Features and Occasionals

Learning to Love Real Food

By Natasha Sajé

A teacher finds that embracing new experiences may lead to a shift in perception

I’m always thinking about food—what to cook and eat, what restaurant to try. At the small private college where I teach in Utah, my colleagues also appreciate good food, so I assumed that our students did, too. After all, there is a U.S. food revolution. But I was wrong about the students. I discovered this when I traveled with a group of undergraduates for a literary and historical tour of Ireland a few years ago.

Each morning we ate “full Irish” breakfasts—eggs, bacon, sausages, beans and breads. On three evenings—when we dined as a group with invited Irish writers—the prix fixe menus featured mussels, lamb, asparagus, ramps, pudding thickened with seaweed, and other seasonal and local foods. After one of these dinners, I checked the bill and was startled to discover that two-thirds of my students had ordered hamburgers. Three hours after another dinner, I spotted some of them carrying red and white Pizza Hut boxes through our hotel’s quaint oak lobby.

On one of our longer bus rides, I was eating Irish strawberries, fragrant and in season. My students were enjoying their snacks, too—packaged snacks. I offered some berries to a girl across the aisle. “These are so delicious!” she exclaimed. “Where did you get them?” I’d bought them at a grocery near the hotel, and they had cost me no more than a bag of chips.

I realized then I had been remiss: I had made the classic mistake of assuming my students thought the way I did.

Perhaps if I’d integrated research on agri-business into our course (Literature and History), my students would have learned something from our group meals. Instead, they were absorbed by their phones, taking risks in virtual worlds while playing it safe with comfort food in the real one.

I do understand the desire for one’s customary foods while traveling. But I noticed that my students were also impatient to get the eating over with, rushing to whatever was next. It comes as no surprise to me, as shown in a recent Canadian study, that people who eat fast food are more impatient with everything else in their lives.

Back in Salt Lake, we discussed the trip. The students admitted they “didn’t care about food” and would be just as happy to “grab something” as eat in a restaurant.

To get context for that feedback, I interviewed the director of our Integrative Learning Program. She told me that food-related offerings usually draw only those already interested in eating well. She added that students tend to eat whatever they learned to eat at home. They are intimidated by new foods, she said, even by produce from the campus organic garden, offered for free.

I also talked to two food-savvy students on the committee that had chosen our new dining service. I asked how they had learned about food. One, the daughter of a former chef who was also the baker of Utah’s best organic bread, said she had grown up with food-conscious parents. The other said she’d experienced a “food awakening” after reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma during a semester in Switzerland, an awakening reinforced later by a course on ecological eating. Both women, since graduated, now work for food nonprofits. Watching my own group for 12 days told me just how exceptional these two alumnae are.

Wass der bauer nicht kennt, frisst er nicht—what the farmer doesn’t know he won’t eat. That, of course, is exactly what my students were doing and also what I did as a child. My refugee parents shook their heads whenever I turned down a new food, like clams. But over time, travel and curiosity broadened my diet. And then I ran a catering business and taught myself about food preparation and nutrition. A world of tastes, textures and delights gradually opened before me.

When I was a 21-year-old art history student in Rome, lunching on pappardelle with wild boar sauce, I was amazed to see construction workers at the next table enjoying their own multi-course meal. Today’s “average” American college student is nothing like the Italian who demands good food as a birthright.

Moreover, the median family income of students at our school is far below that of students at more elite private colleges. Sadly, food consumption in the U.S. may be changing only for the educated and monied classes. Most of my working and middle class students have not heard of Pollan’s tenets: Eat real food, mostly plants. Perhaps they and their parents, working harder than ever to stay afloat financially, must relegate cooking and the allied grace of eating well to an afterthought.

Or no thought. On the trip, during those buffet Irish breakfasts, I noticed that students routinely took more than they could eat. I noticed it also at the lunch we shared as a class after the trip. Their lack of conscience, or maybe it was  ignorance—21% of landfills consist of food waste—pained me.

I wondered: Is there a way I might teach them about food? Montaigne wrote, “It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being lawfully.” Thinking back to those dinners they didn’t enjoy, I asked myself what I could do.

My college’s previous liberal education program required students to take a course in The Living Arts—“courses with an emphasis on real world, life-enhancing knowledge.” These included Personal Finance, Yoga, Interpersonal Communication Skills and Exploring Mountain Paths. There was no course on food or diet, although a three-week course on ecological eating was offered as an elective. I use the past tense because our new liberal education program has no living arts requirement.

The social engineering aspect of a college education is made clear by the fact that our business school offers “etiquette dinners,” yet there is no required course on food responsibility. Our mission states: “Students are challenged to experiment with ideas, raise questions, critically examine alternatives, and make informed decisions. We encourage students to accept responsibility for their learning, to discover and pursue their passions, and to promote more equitable and sustainable communities.” How could food not be central to all of these things?

Perhaps I’m really asking the degree to which food education should be voluntary in higher education. Chef Alice Waters’ national program The Edible Schoolyard has long offered resources for elementary and secondary schools. Slow Food International now has a Youth Network. And in summer 2015, in 18 cities across the country, Hip Hop Public Health rolled out a nutrition course disguised as game show and music festival to fifth graders. While it’s too late to teach my 85-year-old in-laws about the drawbacks of eating at the Golden Corral, I can integrate food education into the courses I teach.

To that end, in my writing workshop, I’ve asked students to research—and prepare—a real food ingredient they’d never eaten before, and then write about the experience. The foods in their “show and tell” have included eggplant, quinoa, marjoram, juniper berries, zucchini, and beets. One student, not understanding what I meant by “real food,” brought a jar of Cajun seasoning whose first ingredient was salt. Yet everyone’s animation in relating their discoveries made me realize I’m onto something. They enjoyed learning about food. Just as my students learned to love junk food, they can learn to love real food.

Appetite is not physiological, writes Frank Bruni in a 2014 New York Times essay , citing research at the Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. In other words, it’s not a matter of taste buds or “a palate,” but rather psychology. Taste is a “function of expectation, emulation, adaptation.” So a taste for something we may initially dislike, for instance cilantro or lamb, can be learned. With repeated exposure, even people like me with “soapy taste” receptors for cilantro can learn to love it.

When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability. If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety…. But every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food. [paraphrased from Harold McGee, “Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault,” New York Times (April 14, 2010)]

So it’s a matter of conditioning and it has to start somewhere.

On the last night of the semester, I invite the class to my house for dinner, and I share my recipes. I won’t know that these innovations will make a difference in their lives, but I can’t disapprove of their diets without doing something to change them. And if there is a next time I travel with students, I’ll figure out how to help them to savor Wexford berries and Cashel blue cheese made from milk from grass-fed cows.

Natasha Sajé is the author of three books of poems, a poetry handbook and many essays. She teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program.

This article was originally published on March 31, 2018.