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A 20−minute PowerPoint presentation by freshmen Johnathan Kent and Erica Santos may at first seem like a culinary guide for tourists of the Rhône−Alpes region in France. They describe chestnuts from Ardèche, blood−red cherries from the Alps, Reblochon cheese from Haute−Savoie, green liqueur brewed by monks and the region’s abundance of “raclette,” a sizzling wheel of cheese so hot that the top simmers off into a savory mousse, spreadable on a crusty loaf of baguette. After working up the appetites of 12 students in a classroom at Miner Hall, these freshmen serve up their own raclette heated up in a portable fondue stove.

Kent and Santos’ touristic guide is in fact a graded presentation, one of six assigned to a pair of students every week in the Experimental College’s (ExCollege) “Food of France” course, taught by seniors Alyson Yee and Lindsay Eckhaus and offered as an Explorations course exclusively for freshmen.

This course is only one of two “foodie” ExCollege courses taught this semester — the other being a Perspectives course, “Food in Film,” led by seniors Lucas Pyenson and Catherine Nakajima.

According to Yee and Eckhaus, the “Food of France” course teaches students how food contributes to the French ideal of nationalism, creating a fitting venue to explore social issues within that context.

“We decided that food would also be a good prism through which we could look at French history, geography, culture and politics,” Yee said.

Presentations are a major part of the course, according to Yee, and are a way for students to learn about a particular region each week. So far, student participation has exceeded their expectations — and has been a treat for their taste buds at the same time. A few weeks ago, Yee said, students made ratatouille for their southern France presentation, while another pair baked “tarte tatin,” an upside−down apple pie from the Loire Valley.

Pyenson and Nakajima’s “Food in Film” course, meanwhile, uses a similar dynamic — the class watches films from critical hits to popular classics and writes reaction papers that tie their theme to a modern social context each week.

“The way we choose the films has to do with thematic similarities,” Pyenson said. “We have them break into groups and watch films related to, for example, gender in the kitchen with ‘Julie and Julia’ [2009], then maybe family or magical realism.”

Some of the films they have covered so far include “Tampopo” (1985), “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994), “Ratatouille” (2007), “Food, Inc.” (2008) and “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992).

Students are certainly not limited to paper and ink when crafting their responses to the films. One week, for instance, the class watched “Waitress” (2007), in which the main character bakes pies that each describe a feeling.

“For example, [there’s] ‘I hate my husband’ pie, or ‘I don’t want to have this baby’ pie,” Nakajima explained. “So, we had them watch it and discuss them in class, then we watched some clips and then had them, for their assignment, come up with their own life−situation pies. Bonus points for those who actually made it.”

The results exceeded expectations: Students made an “I wish it was still summer” pie — graham cracker crust, raspberry cream and a white−chocolate custard with raspberries — and a s’mores−inspired pie — marshmallows, cinnamon, chocolate, graham crackers and apples.

Free gourmet food aside, both classes tackle issues that are prevalent in a modern social context. In “Food of France,” these issues include the modernization of France, the bourgeoning restaurant industry and cultural stereotypes and corruptions within the Michelin system.

After the presentation on Rhône−Alpes last week, for example, Yee and Eckhaus lectured about the importance of bread and pastry in the French diet during the French Revolution, and screened a 15−minute video of baguette production which highlighted the importance of gas bubbles as well as the difference between dough and batter. After doing so, they served freshly baked baguette to the class.

In the coming weeks, the class will delve into stereotypes about French nutrition and globalization and French people’s attitudes toward Starbucks versus old time cafe culture.

Pyenson and Nakajima are able to offer a final project that is more hands−on and interactive.

“We are going to have them film their own Thanksgiving dinners, or wherever they go for Thanksgiving if they are international students,” Pyenson said. “They’ll then write a response to it and highlight the significance they tie to it as well as with the films they watched throughout the semester.”

Classroom Origins and Beyond

Conceptualizing the ideas for their classes was a labor of love for the four food−obsessed instructors. Pyenson and Nakajima hatched the plan for the class during their sophomore year, while Yee and Eckhaus vowed to teach a course together after meeting in their orientation groups and becoming best friends.

“I had done an Explorations course when I was a freshman and Catherine had done a Perspectives class, and she also does food photography for the bi−monthly dinners I do for students,” Pyenson said. “Catherine was also more into the film side of things, being an [International Letters and Visual Studies] major, so we thought combining my love for food and her love for film would be really fun.”

Bringing these ideas to reality, however, was considerably more difficult.

“It was funny pitching the idea to Robyn [Gittleman, Director of the Experimental College],” Yee said. “She was like, ‘Let me get this straight: You want to have freshmen cook you dinner?’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah, but that’s beside the point.'”

Preparing for the class also made for a hectic summer for both Yee and Eckhaus. All Explorations and Perspectives Leaders must attend a one−week “boot camp” at the end of summer where they have to learn to teach their respective course, in addition to preparing classroom material. Yee and Eckhaus, for example, took to reading books about French food during the entire summer.

Yee was already familiar with French food before teaching the course, having taken a number of French courses at Tufts and studied abroad in France last fall, where she learned about French cooking.

“I started cooking in middle school because my mom thought it would be a good skill to learn, so I started cooking for my family a lot,” Yee said. “But it was in France where it became more of a hobby. My host mom would actually teach me how to cook all these things, like quiches. She would always just bake things in a pie crust, so I’ve gotten very experimental and bake a lot of things in pie crusts.”

Pyenson is no less experienced, having learned how to cook at a very early age.

“My mother is a freelance food writer and my father loves to cook, so it has been a big part of my family,” he said. “I also grew up watching Julia Child on PBS and apprenticed at an Italian restaurant when I was 13.”

Having extensive background experience in food culture and cooking was immensely useful for the four seniors in teaching their respective classes. However, they agree that they enjoy being a peer mentor to these freshmen more than just teaching the subject matter.

“The cliched thing they tell you when you become a Perspectives leader is that you learn more than you teach,” Nakajima said. “For me, I enjoyed the peer−leader part more than the academic part because it’s really good thing to be able to be orienting freshmen. It’s great to have that role when they come up to you to ask for advice, and you kind of vicariously live through them.”

Yee echoed a similar sentiment.

“It’s very enlightening to think about how we learn and [Eckhaus] and I have been thinking about talking a lot — is that once you’ve been at Tufts for four years, you don’t necessarily see how far you’ve come,” Yee said. “But it’s neat to be able to see how that all guides and shapes freshmen from the point when they graduate from high school to when they are seniors like us at Tufts.”

– Jon Cheng

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