Susanne McNally is a professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. She teaches, as well, in the Women's Studies program. She graduated from Douglass College with a B.A., has a M.A. from Claremont and a Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton. Her 1976 dissertation is entitled "From Public Person to Private Prisoner: The Changing Place of Women in Medieval Russia" (something I only learned working on this entry). Susanne has taught at the Colleges since 1972. She's been quoted on the importance of Community Supported Agriculture in our area (for the article, click here.) She teaches a course on food in history.
Here's bibliochef's interview with Susanne.
Bibliochef: Hi. Susanne. Can you describe your food course? What's its title? How long have you been teaching it?
Susanne: I have been teaching about food for maybe 25 years, since some students asked for a course on hunger in the 80's. I have done it in its present form for 5 or 10 years. It's called World Food Systems in History, which is a little ambiguous. Maybe someday I will do a research seminar that lets the students focus on particular cases when food issues really shaped events. That might be, for example, whether the Roman Imperial elite was really crazy from lead poisoning, which some have argued. (What's OUR excuse? would be on the final). Or they might investigate Cuba's miraculous escape from famine when the Soviet Union fell. Or any of the multitude of other "cases." But the course I teach now is a breathtakingly fast narrative of how human food systems have changed from the stone age to now. It might seem unserious to try so much, but it does provide them with a very real thread (not a "constructed" one, only) on which to string beads from all over the curriculum.
Bibliochef: How did you come to teach the course? Why a course on food?
Susanne: My intellectual reason is because I have concluded that it is the single most powerful lens into human reality that there is. But my real reason is that I want so terribly that we arrange things so that every day, every body can eat lunch. And food is a place where anyone can push for significant social change. It doesn't matter if you are interested in the environment or women's lives or children or health or smart economic growth. Food touches everything
Bibliochef: What makes the course fun for you?
Susanne: Well, all the answers I just gave you . . . . and all the answers that follow.
Bibliochef: What do you read in the course? What's your favorite reading? Why?
Susanne: We used to read lots of articles, because there were no books that tackled the whole picture. But now thre is new stuff pouring out. Diamond's book, Guns, Germs and Steel is useful now. (editorial comment: turns out there's a website now. Click here for more on Guns, Germs and Steel.) And Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma does gather a lot of research together in a high quality popular form. (Yep, me the editor again: turns out he has a site too as many food bloggers know. Click here.) Robert Fogel's Escape From Hunger and Premature Death: 1700-2100 is good on how food and Europes' global domination are a self reinforcing cycle. (Me again: on Fogel's book, click here.) Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik's World That Trade Created has a lot on food. But there's a great deal more. I don't have a favorite.
Bibliochef: Can you tell us something about the students who take the course? What
are they like? Why do you think they take it? What do they do in the course?
Susanne: They are divided into 3 groups. One group are upper level environmental studies or public policy types who know that this is where the game will be decided. They are very satisfying to work with. One group is First Years who are not sure what to make of it and many of them really get it and are very excited. And then there is a third group who think it that because it's about food, it will be easy because it isn't "serious," like symbolic logic or biostatistics. A few of this type starts to care, but not all.
What do they do. Well they read and write and take exams, of course. But they also keep personal food diaries and work on local farms and cook and eat odd, sociological meals.
Bibliochef: Have you learned anything from students in the course? What?
Susanne: Of course. You always do. And honestly that's so constant that I can't pick out one thing.
Bibliochef: What's your best memory related to the course?
Susanne: The papers that students write after working for 5 hours on a cold wet day at Andy Fellenz's organic farm in Phelps. (Again, the little voice intrudes: For the Fellenz farm site, click here. They do community supported agriculture, by the way.) They notice some pretty real stuff - that Andy's grade school age kids are more capable than any they have seen, and seem to prefer helping out to TV or video games, that the paid farm hand was a slender girl, who one Hobart student said, "seemed so strong. She just kept pushing her little fingers into that still freezing cold ground. I thought of myself as tough because I am big. But I really wanted to quit and she looked as if she could do this forever." And a William Smith student heard another farmworker saying to each plant, "Grow little one."
But, you know, they have brought some fabulous "family recipe" dishes to the Future Food Feast at the end. I remember a an amazing pasta dish, a great Central Asian plov and a dessert from Sweden, involving lingonberries.The girl who brought it looked like Santa Lucia, I swear. And they did a very nice job on Vandana Shiva's dinner when she spoke at the Fisher Center.
Bibliochef: If you had an unlimited budget, what would you add to with the course?
Susanne: I would take them to the Heifer Project farm in Arkansas, for a week of work and living on what most of the world's population eats.
Bibliochef: Some say those that can do, and those that can't teach (and those that
can't teach become administrators). We know this is nonsense -- and I know you can cook. And I know you can eat. How would you describe yourself as a cook? Is teaching the course related to your cooking? What do you like to eat? How would you describe yourself as an eater?
Susanne: I am a responsible cook when it comes to the "making it delicious" part, but not a gifted one. I love the feeling of abundance and lots of people to feed, especially if music comes after. There's a new website called "The Ethicurian." I guess that's what I aspire to. As far as eating goes, I like to do it! My tastes are pretty wide ranging, except that I have never enjoyed spicey hot food. I can't taste through it. I am an ardent eater.
Bibliochef: What's your favorite thing to cook? Least favorite?
Susanne: I like making home made pasta, with my great old style Newtonian machine. But I like soup too, and I consider myself somewhat an artiste with pie crust.
Least? I don't know. If it's no fun, I don't do it.
Bibliochef: Who would you most like to take your course? (I don't mean which
student, I mean in your imagination. . . .) If you could have any guest speaker at all for the course who would you invite? Why?
Susanne: Alice Waters, who saw the link between all the different ways that food can be "good" or not be. It can be good on your tongue, for your health, for the planet's health, for the welfare of those who grew and cooked it. Or it can fail in some or all of these. If we were to improve our food in all these ways, we would put a real floor under the human condition. She knew all this before anyone, I think. Maybe MFK Fisher. But she's gone to be part of the cosmic feast.
Bibliochef: What’s the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Susanne: Oh, I can't answer this. It's like the best song or book or child. I recall a small dish of pale tomato sauce, placed on the table in Florence at the end of a day I had been travelling with nothing to eat, all across Italy during a General Strike in maybe 1968. The very old German restaurant owner was the only person we could find who would feed us, because she hated socialists. She was probably a Nazi. A few tablespoons on perfectly cooked pasta was ... memorable. The table fell totally silent. But I could write about this for the rest of my life, as could you.
Bibliochef: What music, films, books related to food would you recommend? Why?
Susanne: MFK Fisher (ok, the little voice says, a second mention deserves a second link, so click here) writes absolute magic about food. And Babette's Feast is the best food film, I think. (See my little bit on that, says the little voice. Click here.) The song "Slow Food" is sidesplittingly true and funny.
Bibliochef: What do you eat for comfort food?
Susanne: Macaroni and really good cheese works. So do sweets.
Bibliochef: Do you have a favorite restaurant in the Finger Lakes?
Susanne: I like Port's quite a lot. But there are many new ones opening up. The standards are rising steadily around here. It's really fun.
Bibliochef: What am I not asking that I should?
Susanne: Can't think of more either.
If you can, use the comment slot! And remember -- history matters.