Education by the plateful: College course uses food to teach basic skills

By Bonny Wolf
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

As part of her end-of-semester project, Washington College freshman Billie Ricketts spent time carefully plucking the hairs from a boiled pig's head. Then she and her classmates dug out the meat, fat, brains and skin, all to be used for making headcheese.

"I am so passionate about offal," she said.

The prep work and headcheese were for her writing class. The 19-year-old Chestertown, Md., resident and all other freshmen at the small liberal arts college in Chestertown are required to pass a "global perspectives" course. Professors choose topics such as "The Vikings: The Original Globetrotters" or "Pseudo-Science, Myth and Magic," through which to teach writing and research skills.

Ricketts is a student of William Schindler III, an assistant professor of archaeology and anthropology. He is also a lifelong hunter and forager, and a disciple of food activists Michael Pollan and the late Weston A. Price (sometimes called the Darwin of nutrition), so this year for the first time he offered "Food, People and the Planet."

He taught the class how to detoxify wild plants and why the Masai drink blood from a living cow (to supplement their milk diet; the wound heals quickly). They talked about raw milk and poultry farms. They studied nixtamalization, an Aztec and Mayan process in which corn is soaked, cooked and hulled to increase its nutritional value. They watched "Food Inc.," a sort of horror film about industrialized food in America. Without even knowing it, they learned to write and research.

"I wanted them to take away something they could use in their lives," Schindler says.

It all led to the Big Event: a multi-course, end-of-semester dinner put on by Schindler and his students late last month at the college president's stately 18th-century red brick house on the Chester River. (George Washington slept and ate here, according to his journal.) Besides President Baird Tipson and his wife, Sarah, guests included members of the college's board and the community.

During the spring semester, each student was assigned a food or food process to research and write about. They had to condense what they learned into short presentations given at the dinner. While students helped with the prep, Schindler and visiting friend Mark Wiest did most of the cooking. The professor's parents came down from New Jersey to offer kitchen assistance as well.

A former college wrestler, Schindler is intense, focused and so passionate about his subject that he can't seem to get the words out fast enough. The 37-year-old moves and talks at warp speed. The students love him.

He began preparing a month in advance: making confit with a goose shot by a friend; fermenting cabbage-vegetable kimchi; freezing batches of homemade coconut ice cream; soaking and drying raw nuts; curing and smoking pork belly; brining that pig's head (a Kent County animal) and then cooking it with onions and herbs for hours. Making the cornmeal for the polenta was a week-long process. He and some students ground the corn by hand, nixtamilized it, then soaked it overnight in raw-milk yogurt.

Many of the ingredients were local. Eggs came from chickens raised by the director of campus events. Schindler used meat from a deer that was "never out of my sight," he said: He shot it, butchered it and froze the loin to make thinly shaved venison carpaccio, served with a raw egg mustard sauce.

"He almost went to cooking school," said Schindler's mother, Barrett. "He's loved cooking ever since he was young." The first dish Schindler ever made was casserole of lamb's quarters, a common weed he found foraging.

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