From the Ivory Tower Kitchen: Gravy for the Brain

Whether one lives to eat, eats to live, or as one is in all likelihood, somewhere in between, the influence of what we eat during the course of our lifetimes leaves a profound and lasting impression on our bodies and minds. Amidst the push for improving our food systems, nutrition in school lunches, access to healthy food, local food, etc., we are missing an opportunity to use the vast and influential platform of academia to teach through the medium of food.

Pizza, that universally beloved flatbread tells the story of bread making and breaking, cross pollination and coincidental creation using native ingredients, and naturally, the story of Italian immigrants to North America. It contains within it the story of weakening language barriers in the new world through the voice of food. It also demonstrates how simultaneous thought-percolating in the human mind from vastly distant lands, evolves ingenuity, trade, and invention through necessity. These are all teaching moments and it doesn’t depend on whether or not one prefers pepperoni on their pizza.

Curry, the quintessentially Southeast Asian flavor, dish, and style, tells the story of a land fragmented for millennia, but held together by a strong sense of culture, language(s), and resilience. It also tells the story of colonization, condescendence, and subjugation. While the bounty of the land, vibrancy of the customs, depth of its peoples’ outlook on life, and contradictions of its co-existence are storied, the stereotypical impression of what curry is or isn’t are opportunities for learning about, reflecting within, and celebrating amongst the many-sounds-one-voice paradigm of humanity. And it doesn’t depend on whether you like Tikka Masala, Korma, Avial, or Rendang.

Gumbo, the distinct celebration of the melting pot cuisine of Louisiana tells the story of French formality melding with the thrifty utilization of ingredients by the have-nots against the backdrop of a landscape filled with pomp, circumstance, and color. Plantation life, sweltering temperatures, a gusto for life, slavery, and food (in)equality are just some fora for conversation, research, exploration, and even innovation. Whether you do or don’t like okra and/or tomatoes in your gumbo, there is no denying the power, for at least a modicum, of enlightenment, before, during, and after the preparation of a pot of gumbo.

While we debate the virtues of whether or not our food is local, sustainable, anti-biotic free, pesticide free, organic, humanely raised (all supremely relevant and important aspects), we may be missing opportunities to illustrate and make deeper connections with the entire world around us, through food. In our school and college cafeterias, can you imagine the power of serving food which complements and supplements academic curricula? Can you imagine food serving stations that are inspired not only by techniques, ingredients, seasons, budgets, flavor, and culture, but also by subjects already being taught in the classrooms? A business major learns about accounting and balance sheets and is able to observe implementations and illustrations of those concepts in the dining hall on campus. A budding physician makes concrete connections between documented health benefits of ingredients in a hot station special as it relates to the prevention of chronic ailments and diseases. A future farmer makes connections with current farmers via the transparency of sourcing. A political science student sees the ramifications of unrest in another part of the world illustrated by the absence of certain products on the lunch menu.

The case for universal education through the lens of food is obvious, daunting, and exciting. I remind my students that they will never disconnect from the food studies first year seminar for as long as they eat. And that doesn’t depend on whether they eat pizza, curry, gumbo, or none of the above. As CJ Drake used to say “Wine is gravy for the brain.” I say food is gravy for the brain.

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