Spiritual Eating; The Teachings of Sonjae Sunim and Rick Jarow

This week we traversed the culinary realm in a metaphysical sense, considering the spiritual connections between our palates and our mind’s eye. From mindfulness to meditation, the Coop explored- with the guidance of two wise scholars- a profound aspect of food too often left out of our everyday gastronomic conversations.

South Korean Buddhist nun, Sonjae sunim, is a scholar and master chef of Buddhist temple food, as well as a practitioner of environmentally conscious cooking. Sonjae sunim is also president of the Sunjae Temple Food and Culture Research Center. In addition to lecturing and publishing worldwide on Korean Buddhist temple food, she hosts the program Green Flavor, Green Cooking (or Food) of a Monk on the Buddhist Television Network.

Sonjae Sunim in our very own Taylor Hall!

On November 13th, a chilly Tuesday evening, Sonjae spoke about Buddhist temple food and the Buddhist philosophy of eating at Vassar’s Taylor Hall to a diverse, attentive crowd. Sonjae sunim also led an experiential workshop on Buddhist temple food and eating on Wednesday evening and a cooking demonstration on Kimch’i, the famous fermented Korean vegetable on Thursday in the kitchen of Ferry House.

Professor and Chair of Sociology, Seungsook Moon introduced Tuesday’s lecture with the assertion that “food is a sociological issue.” and the importance of food in a contemporary context- namely eating environmentally and mindfully. One of the first buddhist priests interested in buddhist temple food, Sonjae sunim graced the front of the room with a refreshingly happy glowing face, a muted pale blue grey robe draped over her frame. Sonjae spoke with a refreshing, pleasant demeanor throughout the lecture, her never smile faltering nor the twinkle in her eye ever fading. Her enthusiastic hand movements made for a dynamic and engaging lecture; the energy and passion with which Sonjae approaches her work, values, beliefs, and life as a whole.

Sociology Professor Moon helping translate the audience’s questions

Sonjae sunim began her talk by sharing a solemn note of how she fell ill many years ago, and was told she only had one more year to live. Following the wise inquiry of Buddha- one of his first questions asked being “What do you eat?” – Sonjae decided to take control of her life, changed her diet, and proudly proclaims is still here after 20 years of her diagnosis!

This inspiring anecdote of immense strength and self-reliance in the face of adversity, above all fatality, ignited the rest of Sonjae’s words about happiness and the nature of being healthy. According to Sonjae, happiness lies in maintaining a fit body and mental state, the basis of which starts with healthy eating. Furthermore, the basis of health eating stems from healthy ground, soil, and water. “Nature is the basis of my happiness” says Sonjae. Additionally, Sonjae sunim spoke about the inherent connection between food and the natural ecosystem of Earth, “Food makes a person. Food makes me. Eating a tomato is a way of getting in touch with nature.”

The impact of the food we eat on our bodies is simple and direct, according to Buddhist ideas. “If you eat violent animals, you take that in with your nature. Artificial flavors destroy the body” says Sonjae, “If I put something that was grown in polluted soil in my body, I am polluting my body.” Specific foods are also completely banned, such as meat and seafood, because eating meat is attributed to eating flesh, and therefore life. This violates one of the first doctrines of Buddhism, which is to not kill. Buddhist ideology views the self in the middle with Buddha, plants, and animals all existing equally around  us. Sonjae articulates, “We all coexist;” the universe consists of sentient (meat, animals, seafood) and non-sentient beings (plants, wind, water, soil) all of which are “a part of nature, a part of me.”

Buddhist Wheel of Life

Additionally, there are five ‘taboo foods’: garlic, scallions, onions, chives, and leeks. These foods are thought to change one’s temperament if ingested, just as different cuisines from different parts of Korea affect temperament. For instance, great artists tend to come from mountainous regions where they eat lots of vegetables. Finally, the Buddhist tradition emphasizes a cuisine of simplicity, with the least amount of ingredients. How do Buddhists flavor their food then? wondered a member of the audience. Condiments such as ginger, soy sauce, fermented soy bean paste, and shiitake mushrooms, replied Sonjae.

“I can teach life views of Buddhism through food” Sonjae explained as she recounted a story about how she fed children kimbap without ham and egg (ham is an unclean meat because it has artificial flavoring and has been slaughtered; egg is viewed as a growth enhancement in children’s bodies). After trying the rice and vegetables, the kids asked their mothers to prepare the same vegetables. Though the children have eaten vegetables before, they were unfamiliar with the sweet taste of pure vegetables since they are usually fried in egg.

kimbap, a popular Korean delicacy similar to sushi

“We don’t just eat with our mouth, we eat with our whole body. We eat with our eyes and ears, consume with our skin and nose” asserted Sonjae. Sonjae drew a parallel between eating ‘polluted’ foods and moving to a place with bad air and atmosphere- these toxins are taken into the body. Essentially, the central theme of temple food is what you eat makes you who you are, “you can either eat to live or eat to live and be healthy. Healthy eating and vegetarianism gives you life, fitness, and wisdom.”

In Buddhism, food is considered medicine, and not just for people who are ill. Medicine can only preventing disease in the present moment, says Sonjae, whereas natural eating can be just as effective as medicines. What people are eating corresponds to the diseases they incur; for example breast cancer is the result of too much fat blocking the veins, thus the body is too heated and humid- it should be colder like in nature. Though Sonjae sunim admits she is not a certified doctor, and therefore cannot claim food is medicine, she has seen temperaments change, cancer going away and health getting better with a shift to healthier diets.

The audience was stunned in awe when Sonjae challenged us to try and guess her age- some called out “35! 40!”- and then revealed she is actually 57 years old (33 years of which have been spent in the monastery)! Sonjae’s glow and youthful visage fool many people into thinking she is younger than she appears, which often prompts questions about what she eats on a daily basis. However, Sonjae, like the Buddha, simply replies with the question, “What do you eat?” Sonjae stresses the importance of not thinking about what you should eat, but what shouldn’t eat. Consequently, if you need to eat meat, says the Buddhist nun, eat clean meat and avoid artificial ingredients that a 5 year old would not recognize.

Sonjae closed her lecture by highlighting how her personal story has turned her into a public figure. She advised the audience to always eat foods that are in season (i.e. cucumbers in thesummertime) and try to eat foods grown naturally as much as possible. The order we take in food is also very important (i.e drinking alcohol after eating). Likewise, our first meal and first bite are important. Consuming salty/spicy items for breakfast negatively affects the entire day’s digestive process. During the day, one’s digestive process is more active and can handle the largest portion of food. As we wind down to dinnertime and our digestion slows, we should eat something light, advises Sonjae; “Eat in accordance with nature” meaning from the hours of sunrise to sunset, “or at least try to eat 2 hours before going to sleep.” Finally, drinking green tea is seen as something akin to meditation, with tremendous calming effects. Drinking fresh, clean, good water is considered essential to health. Sonjae stressed the importance of regular exercise as part of a healthy, balanced life- this can be as simple as walking or the Buddhist practice of bowing.

an illustration of the Buddhist bowing exercise

The next evening, Wednesday November 14th, Sonjae sunim followed her lecture by leading an experiential workshop on Buddhist temple food and eating. “You must have a clean state of mind to make Baru” said the Buddhist nun. Baru is the food bowl of a Buddhist monk, includes four bowls: one for rice, soup, water, and a side dish. In accordance with the guidelines Sonjae explained Tuesday evening, the bowls contain no meat, seafood, alcohol, garlic, scallions, or artificial additions, but instead vegetables, kimch’i, and bean paste that has been fermented for three years. The menu is also prepared in a lotus leaf, which is said to help the immune system. This “clean, healthy food” carries the “energy of the universe in it.”

a variety of fermented foods including kimchi

The workshop centered around mindful, conscious eating- taking the time to eat and only eat. Sonjae advised the eager participants to only take “as much as you can eat” and to “chew slowly, soaking up the taste” and “straighten your back” as you eat. It usually takes an hour to go through the process. Sonjae had the group do a practice round, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, noticing how they picked up their utensil, paying attention to the food entering their mouth, the sensations on their tongue, teeth, jaw, and feeling the food go down into their digestive system. From bowl to mouth, the experience proved to be an incredibly meaningful, transformative moment, inciting us to reconsider our relationship to food and the ritual of eating.

That same night, Rick Jarow, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies joined us for house dinner- a scrumptious vegetarian meal of tofu, sauteed Brussels sprouts, sweet potato chips, sweet potato salad (a delicious recipe from Maddie’s mom), and baked portobello mushrooms stuffed with mozzarella cheese!

Rick has lived extensively in India, mostly in North India in the areas of Braj and Rishikesh. Jarrow received his Ph.D. from Columbia University (1991) in Indian Religion and Literature. His dissertation, “Language, Love, and Silence: Readings of Separation in the Sanskrit Epic, Poetic, and Puranic Traditions,” is a discussion of the theme of loss in Indian literary and religious traditions. His research interests include: Religions of South Asia (Hindu Traditions and Buddhist Traditions), East/West Studies, The Eastern Romance of Jack Kerouac, Indian Languages and Literatures (Indian Epic and Puranic Traditions), The Poetics of Religious Experience, and Vocation. His book, Tales for the Dying: The Death Narrative of the Bhãgavata-Purãna was published by SUNY Press in 2003.

Alicia and Maddie’s roasted portobellos and mozz! YUM

Rick teaches healing Ayurvedic traditions, a native Indian form of medicine that emphasizes health and digestion. One of the most significant parts of healthy eating relies on the very basic act of chewing ones food. Rick shared with us that a healthy individual should chew his or her food 50 times, someone who is ill should chew 100 times, and those fatally ill should chomp their morsels 200 times! Rick informed us that chewing is not only essential for proper digestion, but also viewed as a meditative process in the Ayurvedic tradition.

Rick divulged that he was a college dropout turned yoga madman, moved to India, and eventually moved back to America. An ideological vegetarian for many years, Rick, like Sonjae, fell very sick once and almost died which spurred his interest in Ayurveda. “Vassar is a part time gig for me,” quipped Jarow as he explained his broader identification with spiritual teaching through the Indian chakra system and vocational alignment which questions what does it mean to be in harmony with life? According to the chakra, the body is considered energetically from root to head and eating is deeply connected to survival and consciousness.

We were all curious to hear more about Ayurveda and Rick was more than pleased to share! We learned that the Ayurvedic tradition maintains the ego, that in order to survive, your ego must dominate whatever you are eating. Hinduism apparently finds this a problem. Therefore, when one takes (eats) something, one must give something in return. According to Rick, ‘we’ think a lot, talk a lot- are unaware, our bodies ‘someplace else.’ Instead, like Sonjae, Rick urges us to be in communion with the food we are eating.

Professor Jarow went on to explicate the ritual of offering food in Buddhist practice, where food is left on an altar, intended for the gods to enjoy first with the understanding that ‘we’ will eat what is leftover. Professor Jarow explained how this is considered a tantric act, where the divine is eating ‘through’ us.

Along his spiritual life journey, Rick was once told “your job now is to go home and cook slowly.” And so he listened. The professor sees cooking as a form of meditation where everything turns into divine substance. Furthermore, every form lives off another,  so then who eats us? “Human beings are being cooked and eaten by time” Jarow answered himself. “When yogis know they are about to die,” Rick says, “they stop eating in order to offer their last breath to the universe.”

 

Enjoying our groovy guest and delicious grub

Professor Jarow challenged us that night at dinner, urging us to think outside the plate. “Embodiment, what does it mean?” pondered Professor Jarow. “Its not what you eat but how you eat” he surmised.

I was curious to know if Rick’s family abides by the same doctrines as he, being an ideological vegetarian who believes in chewing one’s food more than the average hungry person. He replied that his family supports him though they do not follow the Buddhist diet strictly. He knows he must let people “be who they are” and finds it interesting to watch his childrens’ journey with food.

We spent the rest of the evening discussing everything from Ayahuascaholotropic breathwork, and holistic centers like Omega and Esalen Institutes, to Vassar’s Carolyn grant fund and the “dead idea of college”- going somewhere for four year and leaving. (He then went on to explain his idea for Vassar to adopt two graduate programs, one in health and one for a writing program; this would create a more vibrant, enriching learning community beyond the typical 4 year experience according to Jarow.)

Rick spoke passionately about the economic pressure students face today to get a job, not like in ‘his day’ when you could “work at a coffee shop or book store” rent a cheap room, and read and study all day and it be ok. Rick decided “I’m only going to do what I love and teach what I love.”

Aside from imparting his extensive wisdom upon eager Vassar students, Rick is also a   teacher at the Omega Institute, practicing career consultant and founder of the “Anti-Career” process. He is author of many books and CDs, including Creating the Work You Love, Alchemy of Abundance, and The Ultimate Anti-Career Guide

In this video uploaded from Omega called Kosmos, Rick conjectures, “anything that afflicts you is an angel, that is, giving you a message of what your full possibility can be and that is its value.” He goes on, “My sense is that every human being comes onto this planet with a healed vision, with a piece of the puzzle that they have,  and that when they put that piece together, their ancestors become proud, their parents become proud, generations rejoice because you’ve nailed it. I can’t imagine a better feeling than saying ‘I’ve come to this Earth and I did what I was supposed to do’ and move on in peace.”

The evening grew dark and so we bid our guest goodnight, leaving the table with plates empty, but our tummies and stomachs full with satisfying “food for thought.”

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Professors, Pathogens and a Coop Thanksgiving

It’s hard to believe that it’s already the beginning of December; final projects and papers have breached the horizon and loom nearer and nearer every day. The not-so-distant close of the 2012 MLLC program prompts the nine of us to think more and more deeply about what we have learned and accomplished, and what this program has meant to us.

Less than three weeks before the end of the semester, we (the stellar members of the Coop) spent the week hosting and participating in numerous events as per usual.

Dining With Carol Christensen

On Wednesday evening we entertained Professor Carol Christensen from the Psychology department (or rather, she entertained us). Like the other professors we have cooked for this semester, Carol brought to us her own unique perspective on food. We began by discussing the importance of proper nutrition as a component of a healthy lifestyle and how it translates into a healthy brain. As busy, often overstretched students we can neglect or fail to prioritize the most important parts of everyday life: good food, exercise, sleep and at least one method of stress reduction.

Professor Christensen posed two questions to us that night: first, she asked whether we felt it was true that it is impossible to go through a semester without being sleep deprived for at least some of it (a statement on of her psychology classes had agreed was accurate). Some of us felt that it was not impossible but certainly a great feat, while others nodded solemnly around the table.

Second, she asked us to share about how many nights a week we “did things” (attended meetings, clubs, regular activities; nights we didn’t spend relaxing, studying or socializing). Our responses varied between “two or three” and “five or six.”

So, we’re busy. How do we manage everything? Do we take time to unwind and de-stress? What can we do to reduce stress and maintain healthy, positive lifestyles?

From a physiological standpoint, one of the most important things to pay attention to in order to stay healthy is the food we put into our bodies. Our conversations touched on various diets from vegetarianism and veganism to the Paleo diet, the Furman diet (nine to ten servings of fruits and veggies a day to give you plenty of micronutrients, which Carol said, as she helped herself to another serving of salad, she tries to follow), to caloric restriction with adequate nutrition (eating the bare minimum of necessary calories to survive while still getting enough nutrients, a diet that studies have shown enhances lifestyle in all of the tried organisms), fasting, the antioxidant theory of aging, and how cancers and autoimmune diseases can be dealt with nutritionally.

Michael Starnbach’s Visit

Our featured visitor this week was Michael Starnbach from the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University. A food enthusiast and esteemed biologist, Michael had a lot to teach us about food safety and public health.

Dr. Starnbach’s expertise lies in micro-organisms, and he dedicated our Thursday morning class to teaching us about the most common microbial pathogens in food and their mechanisms of infection and reproduction once they enter our bodies, including Salmonella euterica, norovirus (or the “stomach flu”), Camplobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes and other causes of food poisoning. We learned about how public health and food safety regulations work to eliminate, contain and control outbreaks through pasteurization, sanitization and other methods, and why babies shouldn’t be fed honey within the first few years after birth because of their immune systems’ vulnerability to soil bacterium spores that bees can pick up when they collect pollen.

We transitioned from the classroom to the lab with Michael and enjoyed a meal he had prepared for us using controlled temperature cooking (salmon, lamb, cauliflower, and a whole host of other delicious treats!) while he told us all about the chemistry of cooking meat and shared some of his own favorite cooking tricks, including the recipe for his favorite mixed drink (my lips are sealed).

Dr. Starnbach’s lecture that evening was well-attended and further demonstrated his very relatable manner of explaining complex ideas and jovial, easy-going personality. After an in-depth discussion of diseases, their mechanisms, their role in the world and how we have learned to deal with them, Starnbach left us with three take-homes:

  • Reduction of childhood morbidity and mortality from diarrheal diseases requires improvement in water delivery and sanitation,
  • Vaccines are the only permanent solution to fight many of these organisms, and
  • Universal compliance with vaccine programs is necessary for protection of communities and ultimate elimination of the pathogen.
Dr. Starnbach’s visit helped inform yet another perspective on food for us. And by the end of the week we were ready to cook up a storm. We’d been planning our house Thanksgiving since early November, and on Sunday we gathered for a truly cooperative-style family meal, a Coop Thanksgiving, sharing and feeling deeply thankful for each other and the opportunity to learn and grow together this year.

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Dining with Professor Miriam Rossi and Life as a Chicken

This was a relatively calm week in the life of the Coop. Besides sifting through sources for our final projects, tasting honey in Candice’s class, extracting DNA in Mark’s lab, and discussing dairy production with Mary Ann, the highlight of our week consisted of a dinner with chemistry professor Miriam Rossi. Before I share the learning and laughter from our dinner, I’d like to give a quick update on the lives of our bountiful ladies, Whiskey, Moonshine, Midnight, Henrietta Mary Ann, Aspen, and Vodka. The apples of our eyes, our gorgeous hens are a constant priority in our lives and as such deserve some blog space.

chickens on roost

Standing proud as they get ready for bed. Moonshine, Henrietta Mary Ann, and Aspen.

eggs in carton

Look at those BEAUTIFUL eggs!

The last month has been a bit rocky for our gaggling group of gals as they settle into their new surroundings and establish the pecking order. Our very innovative Coop members made an effective water dispenser out of a Tupperware and an old container, and we’ve established feeding, putting to bed, and wake up shifts for our peckish poultry. The ladies seem to be averaging about 4 eggs per day, but this past week brought some exciting anomalies to their egg laying patterns. First I found a giant egg that, when cracked into the pan, revealed two yokes! An exciting two-for-one breakfast special. A couple days later Meghan discovered our very first blue egg, courtesy of resident “queen hen” Aspen. She does things on her own time, including bullying the other hens for first dibs on the compost and dominating the roosting space. However, along with her recent decision to lay eggs, I’ve noticed Midnight is now allowed to sit on the bar at night with the other hens, so Aspen must be warming to her new surroundings.

double yokes

Twin Yokes!

blue egg

First blue; Maddie is proud of her chicken.

 

chickens in coop

The girls enjoying their new bedding

In order to ensure our girls’ absolute comfort, a few of our most daring Coop members ventured out in the middle of our first snow storm to empty the roost of its nutrient rich chicken poo and straw and put down new bedding. Not only that, but the chicks have been given new pecking grounds every couple weeks as we wheel our coop to different areas of the yard. Luckily, I’m able to speak chicken, so we know they’re thriving. In fact, our one concern is that our lovely ladies might get cocky with the amount of attention they get daily; we’ve seen students leading parents behind our house to see the new tourist attraction. Let’s hope the fame doesn’t go to their heads!

The family

Despite the coop cleaning in inclement weather, Emma and Yael managed to whip up a wintery feast of Spanish potato soup and a delicious salad. One thing I love about the Coop is the diverse backgrounds and eating styles that we bring to the table. At this particular meal, I shared a tradition I learned in Ecuador of putting fresh popcorn in your soup; it was a hit. Even better was our engaging conversation with Miriam Rossi, a source of abundant food knowledge, fun facts, and Italian recipes. Her experience teaching The Culture and Chemistry of Cuisine with biology professor Dave Jemiolo made her the perfect guest for a multidisciplinary group studying food. Our conversation ranged from daily food choices to the chemical compounds that make up our cuisine. I’ve outlined a few of these fascinating topics below.

picture of professor

Our charming dinner guest, Professor Miriam Rossi

  • Why do onions make you cry? Apparently when you cut open an onion you’re breaking cells which release a volatile sulfur gas that reacts with the moisture in your eyes to create sulfuric acid which burns and causes you to release tears. We discussed the likelihood of the enzyme that causes this having been bred out of commercial onions. We’ve all noticed how the onions from our fieldwork farms make us cry a lot more than the onions we buy at the store; Mariam said she wouldn’t be surprised if our hypothesis is correct!
  • Preventing cancer: We were all fascinated by Professor Rossi’s research project in Italy which she’ll be returning to work on in the spring. She and a team of scientists are extracting compounds from Curcumin (commonly known as turmeric), a member of the ginger family, that appear to be anti-carcinogenic. Apart from the olfactory pleasure of working with Curcumin, she celebrated its powers as an effective natural dye. This led to a conversation on our expectations of colored foods that are anything but natural such as green pistachio ice cream or colored cake batter. Curcumin is highly concentrated and effective so why don’t we use it instead of yellow dye 40? This multipurpose spice is certainly something worth our consumption!
  • The Ponderosa Pine: Have you ever smelled the bark of these magnificent trees? Sweet and surprising wafts of vanilla, cinnamon, or butterscotch will greet your nostrils.
  • Is Aspirin natural? Why yes, in fact it comes from the willow tree and is one of the compounds that although bitter to taste and therefore disagreeable to pests, is beneficial to humans. I was surprised to find out that many of our pharmaceutical drugs that I assume are synthetic actually come from the plants that surround me.
  • Does food lose nutrients when it’s cooked? Not usually. In fact, many foods release certain compounds only when they are heated and are only edible in this way, such as potatoes.
  • Lactose and gluten intolerances: With a few of these around our table, we were curious to hear Professor Rossi’s take on these growing intolerances. She reinforced the idea that more gluten and lactose intolerances exist in places that have less experience with these foods. An example is the frequency of lactose intolerance in China’s population since cows are a new addition to their farming system. When asked how one could survive in Italy with gluten intolerance she laughed and said they eat more than just pasta.

The lovely meal came to an end with Professor Rossi’s enthusiastic suggestion to use our ladies’ eggs for desserts that require raw eggs because “you can’t trust those store bought eggs anymore.” We’ll have to plan another meal where she teaches us to cook the delicious Italian custard Zabaione. In the meantime we’ve all gained a deeper appreciation for the chemistry of our food and will doubtless eat with expanded awareness.

picture of italian custard

Zabaione: our next dessert undertaking

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Dinner with Professor Yu Zhou, followed by a day with David Pimentel

It was safe to say that the first week back from October break found us all more refreshed and ready for the second half of the semester. For that Wednesday night family dinner, we had Professor Yu Zhou (from the Geography department, with a focus in economic geography) joining us for a hot meal consisting of stir fried veggies with tofu and rice, as well as stir fried venison, and a bed of fresh salad on the side. As a house, this was our first time cooking venison (thanks to Alicia’s lovely uncle for giving us some) stir-fried with fresh veggies – and it was a hit! Our dinner conversation was slight hearted as we chatted a little about each of our fieldwork sites.

The conversation slowly drifted towards how we thought the quality of food should be an important factor during consumption, but for some, such as the Danish, that was just not their priority. Yu Zhou then brought up her research she conducted in China in relation to food consumption, and she questioned us how are we to create a food production system without the problems we see in the U.S? Considering the rate at which GDP and consumption patterns are growing in China, the way in which China decides to move forward will have a profound effect on the rest of the world. It was interesting to learn from Yu Zhou that there had been a CSA started in Beijing in 2002, called ‘Little Donkey Farm’, which had been met with great success. Since their opening, there has been an increase in the number of CSAs in Beijing – something that she felt proud to say. Towards the end of dinner, Yu Zhou commended on the dishes that were cooked and wished us well for the second half of the semester!

Professor Yu Zhou

Professor Yu Zhou

The next day, we spent the good part of the day with David Pimentel, who is a professor of entomology at Cornell University. Over the years, he has published in a number of different scientific journals and was the very first person to publish an article on the ethanol industry. David Pimentel also chairs an advisory committee that looks at ethanol as a gasoline alternative for the US secretary of Energy. His vast knowledge on such issues has strengthened the committee’s main conclusion: ethanol requires more energy to produce than it delivers. During our morning classes, we spent a good amount of time talking to him about his thoughts on the ethanol industry as well as how he used a multi-disciplinary framework to draw from to tackle the issues surrounding the ethanol industry. David Pimentel actually started his own ‘MLLC’ in Cornell called the ‘National Academy Committee’ whereby students came together, and drew upon interdisciplinary frameworks to research issues surrounding energy and agriculture that were published in different scientific journals.

David Pimentel stressed that it was important to “read everything that is in the literature”, as that is where the wealth of information can be found and the “science does not lie”. Over the years, Pimentel has become and increasingly controversial figure, and has been the target of many critics. But is was refreshing to see that this man, who has come under heavy scrutiny and is the target of many unnecessary comments, can still sit there with a smile on his face, and continues to be passionate in publishing information to the public for our own benefit.

David Pimentel at Vassar College

David Pimentel at Vassar College

The pizza lunch that followed brought more of the Vassar community into conversation surrounding the production of ethanol from food crops. David Pimentel highlighted that according to the UN, 66% of the world population is malnourished, and thus the ethanol industry is contributing to world starvation as food is being redirected away from these people. We discussed the unhealthy consumption habits around the world that continues to grow, and David Pimentel also made clear that he thought our world population size was also just too big to be supported by one planet earth.

After lunch, we took a short break and the MLLC brought Pimentel for a breath of fresh air at Peach Hill – a beautiful public parkland in Poughkeepsie that is also the highest point in the Town of Poughkeepsie! Shortly after that, we all re-congregated in the CCMPR for David Pimentel’s lecture on biofuel production, followed by a short Q&A. The day seemed to have zipped by fast, and we soon found ourselves exchanging our thanks and goodbyes (but we managed to snap a quick group picture as he wished us well for the upcoming second half of fall semester)!

The MLLC with David Pimentel!

The MLLC with David Pimentel!

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Dinner with Florence Reed of Sustainable Harvest and Susan Grove of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project

We were all ready to tromp out to the farm on that overcast and damp Thursday, the 4th of October, to given a tour by Susan Grove, executive director of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. Florence “Flo” Reed, founder of Sustainable Harvest International (Sustainable Harvest International is a NGO that teaches and encourages organic and sustainable farming practices to families in Central America through on-the-ground employees.) was visiting for the week, had spoken to our class, and was ready to join us on our walk. Just as our biology class was wrapping up, Professor Cunningham appeared in the doorway to give an announcement. Because of the inclement weather, Ms. Grove had called off the tour and would instead be joining us in Ely Hall to give a presentation. Mixed emotions welled up inside me. I was looking forward to walking around the farm, but at the same time I didn’t want to get my feet and boots soggy again (I had traipsed through wet pastures the past two weeks for my field work and I was beginning to worry about trench foot).

After grabbing some lunch, we met in a second-floor room of Ely where Ms. Grove had a PowerPoint presentation to show us that highlighted some of the work and future goals that the Poughkeepsie Farm Project has done and will continue to work toward. After that and some round-table discussion, we made plans for dinner. We cordially invited both Ms. Reed and Ms. Grove to our apartment for an evening of food and light conversation. We attempted to give directions to our TH to Ms. Reed, but we finally folded when Ms. Grove offered to pick her up and drive her there. We all went our separate ways with Maddie frantically running to the store to buy orzo for the dish she had planned at least a day in advance.

The dinner hour came and Ms. Grove and Ms. Reed showed up at our door with timeliness. We all sat down around the table and dished up. The orzo was warm with gooey pieces of mozzarella and succulent slices of eggplant. Ms. Grove asked us to go around and tell a little bit about ourselves and our field works.

After talking about us someone asked a question about them. We thought it funny how both of them had been Peace Corps Volunteers. Also, their volunteering seemed to have impacted their career choices.

Ms. Reed had volunteered in Panama. She told of initial woes and a lack of Peace Corps infrastructure (she had been in a group that was the first back to Panama in a long time). She eventually got some projects going and while in the country, she noticed their use of slash-and-burn agriculture and some of their attitudes and practices toward native flora. She told us about her work in NGO’s after coming back from Panama and then forming her own based on what she experienced in Panama.

Ms. Grove had gone to Romania with her husband after working in accounting for a number of years. In Romania, she worked in economic development while her husband taught English at the local high school. She regaled us with stories of nights of dancing, music, and wonderful food. Her experiences were much different than Ms. Reed’s with the ability to attend state-sponsored orchestra concerts for a dollar. But Ms. Grove’s experience with the Romanian food system is what brought her to where she is now. In Romania, she saw a vibrant, healthy food system that focused on in-season, fresh, local ingredients. It was this kind of system that she longed for in the United States, and has attempted to bring about with her work at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project.

Our guests couldn’t stay too long, with Ms. Reed needing her sleep to catch an early train down to New York to attend some meetings. We thanked them for coming by and assured Ms. Grove that we would see her again soon. With that, they opened the door, stepped out, and disappeared into the darkness.

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Dinner with Professor Pinar Batur

The aroma of warm spices wafted up from the two pots of Moroccan stew simmering on

the range. Two of our housemates were busily mopping the floors, readying the house for our esteemed guest and completing their chore for the week. I acted as sous-chef, asking Executive Chef McDermott for a new task after each completion. Potatoes had been

peeled, onions had been chopped, and garlic had been minced. My heart skipped a beat when she pulled out the secret weapon: a half-dozen yellow torpedoes filled with a dangerously delicious amalgam of chicken, lamb, Moroccan spices, dried apricots, and I’m sure more than a couple secret ingredients. She had procured the goods from the butcher shop where she works. The sausages went into one pot, the other being strictly veggies.

Once the potatoes (regular and sweet) in the stew achieved done-ness, the vessels were transferred to the table and the table was set. The dinner triangle was rung and the Coop gathered to feed. In stepped a delightfully cheery Pinar Batur. She was all smiles as she explained that she wouldn’t be eating with us, but would instead talk and ask us questions while we would answer in between bites of savory stew. She also couldn’t stay for long, as tonight was the first of the Presidential candidate debates, and she was excited to see how they would go.

As we began dinner, I found myself in a bit of a conundrum. My appetite had grown and grown as I stood over the stove, inhaling the intoxicating fumes. I had a bowl filled with rice and stew in front of me along with my notebook to retain information for this blog post. I soon regretted never having learned to eat with my left hand. With Professor Batur unencumbered with a meal, she was able to speak at amazing speeds. There I was, trying to sate myself with large spoonfuls of boiling hot stew at the same time furiously scribbling notes on what was being said. I then attempted larger spoonfuls to make up for the time I had to set my spoon down and pick up my pen to scrawl some more. Eventually, I spurned the desires of my flesh and focused on recording the words of Professor Batur.

Before Professor Batur came for dinner we were relayed some strange instructions: don’t take out the compost. She was to talk to us about food waste. I think it’s safe to say that we were all prepared to be berated for our surely inefficient food preparation and wastefulness. I heard us sigh only a small collective sigh when she told us at the dinner table that she would instead be talking to us about food with regard to the Presidential campaign and to policy. It was a fitting topic for the night, given the circumstances.

Before we got the conversation started, we did introductions. Professor Batur has served as the chair of both urban and environmental studies departments here at Vassar. She is interested in studying social movements and inequality in the form of segregation of populations. She also champions the idea of education as a form of empowerment.

Professor Batur opened the night with Wendel Berry’s comment that “eating is an agricultural act,” and Michael Pollan’s development on that when he said “eating is a political act.” She then asked us how the President and the Republican Presidential nominee ate and how their acts of eating reflected something about themselves and how they were portrayed (whether they wished to be or not) because of it.

She then spoke of how food and food policy factored into the current politics. Professor Batur mentioned three food issues that were being spoken about.

  1. Food safety – is what we are eating safe?
  2. Farm help
    1. immigration – documenting agricultural workers vs. trying to take them in and out of the country with the change of seasons
    2. rights for farm workers
  3. Nutrition – also, regulating peoples food habits using SNAP program

However, none of these issues deal with the more global food issue that is present. In closing, Professor Batur told us that because such issues would not be dealt with by presidents or other leaders, instead she gave us the charge of building more of a grassroots system for changing food in America and across the globe. She encouraged us all to take her senior seminar next semester “Toxic Futures.” She said that she allows the students to choose which books to study in the class, so we could really make of it what we wish. And with that she packed up and headed out the door with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face.

 

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Dining with Professor Jeff Walker

Professor of Earth Science and Geography Jeffrey Walker

On Wednesday evening, Alicia, Allison and I scrambled back to the house after our first house intramural soccer game (though we fought valiantly, zero goals were scored) in order to prepare dinner. We had the honor of hosting Jeff Walker of the Earth Science department for our inaugural Dinner with a Professor. Using vegetables from our PFP share, our various field work farms and Adams, we cooked a delicious “Golden Curry” from the Moosewood “Cooks for a Crowd” cookbook. After overcoming a few challenges like finding a large enough pot for 24 servings of curry (hey there leftovers), we settled down around the dinner table—the nine of us, Candice, her husband, Patrick, and, of course, our special guest, Jeff.

Jeff Walker, originally from Seattle, Washington, has been a professor at Vassar since 1988. If you don’t already know who he is, I’m sure you’d recognize his fantastic white beard and friendly smile. He teaches a number of courses in Earth Science including “Field Geology of the Hudson Valley” which takes students out to Mohonk Preserve to engage in the practical side of academics. From our dinner conversation with Jeff, it became clear that he is not the kind of person who just talks the talk of environmentalism; he also walks the walk.

He is a farmer as well as a professor. Since 1997, he has lived with his wife, Kathy, his seven children and a dozen laying hens, 20 meat chickens, a dozen turkeys and a couple of sheep and two milking goats (though at one point early on there were around 26 goats!). Jeff explained that he doesn’t like the label “sustainable” because there is always more that can be done to be more efficient. Instead he prefers to say that he’s “working toward sustainability.” But by most people’s standards, his farm is incredibly sustainable. They managed to reduce their energy consumption enough to live off 1-2 kW-hr/day for 9 years! To do this they used no appliances or hot water. The only grid energy they used was for lightbulbs and an electric pump. The Walker family heated their house and cooked their food on a woodstove fueled by wood they chopped themselves. Apparently once people find out that you’re heating your house solely on a woodstove, large quantities of wood just appear in your driveway. Jeff told us that he finally gave in and got a refrigerator because they were tired of losing so much of their goat milk to spoilage. And, the amount of “sit-cheese” they were making was overwhelming them.

We also spent a good deal of time talking to Jeff about the upcoming deer-hunting season. He’s been hunting for years on his property. He told us about the various challenges and rewards of butchering a deer. Though he’s never been officially taught the exact cuts, he can manage to butcher a deer pretty well and if you can get 40 pounds or so of meat together, you can bring it to Joe Malafy who will make it into a fantastic kielbasa sausage.

Dinner was a lively conversation, though we do feel a little guilty for pestering Jeff with so many questions he hardly had the chance to take a bite of curry. As our first weekly dinner guest, Jeff has set a high bar. Basically we all just want to pack up and move to his farm. Getting to know Jeff showed us that if you really want to do something, you can. It’ll probably take a lot of work and some sacrifices, but it can be done. The question now is: how can we convince other people to do the same? How do we get our generation out of its comfort zone?

Conversing over curry


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Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

And into the third week we go! This week was a rather busy one, and you could most definitely feel a theme running through it: Four Fish and Paul Greenberg. We had organized a couple of different activities for the week to discuss the book and the surrounding issues that it brought up.

Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

As one of our activities, we had organized a discussion with the freshman in their dorms for Tuesday evening – and put in a lot of prep time. Unfortunately not many freshman showed up despite our efforts to lure them to come with snacks consisting of Goldfish. However, this did not dampen our moods as at least one of us got a discussion going in Cushing; and we now have a stash of Goldfish sitting in our kitchen.

When Thursday swung by, there was excitement in the air for what was ahead: there were plans for Paul Greenberg to come to Vassar to have a discussion with us, and then for him to speak at a lecture in the Villard room, followed by a reception and dinner at the Alumnae House. Having spent a good 6 hours with him, it is safe to say he is a really humorous intellectual who is a captivating speaker and an engaging man. We were quite surprised but how much he spoke about journalism and publishing during our discussion before the lecture, and it was interesting to hear what he had to say about the writing industry. Paul Greenberg said that currently people are not interested in hearing the ‘gloom and doom stories’, but are looking for a more hopeful future – which is why in his book he recommends us looking into CSF (Community Supported Fishing – vs. CSAgriculture).

Four Fish Lecture

Four Fish for dinner!

During his lecture, Paul Greenberg spoke about the importance of respecting the fishermen, and really listening to them as they are the ones who are actually out there fishing and understand the dynamic relationship between us and the fish. He also shed light upon the ITQ (international transfer quotas), as well as the privatization of fisheries and their efforts in trying to replenish wild fish stocks. Paul Greenberg also stressed that the key to a well managed fishery is in limiting entry, to ensure that fish stocks were not being overfished either.

The reception and dinner that followed after the lecture was held in the Alumnae House. Paul Greenberg commented that he was both surprised and impressed with what was served – four fish! The kitchens made the effort to source that nights produce in the 250 mile radius, which we enjoyed over light-hearted conversation, and got to know fellow professors and other school administratives.

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