Food for thought

April 07, 2014 | Ron Wagner ’93, Contributing Writer

The students waited in anticipation as Chef Adam Fox put the first spoonful to his lips.

The four, who made up one of six groups in Professor Sarah Worth’s Philosophy of Food weekly lab, had made chicken curry, garnished with rice and fresh pineapple. Their only guidance was a table of groceries and knowing their creations were about to be judged.

Certified by the American Culinary Association, Chef Adam’s critique wasn’t guaranteed to be all positive, so relief washed over their faces when the words “It’s good!” spilled out. “Fresh jalapenos? I like the kick,” he added before moving to the next table and its duck tacos as the amateur chefs dug into their self-made dinner.

“The class has helped me think more critically about food and transparency from start to finish,” said junior Blake Yoder. “For example, if you have a plate that’s aesthetically pleasing but you know it was produced using low-wage workers or the animal was abused in a slaughterhouse, can it still be considered aesthetically pleasing? There are questions that I have considered in this class that I haven’t considered apart from this class.”

Philosophy of food? Most Americans have one, and it goes something like this:

Hungry. Eat something that tastes good and probably too much of it. Pay as little as possible. Repeat.

What the heck do you need a class on that for?

That approach is soothing in its simplicity, but some are realizing there is more to the story. Becoming a mother made Worth one of those people. “I became really interested in food seven years ago when I gave birth to twins and all of the sudden it really mattered what they ate,” she said. “Being a philosopher I started reading everything I could get my hands on about quality and distance and environment, all the kinds of choices that get put into this.”

And the more she thought about the subject the more she realized how little thought was being put into the subject. Giving her students the opportunity to bring their bright, young minds to the conversation was a natural next step.

Worth scheduled the class for the spring of 2014 anticipating “maybe five” students out to satisfy a General Education Requirement. What she got instead were 28 who have eagerly tackled questions ranging from feeding the poor to gluttony to how eating together shapes our morality to animal treatment and the environment.

“It’s been fun to assign old philosophical arguments about morality and such to eating,” Worth said. “Then of course we have all of the ethical considerations that have to do with purchasing power. What do we buy and should we eat animals? Can I eat meat if it’s sustainably raised, if the animal is morally treated, or can I not eat it at all? And how do I come up with my food rules, how do I come up with my own personal food choices?”

Jenny Steel, a sophomore from Jacksonville, Fla., had considered some of these issues before taking the class. Her mother already fed her family minimally processed food, and her younger sister is a vegetarian. But she realized quickly that even the shape and height of a table, which is different in different cultures, has significance.

“We’ve been talking a lot about the central nervous system and how it’s actual pain for the animals (to be slaughtered),” she said. “It’s been making me question eating meat or being more detailed on where I get meat and how it’s done. It’s been a real eye-opener, for sure.”

Almost as much of an eye-opener as a duck egg that has been fermenting underground for several months, a Chinese delicacy, or beef tongue. Students prepare meals in relation to the subject matter of the week, and culturally forbidden foods are also a frequently visited topic.

Worth says the lab portion is what makes the class really unique, and without Aramark—Furman’s food-service provider—agreeing to supply food, two chefs (Chef Adam and Chef Ralph), and space at the Younts Center it wouldn’t have been possible. The lab also opens students’ eyes to where their food comes from.

They haven’t always liked the view.

“I haven’t really changed my diet from taking this class, but I think it’s made me more angry at some people than not. McDonald’s and stuff—they’re not transparent. It’s just mass-farmed and mass-produced,” Yoder said.

It’s no accident that her students are mostly unaware of the origin of their food. “We don’t know where our food comes from, and for the most part we don’t care. And that’s hidden carefully (by corporations),” Worth says.

Steel hasn’t changed her eating habits, “at least not yet,” but she has started questioning many things she previously didn’t—in no small part because of conversations with her classmates.

“We have a vegan in our class, but it’s no shouting, no throwing it upon anyone else. It’s all civil discourse,” she said. “It’s been cool.”

Worth has also been asking herself questions.

“I had been a vegetarian for 15–20 years . . . But it really seems like a kind of arbitrary choice, because you can eat vegetarian and get really low-quality stuff from mass conglomerate corporations that treat their employees really badly or it all comes from China,” she said. “What’s super cool is what an awesome time in these kids’ lives to think seriously about food as they are really about to become consumers. They are not really spending money significantly yet themselves, but these are lifetime choices.”