Science, Society & Dinner 2016: An interdisciplinary exploration of plate and community

Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.
(Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.)
– Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1755-1826

If you are what you eat, then I’m fast, cheap and easy.
– Bumper sticker, Princeton

Food today is no simple matter. It is a complex system, interwoven and linked to almost every aspect of modern life and to almost every academic subject. It is simultaneously universal and intensely, physiologically, personal. It is at the core of our humanity. But it often is studied in parts.

A course initiated by Rozalie Czesana ’18 that made its debut in Spring 2016 as a Freshman Seminar (FRS 138) with STN designation links Princeton’s diverse elements of academic inquiry, the stove and the plate. Science, Society & Dinner, a 12-week program of interdisciplinary lectures, hands-on culinary lab classes and resultant communal dinners, illustrates, amplifies and connects coursework in science, humanities, engineering, public policy and social sciences — while teaching students self-reliance, food literacy and cultural awareness.

The dinner labs in their first semester were under the direction of Kelly Caylor, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Program in Environmental Studies of the Princeton Environmental Institute, and were taught by him and other faculty across campus, building intellectual community between chemist and sociologist, policy specialist and philosopher, engineer and poet.

Working with Professor Caylor and with each instructor/lecturer, Master Chef Craig Shelton co-taught each of the three-hour classes/dinner labs. Shelton, Yale ’82 MB&B (molecular biophysics and biochemistry), is a five-star chef/restaurateur, a James Beard Best Chef-Mid Atlantic award recipient and a veteran instructor.

Shelton worked with each guest lecturer to craft a dinner menu that illustrated and amplified major points of the lecture. Students then, under Chef Shelton’s direction, prepared those curriculum-specific meals together to exacting standards, learning basic (and not-so-basic) technique, background and critical thinking as applied to gastronomy, culinary theory and practice, seasonality, palate development and human physiology — and across academic disciplines.

Shared dinners that students prepared for each other each week also built community, awareness, compassion and mutual respect.

Forging this visceral connection between preparing and eating food, taught by Shelton, and understanding the broad implications of food choices, taught by guest lecturers, compels students to a deep awareness of the challenges and opportunities in shaping the global food system and their own diets.

Classes included prep and instruction (including a guided tasting each week); lecture and discussion; and communal meal/cleanup. Professors and chef assigned readings as well as essays in the form of blog posts in advance of each dinner, all mapped to the content of the lectures. Assessment, in addition to blog posts and participation, was a final meal, with course components researched, analyzed, prepared, presented and served by the five teams of three. Additionally, portions of the dinner labs were recorded on video and photographed for online or print publication, and as online lessons.

Partnerships for funding, equipment, supplies and support include the Princeton Public Schools and its faculty and staff; Princeton Studies Food through the support of Gordon Douglas M.D. ’55 and Sheila Mahoney S’55; Woodrow Wilson School and the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy; Spoon University-Princeton; the Princeton University Office of Sustainability; the Council on Science and Technology; the Princeton Environmental Institute; the Community-Based Learning Initiative; the Global Systemic Risk Research Community of PIIRS; all participating professors, lecturers and administrators, and the extensive network of farmers and artisan providers in the New Jersey foodshed (which could themselves become Campus as Lab sites and independent study subjects).

The course, initially created by Karla Cook, a veteran food journalist and now coordinator for Princeton Studies Food, and Chef Shelton, could expand to include a series of public lectures/demonstrations/roundtables/films featuring Princeton University alumni working in any of the natural or human-made complex systems that support and are supported by the food system, as well as field trips to farms and artisan producers in the NJ foodshed – or farther afield.

There is a deep need for connecting students (and one day, alumni and staff) to science, engineering, public policy and the humanities through the plate and palate; for teaching practical, joy-inducing life skills and for awakening them to their own physiology, to their community and the myriad roles that food plays in our lives and its impacts on the earth, which sustains all life. Science, Society and Dinner takes delicious steps toward fulfilling that need.

For more information about the course, email Professor Kelly Caylor.