Quick-frozen mashed potatoes and condensed cream-of-chicken soup might seem unlikely harbingers of cultural insight, but Jenna Weissman-Joselit is undeterred.

She has just given the 13 students enrolled in her freshman seminar, “Let’s Eat: Food in American Culture,” a recipe for vichyssoise from Poppy Cannon’s 1952 convenience-food manifesto, The Can-Opener Cookbook. There actually are two recipes for this cold potato soup in the book — this is the “glamorous” version. After all, the students discover, Cannon does tell her readers to garnish it with sliced scallions and serve it in glass bowls set in crushed ice.

“What strikes you immediately about this recipe?” Weissman-Joselit asks the students, many of whom are savoring their last bites of the cookies Weissman-Joselit handed out at the beginning of the session, as she does each week.

Hilary Moss ’12 chimes in immediately. “I like the use of the word ‘glamorous,’” she says with a slightly raised eyebrow as she notes the rather simple ingredients, which include milk, butter, and onion salt. A brief conversation about quick-frozen mashed potatoes (do they sell those anymore?) ensues. “There’s no real cooking,” adds Andrew Pritula ’12. “You heat it up, put it in the refrigerator, and wait until it’s cold.” Emilia Petrucci ’12 hones in on the recipe’s conversational tone. “I think she wants people to feel like they can’t go wrong — to think, why not try this recipe?”

From there, the discussion touches on Cannon’s blatantly unapologetic tone — no embarrassment about the use of convenience foods here — and her emphasis on presentation.

“You can get a lot out of this particular recipe,” Weissman-Joselit tells the students. “Is it about the making of the dish? No, it’s a recipe for living. It’s a cultural touchstone of its time.”

This semester marks the fifth time Weissman-Joselit, a social historian, has taught “Let’s Eat.” The course developed out of her fascination with daily life in the 19th and 20th centuries. She previously taught a freshman seminar called “Getting Dressed,” in which students investigated the significance of the clothes we wear, using Weissman-Joselit’s own 2001 book, A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America, to guide them. In that book, which examines the fashions of the 1890s through the 1930s, Joselit showed how fashion was not a private affair but had a higher, public purpose: In an era marked by wave after wave of immigration, clothing helped define how “acceptable” Americans should appear and how they could show their individuality.

So it is with food.

As she points out to the students, cookbooks are about much more than making the perfect vichyssoise — they’re filled with recipes to help people become who they want to be, tablespoon by tablespoon. Their popularity took off after World War II, in a time when vast cultural changes were under way. Increasing numbers of women were heading into the workforce, modern-day appliances like freezers and can openers (patented in 1858) were invading kitchens across the country, and families were spreading out. People had less time to cook and no one teaching them how to do it — on top of the belief that they could be (or at least, cook) anything. Enter the genre of the cookbook, filled with seemingly humble guides to living in modernity and navigating the challenges of a changing world.

“The cookbook is really a complicated text,” Weissman-Joselit tells the students, with rising enthusiasm in her voice. “You realize there’s more than meets the eye. It’s not about food; it’s about situating yourself in relation to modernity. ... It’s a very exciting text that holds out for us the promise of transformation, the promise that is essential to the American experience as a whole. What more quintessentially American document do we have?”

Weissman-Joselit’s class is one of a growing number of food-related courses on campus.
Pietro Frassica, a professor of French and Italian, began teaching “Literature of Gastronomy” in Italian in the 1992–93 school year. From Carlo Collodi’s classic tale Pinocchio to Federico Fellini’s Golden Globe-nominated film Roma, Frassica’s course delves into cultural works to explore the meaning of food in society throughout history, including its roles in religion and medicine.
“This is not a course for students to learn to cook,” says Frassica, who recently added a second food-related course to his repertoire, “Italy: Land of Slow Food” (see accompanying article). “The purpose is for students to understand — through novels, films, and paintings — the role of food in our society. I want to educate and inform students to think about food.”
When Frassica began teaching the class, it was offered only once every four years, and only in Italian. Because of growing demand, he now teaches it every year, in English. It continues to be immensely popular: Last spring, the course filled to capacity — some 160 students — about five minutes after registration began.
Inspired by Frassica’s literature course, Ronald Surtz, a professor of Spanish, taught “Gastronomy in Spanish Literature” for the first time last year, using works by authors including Gabriel GarcÌa M·rquez and Laura Esquivel to explore food and cultural identity.
Not all the courses concern the cultural aspects of what goes on our plates. In two different classes, Xenia Morin, a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program and the Princeton Environmental Institute, focuses on the environmental and policy implications inherent in the subject. This semester, she launched “Agriculture and Food: A Foundation for Living,” which aims to help students think about global food systems and challenges them to think about environmentally sound agricultural practices. She’s in her fourth year of teaching a writing seminar on “The Future of Food,” which explores topics ranging from genetically modified food to nutrition to the issues posed by an ever-increasing human population.
Other seminars in recent years include “From Farm to Fork,” taught by visiting lecturer and geographer Deborah Popper, and a spring 2008 freshman seminar on “Food and the Planet,” taught by Tim Searchinger, a visiting research scholar in the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Woodrow Wilson School.
“‘Let’s Eat’ takes something familiar and accessible and shows it to be a far more complicated and multifaceted phenomenon than anyone had previously imagined,” explains Weissman-Joselit. “For one thing, it prompts the students to think critically and imaginatively, providing them with a set of interpretive tools that they’ll take with them as their careers at Princeton unfold. For another thing, studying the relationship between food and culture puts the students in touch with the arts and literature, film, science, politics, ethics, religion, and history. In one fell swoop, it introduces them to so many of the disciplines that they will eventually claim as their own.”
Weissman-Joselit wants her students to know not only what food says about the different generations of people who have consumed it and the society they live in, but what’s involved in getting the food to their tables. And so the “Let’s Eat” students embark on field trips, on and off campus. Late one afternoon, the students find themselves in the Princeton University Bake Shop, deep in the basement beneath the Mathey and Rockefeller college dining halls. Though the temperature can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit when the massive multideck oven is cranked up, it’s comfortably cool right now — the dining halls are closed for the Cane Spree barbecue.
University executive chef Rob Harbison, known as Chef Rob, gives the students a quick introduction to the place and, before they know it, they’re making dinner. Some are chopping vegetables for personalized pizzas and panzanella salad. Others are sautÈing garlic for fresh pizza sauce, peeling Gala apples for turnovers, and using a giant electronic mixer to prep pizza dough (it took three students to empty a 50-pound bag of flour and 15 quarts of water into the machine).
“The point of the cooking class is to introduce the students to the people in the dining halls and help them understand where their food is coming from,” Weissman-Joselit explains. “It’s an informal learning opportunity.”
The students, it seems, get her point. “After all the talking about cooking and eating, it was nice to take a break and actually get some hands-on experience,” says Jenna Devine ’12, a few days later. “[Chef Rob] was a great teacher and really let us take control of the kitchen. I also had no idea that the bake shop in which we had our class produced almost all of the baked goods served all over campus. ... I developed a new appreciation for the amount of work our dining-hall staff puts in.”
To understand how food is portrayed in art, the students visit the Princeton University Art Museum. At the student-run farmers’ market, they learn about issues facing local agriculture. Chats with guest lecturers including food writer Laura Shapiro and restaurateur Jack Morrison, owner of Princeton’s Nassau Street Seafood, Blue Point Grill, and Witherspoon Grill, add interdisciplinary spice to the educational menu. There is also an all-day field trip to New York City, complete with a visit to gourmet food store Dean & DeLuca and meetings with the manager and staff of Savoy, a Soho restaurant with a commitment to locally grown produce.
When Shapiro visits the class, she offers an insider’s view of the process she went through as she researched and wrote her biography of culinary and cultural phenomenon Julia Child. To prepare for the occasion, students watched an episode of Child’s hit television show, The French Chef, on how to roast a chicken. Weissman-Joselit stuck to the theme with the snack selection on the day of Shapiro’s visit: butter cookies from Normandy, France.
“The project of the book was to find out what it was about Julia. ... Why was she so important?” Shapiro says to the students. “One of the things that grew out of [the book], partly from the research and partly from the writing, was that I realized I was not writing about an expert in French cooking — I was writing about an American. She was an American from beginning to end. Everything about her was as American as you could possibly be, even — or especially — her approach to French cooking.” As Shapiro points out, Child was not an innately talented chef — becoming a good cook was a goal she set for herself and something she worked diligently to achieve.
Shapiro’s presentation and intimate knowledge of Child — she once attended a dinner party chez Child — strike a chord with the students, many of whom never have seen television footage of the cooking icon. They pepper Shapiro with questions to try to understand this woman who was so loved, so complicated (Child was a spy with the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA), and so utterly different from today’s Food Network stars, like Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentiis.
“She was homophobic and, when she was critiquing other cooks, it seemed she could be harsh and blunt,” says Calvin Lee ’12. “I could see how she could rub people the wrong way. Did she have a lot of enemies?”
“Actually not,” Shapiro responds, not squeamish about the subject of Child’s homophobia, which became publicly known in the 1980s. “It was such an anomaly in the life of a truly decent person and a liberal. ... I really feel it had much more to do with her own feeling about being a woman than with anyone else’s feelings about sex.”
Throughout the “Let’s Eat” seminar, Weissman-Joselit doesn’t avoid the deep and disturbing aspects of the American relationship with food, including eating disorders, cultural clashes, and our diet-obsessed-yet-obesity-prone culture. Indeed, Fast Food Nation, a devastating exposÈ of the fast-food industry by Eric Schlosser ’81, is on the syllabus. (See PAW’s interview with Schlosser on page 33.)
Rebecca Gold ’09, who took the seminar as a freshman, liked the way Weissman-Joselit “refused to engage with clichÈ” and explored how food and eating play a role not only in domestic life, but in political, social, psychological, and racial matters. The professor “did not shy away from unpacking the darker side of gastronomical experience,” Gold says.
Jade Faugno ’09, who enrolled in “Let’s Eat” the same semester, says the class helped her explore her relationship with food — a relationship she describes as “adversarial” during her high school years, when she went on a “major health kick” while watching the Food Network every evening. “Let’s Eat,” she says, hit home.
“I learned how something as fundamental to human existence as the food we eat can be so fraught with cultural, social, and historical significance,” Faugno says. “I was able to learn about the culinary ‘personalities’ of my classmates, who represented many different backgrounds.” Though the course invoked a wide variety of experiences from the class members, she says, it left “everyone feeling so connected to a global culture.
“That,” she continues, “is the undeniable power of food.”
Hilary Parker ’01 is a freelance writer living in Princeton.