Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 1
Fall 2007

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Christine Barbour
Christine Barbour
Photo by Kendall Reeves; courtesy Indiana Alumni Magazine

Butternut squash pasta
Butternut Squash Rigatoni with Shiitake Mushrooms and Sage
If you are not cooking for vegetarians, some smoky bacon or pancetta would be a good addition to this dish. Note: Squash roasted as directed in the first part of this recipe, with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, can be served as a side dish, alone, or with roasted root vegetables (rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and parsnips.) This is great with Thanksgiving turkey.
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and diced (about 5 cups)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Balsamic vinegar
1 medium onion, cut into slivers
3 cups sliced shiitake mushroom caps
Two cloves roasted garlic (or raw, chopped, if you prefer a stronger garlic taste)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
4 scallions, cleaned and chopped
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated asiago cheese
1 pound rigatoni
1/2 cup roasted butternut squash seeds, cleaned, rinsed, tossed with oil and salt (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss squash with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast until soft and caramelized, stirring once or twice. When cooked, remove from oven and toss with two or three tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.
In a medium sauté pan, heat several tablespoons of olive oil. Add onion and cook over medium heat until soft and turning golden brown. Turn up heat to medium high and add mushrooms, cooking until softened and beginning to brown. Add more oil if necessary. Add garlic, sage, salt, and pepper to taste. Cook until garlic is soft (but not browned) and mixture is fragrant. Add to roasted squash.
Cook pasta according to package directions in a large pot of boiling salted water. Drain. Toss pasta with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, then with squash mixture, grated cheese, and scallions. Adjust seasonings, adding another splash or two of vinegar and more oil, if desired. Garnish with roasted squash seeds.
Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a first course.

Slow Food, Real Politics

by Christine Barbour

My food and politics students at Indiana University Bloomington arrive in the classroom puzzled. Something about the course has piqued their interest, but they are hard pressed to see what politics (which they associate, vaguely, with scandal and corruption) has to do with what they eat.

I could take a traditional approach with them, launch right into food security, the food pyramid, Congress and interest groups, and they'd see the connections right away. But I want them to understand the relationship between power and food as I have come to do, in a deeper, more personal sense. So we hop off the intellectual superhighway for the more leisurely, scenic route.

If you are what you eat, their first assignment asks, who are you?

Initially, they are stumped. They draw a food tree, something like a family tree with menus. They interview parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, filling in what foods these relatives ate at home, who prepared them and where they came from. They trace food lineages from generation to generation, or they discover that there are no lineages at all--that their nuclear family has reinvented itself at the drive-through window. They all have different experiences, or no experiences, of the sense of history and continuity that comes from sharing traditional foods and life stories over the dinner table.

They think about gender and food. While some have fathers who cook, even today those cooking dads are found mostly at the grill; the majority of the daily cooking is still done by mom. It is the rare grandfather who had anything to do with food, other than farming or hunting or making his signature dish from the old country. Grandma's place was in the kitchen, even if mom's is not.

They look at where their families came from. The presence of the farm is very real if you go back a generation or two in a state such as Indiana. Food came from the farm--raised, harvested, slaughtered, cured, cooked, and eaten, all within the family acreage. Sustainability, freshness, seasonal eating--all the current buzz words of the food world were backbreaking day-to-day reality for many students' grandparents. Often their kids went off to college, never coming back to work the land. Life got tough for the family farm. Old people got tired. Store-bought, convenience food looked like a luxury, a release from labor.

Traveling back a generation or two takes other students to faraway shores--Italy, India, Germany, Japan. Longtime family specialties have their roots in the ethnic kitchen. Even if the language and the culture have not been passed down, the foodways often have, frequently in spite of government policies that urged assimilation and taught immigrant women that the foods of their homeland were unhealthy and un-American.

The students look at who has power in the kitchen, who wields it in the home, who in the family and in the community makes decisions about what we eat, about who we are. It is politics, writ small, but politics nonetheless, and my students, slowly, begin to think about power and food in a different way.

It took me a long time to get there too.

For much of my life, the really important questions about food focused on critical issues like, "What on earth smells so good?" "Do we have any more chocolate?" and "How do you think that would that taste with a little mustard?"

I've always been crazily, passionately, obsessively concerned with what I eat but only in the last 10 years or so has the political scientist in me merged with the eater. I have become equally fascinated with how I eat, how we all eat, and what the very act of obtaining, preparing, and eating food means to us as human beings.

Maybe I should have gotten there sooner. In some ways the link between politics and food is obvious. Food is essential to life. Control over food--over what and how we eat--is power, the essential stuff of politics. I teach this every semester: Politics is who gets what, and how they get it. Food stamp policy? Politics. Foreign aid? Politics. Farm subsidies? Politics, of course.

What to have for dinner? That's where you'd lose me.

Because in other ways the connection between food and politics is harder to see. Eating food is a personal experience, an intensely private activity. It is the way we fuel our bodies, and it is also one way we know who we are, how we locate ourselves in time and place and culture.

Most of us in America are not accustomed to seeing the personal as political, so we go on chewing and swallowing without giving it much of a second, analytic thought. Certainly I did not.

So perhaps it's not surprising that it took a European movement to upend my vision, to get me to see that the decision about what to have for dinner is as political a decision as what candidate to support, one that essentially amounts to casting a vote for the kind of world I want to live in.

Oh, I had read multiple critiques of the way we eat, and I knew that the national fast-food binge we are on has costly consequences, but I thought that boycotting McDonalds, shopping at my local farmers market, and abstaining from meat was a sufficient response. That some more organized, public course of action might be called for regarding the very private act of eating didn't occur to me.

I don't remember when I first read about the Slow Food movement, but I was taken with it right away, immediately sympathetic with the founder's dislike for the fast-food life. That founder was Carlo Petrini, an Italian food entrepreneur who was appalled at the construction of a McDonalds across from the Spanish Steps in Rome.

It was obvious to him that the globalization of McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut was not just the export of a hamburger, a drumstick, and a personal pan pizza; it spelled the advance of an entire way of eating and of living that threatened traditions and culture around the world in general, and in his beloved Italy in particular. Reluctant to start another joyless leftwing protest movement, the ebullient and media-savvy Petrini founded Slow Food in 1986, an organization that emphasizes eating locally, seasonally, and convivially, gathered with friends and family around the table.

Eating slow spoke to my head, my soul, and my heart as much as to my stomach. At a time when the headlines are filled with alarms over tainted pet food from China; when our food sources are a potential unprotected target for attacks on our nation; when our national obesity epidemic is fed on hamburgers from cows who are given growth hormones to fatten them quickly; when our health system is taxed by efforts to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria while we simultaneously, insanely, lavishly feed antibiotics to chickens and cows to prevent the infection that thrives in their harsh and unnatural living conditions; when two-thirds of our entire diet as omnivorous eaters comes from just four crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice); eating slow and local, knowing where our food comes from, makes deep, intuitive sense.

Eventually I became a Slow Food member and helped to start a local chapter in Bloomington. And slowly my understanding of politics, of food, of education, and even of myself, started to change in simple but dramatic ways.

I began a new phase of my life, no longer just an objective political scientist, writing from the sidelines of the fray, keeping my personal opinions out of my work, but also a food writer--of newspaper columns and magazine stories, of blogs and books--and a food activist, an advocate of a way of eating that is healthful and sane and sustainable. I began wielding my pen, and my fork, as my weapons of change.

I know enough about politics to know I can't fight China or Conagra or McDonalds or Wal-Mart. For one thing, they are big and I am small, but for another, many people like the cheap and tasty food they provide. I am not going to throw myself between a hungry child and her Happy Meal, but I am prepared to make the case, on the local level, that there are happier meals to be had. In the end it is all about education, and education is both my trade and my calling.

And so I write about the local heroes of the food world who give us safe, natural food: the small farmers, the artisan cheese-makers, the producers of pasture-raised meat who provide alternatives to the hormone-laden, antibiotic-ridden, chemically processed foodstuffs that fill our grocery store shelves and our chain restaurant menus. No artificial flavor enhancers or ripeners or drugs or preservatives go into the food they sell. It tastes clean and honest and fresh because it is. And I write about the chefs who prepare and serve this food, going the extra mile and paying the extra dollar to find food that is local and delicious.

In Slow Food Bloomington we have begun to get some good things done. A mix of farmers and chefs, academics and students, we have helped persuade more chefs about the advantages of serving local food, and we encourage restaurants to buy direct from farmers. We began the Bloomington Winter Market, transforming the work that the farmers do as they build hoop houses and greenhouse and raise winter crops to provide us with more options in healthy eating, year round. We have sent farmers and chefs to a Slow Food conference in Italy, where they have networked with other small producers from around the world and come home stronger and smarter and better prepared to deal with the challenges of artisan food production in a corporate world.

They have no advertising budgets, no marketing degrees, these farmers on the front lines of the battle to feed us healthily and well, and their profit margins, if any, are oh, so thin. Their work is hard, sweaty, and physical.

My work, on the other hand, is easy, soft, and often tasty. I nibble and eat, write and teach, as I sing the praises of these farmers and of a way of eating we have nearly forgotten, a way of living that empowers us and gives us options, choice and control. If we are what we eat, who are we? Eating local lets us decide.

My food and politics course mirrors my own path, encouraging students to find the links between the personal, the political, and the intellectual--a liberal arts education in the purest sense. Like Henry Adams with his students, we share a journey of discovery.

And sometimes, we share a meal as well. A Bedford mom, astonished that some of her daughters' classmates from the East Coast have never heard of a persimmon, brings us a warm sticky pudding with caramel sauce, and we eat it with our fingers off paper plates in our classroom. One sunny fall Saturday, a local chef meets a small group of students at the Farmers Market and takes us on a shopping tour, introducing us to farmers and producers who tell us what they do and why they do it. We buy the stuff that will become, with the students' help, a marvelous lunch back at the chef's restaurant. At semester's end I invite my class for dinner--all market food, all fresh, all good, but frequently unfamiliar to the fast-food generation I teach.

"I have never put squash in my mouth before," one of my students told me at a class dinner for which I'd made winter squash and shiitake mushroom rigatoni with sage. "My parents will be so proud of me, because I am always afraid of vegetables."

Not the education they had in mind, perhaps, but a deliciously important one nonetheless.

Christine Barbour teaches in the political science department at IU Bloomington and writes about food. She is currently working on a book about the fishing industry in Apalachicola, Florida.