subject.) I made the mistake last year of assigning Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto to my ENGH101 classes–most of them hated it. (To be honest, many students will roll their eyes at any required reading assignment, but Pollan’s book in particular really rubbed them the wrong way.) But I wanted Pollan to have a voice in my chorus of “Food Studies” articles. You’ll see in my list below the most successful food-related articles and essays we discussed in class, as well as where to locate them.
Anthony Bourdain, “Where Food Comes From” from his book A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines (first person travelogue about the author’s uneasy experience witnessing a pig slaughter in Portugal with his friend, Jose, at the family farm)
Jonathan Safran Foer, “Against Meat” published originally in The New York Times and later expanded into a book entitled Eating Animals (part storytelling, part first person narrative about Safran Foer’s grandmother–a Holocaust survivor–and the author’s transition from meat-eater to vegetarian father)
Irene Sax, “The Age of Casseroles” from The Best Food Writing 2007 (Sax investigates the rise and fall of the casserole in America in the mid-twentieth century)
Jiayang Fan, “Eating Alone in China” from The New Yorker (Fan dines at a Chinese hot pot restaurant alone, much to her chagrin–but at least she has her Facebook friends to keep her company)
Maira Kalman, “Back to the Land” from her The New York Times’ “And the Pursuit of Happiness” blog (controversial photo essay featuring schoolyard farms, the overpriced Chez Panisse, and the founding fathers)
Eric LeMay, “In Defense of Food Writing: A Reader’s Manifesto” from Alimentum (tongue-in-cheek essay best read alongside Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto)
Michael Stusser, “Organicize Me” from The Best Food Writing 2007 (somewhat out-of-date article originally published in The Seattle Weekly about the author’s month-long experiment eating solely organic)
Michael Pollan, “The Feedlot” from his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and also published by The New York Times Magazine as “Power Steer” (Pollan purchases a calf and follows it from birth to adulthood to eventual slaughter after a miserable life being pumped full of corn)
David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” from his book Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (DFW debates the ethics of boiling a living creature alive during the Maine Lobster Festival)