The Main Course

Food studies is fast becoming a serious pursuit

When lawyer Ellen J. Fried decided to find a different career after spending time raising her son, she was intrigued by a new field of study—one in which she could combine her intellect and love of food.

Fried completed a master's degree last year from New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. Today, she works as a legal consultant for food policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, writes calendar entries for the James Beard House's nightly roster of chef dinners, and teaches at NYU's food studies program.

"When I first went to college, back in the 1970s, food was not considered a serious academic study," recalls Fried. "But I think it's dawning on people that food studies is a legitimate field, and it can be approached from an intellectually rigorous point of view."

Food magazines and TV shows have turned chefs into celebs, fueling America's love affair with all things culinary. Hot issues like genetic modification and the obesity epidemic are encouraging scientists, writers, and lawmakers to think about food more seriously. And books like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Mark Kurlansky's single-subject explorations (such as Salt: A World History) are finding a wide audience.

"The relationship between popular culture and academia has fueled the food studies movement," says Jennifer Berg, director of the graduate program in food studies and food management at NYU (nyu.edu/education/steinhardt/db/programs/45). "In the last few years, there's been a lot of fear around food. While the field used to be about embracing regional cuisine and eating because it's considered 'chic,' today it's more about political issues, food safety and security, as well as national and regional pride."

The number of applicants to NYU's food studies program has jumped in the past couple of years, making competition fierce for the limited spots available. The program is less than eight years old, and was created based on what Berg calls a food industry Who's Who. Fifteen students enrolled that first semester in 1997; today there are about 100 students in the graduate program. Graduates pursue a variety of careers, including publishing, nonprofit work, and product development. One of this year's grads, Lucy Norris, is even giving Mark Kurlansky a little competition with her own single-subject tome—on pickles.

While NYU is the only school in the U.S. that offers a food studies degree program, a number of universities and culinary schools are adding academic programs to their curricula, including food journalism, marketing, and culinary history.

This summer, Stony Brook University opened its Center for Wine, Food, and Culture, which will offer classes this fall at its Manhattan campus (stonybrook.edu/sb/winecenter). While the center will initially focus heavily on wine studies, particularly as it relates to the burgeoning Long Island wine business, there will also be a number of food-related classes.

Meanwhile, the New School's culinary arts program is known for its hands-on master classes in cooking, but the program also offers single-credit courses on culinary history for New School students (nsu.newschool.edu/03_deptcour.htm). One class, "From Marcus Apicius to Julia Child: An Introduction to Culinary History," offers a basic overview, while a new class this fall, "American Culinary History: You Are What They Ate," takes a more in-depth look at the role food has played in America.

The French Culinary Institute (frenchculinary.com/subpages/amateur/foodWriting.html), too, has increased its noncooking course offerings. Several years ago, the school began offering restaurant management courses, teaming up with professors from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. This fall, the FCI is offering its first food journalism course, which will be run by the newly appointed dean of food journalism, Alan Richman, a contributor to GQ, Bon Appétit, and Condé Nast Traveler who has won 10 James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards.

"A lot of [FCI's culinary students] wanted to be food journalists," says Dorothy Hamilton, president of the French Culinary Institute. "So we tried to come up with a 'dream course.' " Hamilton says the food journalism class is one of a number of noncooking classes that the FCI will look to offer in the next few years. Adds Richman, "Food is becoming more important to Americans, on every level. There are so many directions it can go: nutrition, health, public policy, and critiquing."

 
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