From Farm to Fork: Cooking something up

On the gas stove whose pilot lights never work, oversize pots bubble furiously under mismatched lids. There is a deep rumble as the overhead fan emerges from its stupor and begins literally sucking air out of the room, frantically trying to forestall another run-in with the firemen. It’s 15 minutes until dinnertime, and things are as they should be in Synergy.

Several friends spent the afternoon preparing pesto, whole wheat pasta, goat cheese salad, roasted asparagus and blackberry pies for dinner in this house of 50 students. Although things have become a little hectic in the final minutes before serving, all seven girls now helping in the kitchen have had a wonderful time cooking.

This is a rare scene on campus, though. While cooking is a daily part of life in cooperative houses like mine, the majority of campus residences don’t offer students meaningful opportunities to learn in the kitchen.

This is a missed opportunity for Stanford to teach students an essential life skill. Cooking can build community, empower students as actors in their food systems and demonstrate the environmental, social and health implications of food.

But the blame does not lie entirely with campus administrators. Even in the heart of the foodie Bay Area, Stanford lacks a cooking culture. Students are often more fond of going out to eat on weekends than staying in to cook their own meals. With thesis deadlines, midterms and job interviews, preparing food with others just isn’t always a priority.

Stanford students can choose to live in one of 10 residence halls, 20 self-ops, nine Greek houses, seven co-ops or several apartments. That’s a great diversity of choices, many of which even offer students open kitchens to explore. Dorm kitchenettes, however, can be dirty, undersupplied and cramped spaces that don’t foster much enthusiasm toward cooking. So while part of Stanford’s lacking cooking culture comes from the students, part of the problem lies with the University’s undervaluation of cooking as a worthwhile pursuit.

Parts of the Stanford population crave more opportunities to get into the kitchen. Farm-to-Fork cooking workshops hosted by the Stanford Farm Project are routinely oversubscribed, and the upcoming Cardinal Cook-Off hosted by Stanford Dining attracts a group of avid student chefs each year.

Perhaps these students recognize the values inherent to preparing food. Cooking for ourselves gives us more control over our diet and health. In a study of one public health intervention program, researchers at UC-Berkeley found that students who cook more end up eating an additional serving of fruits and vegetables per day when compared to their peers. These findings have been corroborated by additional studies from the Harvard Medical School and the University of Minnesota, and at a time when diabetes figures prominently in America, cooking may be a good personal and public health intervention for individuals of all ages.

Although it is a less tangible benefit, cooking also builds community. At Synergy, it’s hard not to form a bond with your neighbor when you’ve been assigned to dice an entire 25-pound bag of carrots. Along with questions about how many carrots it would take to turn a person orange, details about house residents’ life histories and struggles simply emerge when cooking together.

Cooking can also serve to foster an environmental ethic, build confidence and provide a productive, restorative outlet from any residual paper-writing stress. I’ve seen this happen during several cooking classes in the Stanford Dining Demonstration Kitchen as part of a student initiated course that emphasizes experiential learning as a core part of its curriculum. Students are thrilled to understand the processes behind preparing meals, from shopping and budgeting to planning, cooking and eating. The process and experience of cooking creates a deeper understanding and basis for understanding the many public health, economic, nutritional, social and political topics that intersect in our food systems.

However, at an academic institution like Stanford, there is often pushback against subjects that seem to fall outside the traditional intellectual scope. When I proposed teaching a student-initiated class on personal empowerment in interdisciplinary food systems, the first piece of advice I received from administrators and advisors was to cut back on the cooking classes. Cooking may not immediately appear to be an academic pursuit, but many other practical crafts are taught at Stanford (think of sculpting, storytelling, painting and farming). What’s more, if included as part of a broader academic learning process with consideration of the environmental, social, economic and political implications of our food systems, cooking becomes a deeply academic pursuit.

So here’s a call for more cooking on campus. Students, faculty and staff alike might benefit greatly from a little more chopping, simmering, sautéing and stir-frying.

 

Want help finding a place to cook up a storm on campus? Email Jenny at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.

  • Steven

    This is my favorite column! So good!