Food for Thought in the Liberal Arts

A Taste of Undergraduate Research Projects in the Gardens, Kitchen and Classrooms
Food for Thought

“We all eat.” That seems obvious. But a statement like that at UNC Asheville isn’t going to be left without discussion. A subject as ubiquitous as food invites exploration from many angles—a perfect challenge for UNC Asheville students and faculty.

“People think food is a narrow topic,” said Amy Lanou, associate professor of health and wellness. “But by the time you start thinking about the whole food system and all the aspects of the food system, from agriculture to marketing to consumption, it’s really a broad topic.”

Research starts with how food is grown. How is it processed and prepared? How is it advertised, and how does that affect the culture of the consumers? For that matter, how does the culture affect the food? UNC Asheville students and faculty from environmental studies to literature and language are examining food and what food means to us—a journey that takes us from the tiniest chemical elements to far away countries and ancient times.

It begins in the garden.

A Seed of an Idea

Senior Emma Hutchens tends to the Rhoades Property Garden on campus. (Photo by Perry Hebard)UNC Asheville has a community garden, and senior Emma Hutchens wants everyone to know about it. 

“The Rhoades property was purchased by UNC Asheville a few years ago,” Hutchens explained. “There is a functioning community garden there. The Rhoades Garden is there to serve the UNC Asheville community as well as the community that surrounds the campus.”

The garden, managed mostly by the Student Environmental Center, flourishes with vegetables, herbs and annual plants. There are plans for growing perennials as well, such as berry bushes and fruit trees. It’s already buzzing with bee hives too.

What the garden is missing, however, are students.

“I noticed immediately that not many people know about it,” Hutchens said. “Is transportation a barrier? Is it that the garden’s not very visible, or does it need better signage?”

So Hutchens is conducting an undergraduate research project to find the answers, with support from the Local Food Research Fellows program. The fellows program, part of a larger project led by Interdisciplinary Distinguished Professor of the Mountain South Leah Greden Mathews, is funded with support from the National Research Initiative of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture [USDA Grant #2012-68006-30182]. Under the guidance of Kevin Moorhead, professor of environmental studies, Hutchens is creating and distributing a survey to determine what the community wants to get out of the garden, and how to get more students’ hands in the soil.

“People in America right now are eating very badly,” Hutchens said. “We’re eating food that’s not nutritious, we’re losing heirloom varieties of plants, and there are people living in inner cities—and that’s including Asheville—who don’t have enough to eat.”

Hutchens sees access to community gardens as a step toward solving those problems. She also is helping Moorhead teach an agricultural systems class, which brings students into the garden once a week.

“If I can get students to grow food for the rest of their lives, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something,” Moorhead said. “It could be as simple as a tomato plant.” 

The 18 students in the class are currently planting a fall garden in raised beds and preparing additional beds for the spring. The garden also is fertile ground for scientific research. Page Johnston, a senior environmental studies student who is also a Local Food Research Fellow, is comparing the effects of different fertilizers on her vegetable yield, including a special organic fertilizer called “biochar.” 

Johnston hopes her research will help future UNC Asheville students use the space in the garden effectively. Ryan Rosemond, also a senior environmental studies major, and the student manager of the garden, hopes it will “capture the imagination of students,” and encourage them to explore the opportunities the garden can provide them. 

The food grown by this class doesn’t need to travel far. It will go across campus to UNC Asheville’s Teaching Kitchen, to the students in Lanou’s “Foodways in History and Culture” class.

Cooking Up Curiosity

Associate Professor Amy Lanou cooks up a healthy curriculum and meal in UNC Asheville's Teaching Kitchen in the Wilma M. Sherrill Center. (Photo by Galen McGee ’08)“It’s like having a wet lab for chemistry,” Lanou explained. “You can talk about principles until you’re blue in the face, but until you’ve actually mixed vinegar and baking soda, you don’t know what it does.”

That same approach works with healthy cooking. The Teaching Kitchen, which has been host to a variety of organizations and courses for the Asheville community, will feature a UNC Asheville academic course for the first time this semester. 

“They’re going to be learning healthy eating principles,” Lanou said. “Not just how to cook, but the history of the food culture.”

And the Teaching Kitchen isn’t the only lab that’s focused on food. In her “Food of Chemistry” course, Sally Wasileski helps students overcome their fear of chemistry with ice cream. 

“We’re trying to relate basic chemistry principles that we would teach in a general chemistry course here, but give examples of that through food,” the associate professor of chemistry explained. “So if someone wants to describe the difference between a chemical change and a physical change, well, a physical change is making ice cream.”

Turning something from a liquid to a solid, like freezing ice cream, is one delicious physical change. And that’s just the first day of class.

“For every topic, we do some different examples. We make truffles, we bake cookies, we make angel food cake, we make mayonnaise and butter. We learn different chemistry principles and how they manifest in these different foods.”

A Healthy Helping of Research

Senior Jessica Lewis turned to canned goods and cookbooks to research Appalachian foodways. (Photo by Luke Bukoski)Food, of course, is more than just the elements that create it. Across the Quad from the chemistry lab, in the department of literature and language, senior Jessica Lewis is taking a closer look at the cultural significance of food, particularly the significance of cornbread in Appalachia.

“Food is a very intimate thing,” Lewis said. “One item of food says a lot about your class: how much time you have to put into it, how many resources you have to put into it, what kind of tools you need to make it.

“It says a lot about the society from which you came, how that came to be,” Lewis continued. “For instance, cornbread occurred from ethnic mixing, though not very peaceable, of African Americans and Native Americans and European descendants existing together.”

As foodways scholar Elizabeth Engelhardt explains in her research, missionaries who were sent to Appalachia to bring reforms in health and education targeted corn, what they saw as savage and unrefined, to be replaced with wheat—cornbread to be replaced with biscuits. 

“A lot of it had to do with class, and how much money you had,” said Erica Abrams Locklear, associate professor of literature and Lewis’ research adviser. Paraphrasing Engelhardt’s work, Abrams Locklear stated, “You could grow your own corn, but wheat is much more difficult to grow in Appalachia, so you generally have to import it. You can bake cornbread in an iron skillet over a fire or you can bury the Dutch oven in the coals, but to make beaten biscuits you actually need a stove, you need a marble slab, you need labor, you have to have more economic capital.”

Through her USDA-funded research, Lewis studied countless cookbooks, missionary publications and oral histories of Appalachian residents, and made an interesting discovery.

“What I saw was a complete and utter discrepancy between the perceptions of Appalachian residents’ knowledge and their actual knowledge,” she said. “In the oral history reports, Appalachian residents displayed extreme sophistication in their knowledge of foodways systems, knowledge of preserving, canning techniques, exhibiting knowledge of nutrition—all of which were things that missionaries targeted in need of reform in the missionary publications.”

Lewis found contemporary examples of this disconnect as well, including a travel show that featured Appalachia as an exotic cuisine location, similar to other episodes exploring foreign countries such as Cambodia and India. But she also is finding more recent instances of Appalachian people having a voice in representing their own food culture. 

“What’s interesting is that, at least in cookbooks, there is a reclamation of these foods that were demonized,” Lewis said. “There’s this sort of active agency for Appalachian people to speak up and say, ‘this is our food, and we’re proud of it.’”

Tasting History

Katie Borders, Cassi Sorrell, Kamren Kowa and Alex Ray, who traveled abroad to Greece and Turkey over the summer, come together for a reunion meal, sharing memories and recipes. (Photo by Luke Bukoski)Understanding the foodways of a place also can be a great introduction to international cultures. As Lewis was learning about local culture through food this summer, students in the “Foodways of the Mediterranean” study abroad course were delving into the culture and cuisine of Turkey and Greece. It was the perfect way to connect not only to a foreign culture during their trip, but also to ancient history.

“Food has always been part of the fabric of life,” said Lanou, who taught the course as one of three classes offered during the trip. “It’s another one of those nice connections to history. So many of the foods we ate then and were available then are foods we still eat. That’s a really easy connector for folks to Mycenaean times or ancient Greek times or Roman, across the centuries.”

“I specifically remember when we were in Greece, seeing the barley and wheat growing,” said Lisa Riggsbee, a junior health and wellness promotion major. “Amy (Lanou) would pick it and say, this is what it looks like, and it’s still growing here, just like it did a bajillion years ago.”

“We would go to these sites and there would be fig trees and olive trees,” added Andrew Sparks, a junior mathematics major. The students picked lemons outside their hotel, or adventurously sampled shark and octopus—tentacles and all. 

Food for Thought” Cluster Wins National AwardThe students cooked three meals together as a group: the first in the Teaching Kitchen at UNC Asheville before their travels began, a second on the island of Lesvos in Greece, and a final Mediterranean potluck and mini-reunion when they returned to Asheville. The potluck gave the students a chance to reminisce about their adventures together while sharing some of the food they had learned to make—spanakopita, zucchini fritters, Santorinian salad—and the chance to talk about the research they conducted once they got home.

For example, Sparks focused his research on the military city-state of Sparta. “At that time exotic foods and spices were considered luxuries, and effeminate,” he said. “And in a military state like Sparta, anything effeminate was looked down upon. So, pretty much you had to eat disgusting food, like black broth.”

Fortunately, students found the overall experience more appetizing, and back on campus they can still sample a piece of the experience in the Ancient Garden, located near New Hall, where just outside of their classes they can pick grapes and blueberries. It rounds out a food journey that took them to kitchens and dinner tables halfway across the world and finally found them back home, in the garden.