A recent event at MIT has us reflecting on food’s power as a pedagogical tool.
At MIT, food for thought
Symposium uses cuisine to explore immigration, identity, and politics.
Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office | February 11, 2015
Beyond being a human necessity, food can serve as a symbol of social class or national identity; a consuming hobby; or even a battleground for raw politics. Last Friday at MIT, food also became a lens on history: A scholarly conference revealed rich new research on gender, migration, and ethnicity, all refracted through the study of cuisine.
To see how food sheds light on social history, consider Asian immigration to the U.S.: Chinese-Americans have long been burdened with food-based stereotypes, such as the idea that dogs are standard fare in China.
Yet as MIT historian Emma Teng asserted at the symposium, four Chinese-Americans who became celebrity cooks during the 20th century — Buwei Yang Chao, Joyce Chen, Cecilia Chiang, and Grace Zia Chu — all promoted Chinese cooking with a considerably more tasteful image. In their popular books and television shows, Chinese cuisine was carefully stripped of some exotic touches.
“They contested the notion of indiscriminate omnivorousness,” said Teng, an MIT professor of global studies and languages. In so doing, she added, the Chinese-American cooking stars were significant figures “in the fight against racism, bigotry, and ethnocentrism.”
Food is a great way to learn about many topics, and so naturally it occupies a prominent place in many courses on OCW. You’ll find courses ranging from the philosophical to the most practical, using food to:
- Explore how we make ethical and political choices — 24.03 Good Food: The Ethics and Politics of Food Choices
- Examine the formation of personal identities and social groups — 21A.265 Food and Culture
- Learn about American culture and history — STS.429 Food and Power in the 20th Century
- Explore great writing — 21W.730-4 Writing on Contemporary Issues: Food for Thought
- Experiment with chemistry — SP.287 Kitchen Chemistry
- Learn a language — ES.S41 Speak Italian with Your Mouth Full
- Experience how defects form and cause failures in metals, by way of similar effects in cheeses — 22.033 Nuclear Engineering Design Project
Bon appetit !
P.S. fun fact, MIT has a long and storied history with food. Over 100 years ago, biology professor Samuel Cate Prescott figured out how to keep canned food safe. This work eventually led to the founding of MIT’s prominent Department of Food Technology. Prior to its dissolution in 1988, the department’s researchers and alumni developed such goodies as frozen TV dinners and microwave ovens, Starburst candies, and frozen orange juice concentrate. And who better than MIT to develop food for space travelers?