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

By Bonny Wolf
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; E01

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.

So naturally, on the morning of the dinner the professor picked a boxful of poke, a native weed that, like many other wild plants, is toxic. Detoxification involved rinsing and boiling the stalks in several pots of water. After it was rendered harmless, he sauteed the poke in butter and garlic, then combined it with crisped bits of the home-cured bacon.

Many of the 19 students in the class said they had never tasted most of the foods on the menu, which also included osso bucco (with grass-fed veal from St. Brigid's Farm in Kennedyville, Md.); wild goose confit on sprouted-grain crackers; fried polenta with sauteed wild mushrooms; raw milk and raw-milk cheeses; tapioca pudding; and raw cheesecake made with strained yogurt cheese, raw cream and Schindler's homemade vanilla extract.

Caitlin Robinson, 19, of Church Hill, Md., was squeamish about trying a pâté of chicken liver (from Maryland poultry), even though her family raises chickens. They use conventional methods, not free-range or organic. "Now I can see both perspectives," she said. "I absolutely love this class."

Judgment was passed on slices of the headcheese: "Looks bad, tastes good."

"It makes my heart pound to hear you say you like it," Schindler said.

At the outset of the course, the professor had asked students to write on what they thought were healthful eating habits. "They recorded FDA [requirements], the food pyramid, low-fat and various diets," he said. At the end of the semester, when asked whether their thinking had changed, they responded with strategies straight from the Michael Pollan playbook: Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Shop the periphery of the supermarket, where the fresh foods are. Avoid foods whose ingredients you can't pronounce.

Schindler figures he'll serve up a similar course with dinner again, after he returns from a fall semester sabbatical.

"From my angle as a prehistoric archaeologist, I see how our modern diet has impacted our lives. Most [health] problems today can be attributed to finely refined, low-fat process food," Schindler said. "My students went from not knowing how to crack an egg to picking a pig's head. Food is a way to reconnect with themselves, their community, their culture and their health."

"This course changed the way I look at food," said freshman Jenny Lee, 19, of Wilmington, Del. "I want to talk to my parents about buying from farmers markets and joining a CSA" (community-supported agriculture program).

Ricketts persuaded her parents to buy grass-fed beef -- the equivalent of a whole cow. And she said that when she's at work, she no longer runs to Royal Farms for Twinkies and a Diet Coke: "There's nothing real" in them, Ricketts said. "Now I get a probiotic yogurt."

Recipes

Tapioca Pudding

Sauteed Poke

Wolf is author of "Talking With My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories." She is working on a book about the foods of Maryland's Eastern Shore. She can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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