In Food Fights: Eating and Controversy in American History, juniors and seniors study American life through the history of food. Students learn about the “food fights” that lurk just beneath many prominent and lesser-known controversies, and they use food to understand the intimate lives of the people who have inhabited this continent for thousands of years. Building on years of historical study, students notice how American Indians shaped their environment, the British Empire splintered due to consumer protests, abolitionists pushed sugar boycotts, and Jim Crow’s boosters gained credibility from advocates of exercise and healthy eating. As students learn to recognize how eating has been at the crux of many turning points in United States history, they build empathy for the people whose lives became enmeshed in historical struggles.
Much of the content in our course has concerned changes in how people came to “know” their food—how their methods of growing, procuring, preparing, and eating food shaped how they saw the world. Books, no matter how excellent, offer only so much understanding, especially since we know that students learn complex concepts best when they are directly relevant to their own lives. Since most students have limited experience with making food but extensive experience eating food at Hewitt, we decided to examine how our food is prepared in Hewitt’s own kitchen at the scale needed to nourish our community daily. We invited Stephanie Silvera, Hewitt’s executive chef, to visit Food Fights to tell us about her career as a chef and her experiences in the culinary world in New York City and at Hewitt. After a lively discussion with the students, Chef Stephanie kindly extended an invitation to visit her kitchen, and we were thrilled to be able to take her up on the offer. We put on gloves and aprons to help sautée mushrooms, squeeze vegetable juices through cheesecloth, and prepare meatloaf and rice.
Visiting the kitchen at Hewitt and hearing from Chef Stephanie was a joyful experience. It also proved to be an illuminating one. Rapidly, the class became excited about the various aspects involved in food production. On returning to our classroom, they asked questions about how the kitchen staff used their physical space to prepare and cook many different entrees and side dishes, and, given Hewitt’s commitment to sustainability, the students were also taken with the complexity of estimating order amounts and reducing food waste.
Moving into the last part of the year, students will have the chance to practice both their historical analysis skills and use their own experiences with real-life food production by writing a “review” that puts a restaurant, dish, or method of cooking into its historical context. As students embark on this project, they will continue to equip themselves to ask how the most abstract of ideas play out in quotidian ways by exploring the history and current customs around eating and food. Some students have chosen to focus their research on the ubiquitous presence of curry, tacos, and sushi in New York City, while others are looking at the historical context of restaurants such as the Upper West Side’s Barney Greengrass and Thai Farm Kitchen in Brooklyn. Through these subjects, students will explore both food itself and the heady controversies that surround it, from debates about authenticity and cultural appropriation to battles over rent and wages.