Let’s Dig In

Bite by bite, students get a taste of the ways politics, culture and gender are sprinkled into everyday meals.
ByMichelle Boston

With a farmer’s knife in hand, Richard Martinez knelt by a line of bright green heads of lettuce and cut off one. He snapped off the crispy leaves from the spine.

Blanketed by a brilliant blue sky over Oxnard, California, tidy rows of romaine lettuce, kale, Swiss chard and bok choy stretched to the horizon.

“There’s a little dirt, but the dirt’s good for you,” Martinez joked as he dispensed the freshly picked leaves for everyone to sample. “It’s organic.”

A third-generation farmer, Martinez is a manager at Deardorff Family Farms, which launched its organics operation five years ago on 130 acres of prime Southern California soil.

Gathered at Deardorff’s organic fields, USC Dornsife students in the Maymester course “Food Culture and Food Politics in the Land of Plenty” were touring farms and produce-processing facilities in Ventura County, 60 miles north of Los Angeles. As they munched on just-picked lettuce leaves, Martinez described the business of organics — and the inherent politics involved.

Organically grown food adheres to rigorous production and processing standards overseen by the National Organic Program (NOP), administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). NOP certifies food — strawberries, broccoli and other fruits and vegetables — as organic in the United States, designating it with a small green and white “USDA Organic” seal.

Products bearing the label must be grown and processed without the use of toxic and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetic engineering, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sewage sludge or irradiation, Martinez pointed out.

In addition to explaining organic food policies and regulations, the course looked at food through the lens of politics, class, race and gender.

Karen Tongson, associate professor of English and gender studies, asked her students to consider how farmers follow regulations to get their product to markets in order to get meals on tables. They examined the cultural origins of dishes, from sushi made by a Japanese grandmother to Korean-Mexican fusion tacos from a food truck. They studied who cooks our food — from mom to predominantly male chefs.

“We all assume we come to food as people — with no labels, no gender, no race, no ethnicity,” Tongson said. “After all, eating is a universal process. But food is so incredibly personal. It’s routed through our cultural histories and the way we move through the world as gendered people.”

Starting from a gender studies framework, the class investigated how gender roles factor into food.

“Women are traditionally seen as homemakers, cooking for the family,” said Avalon Igawa, a sophomore with an undecided major. “While that standard has been changing, it has been a tradition in our society for a long time. We can’t seem to break away from it.”

Television personalities still mimic that paradigm, Igawa pointed out. In kitchens, Rachel Ray and Martha Stewart regularly coach viewers on how to create family meals, while chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern traipse the globe experiencing foods from various countries.

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During their first class, students toured Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, where vendors have been selling fresh produce and prepared food since 1917.

Back in Oxnard, Martinez noted that starting an organic farm can be costly.

It takes three consecutive years of organic farming on a parcel of land to become certified. During that period, all produce grown on the land must be sold as conventional and at the less profitable conventional rate.

When Deardorff started its organics division, it had to adopt pest and weed management practices that were more costly and labor intensive than conventional practices. The farm pays regular certification fees, among other expenses.

“It’s not inexpensive,” Martinez said.

However, the conversion made sense, considering consumer demand. Organics is a $28.6 billion industry in the U.S.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” Martinez said. “There is a future there.”

Students also visited farmers markets, ethnic groceries, food stalls and restaurants in L.A., the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. Maymester courses are experiential, hands-on learning opportunities for students to study a topic in-depth, usually in the field, in the month of May.

In Berkeley, California, the class visited Alice Waters’ restaurant Chez Panisse, which is credited with advancing the local, sustainable food movement now referred to as California cuisine. In Portland, Oregon, students toured the local institution of food pods, a stretch of more than 600 small, artisanal semi-permanent food carts. Their guide was food critic Karen Brooks, author of The Mighty Gastropolis, a cookbook and cultural exploration of Portland’s food culture.

Students tasted Thai curries, spicy sea urchin, bucatini with clams, savory fritters called vadas from South India, and eastern European khinkali — stuffed Georgian dumplings.

Experiencing various flavors was an integral part of expanding students’ cultural understanding, Tongson said.

“It’s important to stretch their presupposed knowledge and assumption of what they may or may not like,” she said. “Something might not sound appealing, like fish sauce, but by experiencing it you’re learning the flavor structures of different cultures.”

One afternoon, the group met for lunch at Kogi founder Roy Choi’s newest culinary endeavor, Pot, in L.A.’s Koreatown. Scholar and author Oliver Wang of California State University, Long Beach, joined them.

Students had read Wang’s paper “Learning From Los Kogi Angeles: A Taco Truck and Its City,” an examination of the food truck trend that swept through L.A. starting in 2008, headed largely by Choi’s Kogi BBQ-to-Go truck. Kogi’s main draw was a Korean-inspired, short-rib taco that blended Korean and Mexican flavors. “Kogi is my representation of L.A. in a single bite,” Choi told Newsweek.

But as Wang pointed out, traditional food trucks, or loncheras, were a mainstay in L.A. long before high-concept mobile food establishments were tweeting their locations for Angelenos to turn up for upscale grilled cheese sandwiches. While new food trucks assume customers have the technology to follow their every move, loncheras park outside construction sites and nightclubs, offering food at a cheap price.

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Students tour farms and produce-processing facilities in Ventura County, 60 miles north of Los Angeles. Here, farm workers pick fresh spinach at Deardorff Family Farms. Photo by Karen Tongson.

For Igawa, the conversation was eye-opening.

“I had never really thought about the way food reflects social and economic class,” she said.

“Oliver Wang talked about the large void in the neighborhoods where new food trucks turn up, and how that void is tied to lower income levels. Loncheras are still invisible to a lot of people.

“It’s interesting to think about how taste becomes an element of class,” she said.

Lunching at Pot was in itself a lesson in the ways that class and taste go hand in hand, said Linda Wang, a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, and sociology.

The high-concept restaurant mixes fine dining with down-to-earth ingredients — a $26 soup for two combines instant ramen noodles and Spam with seafood and tofu.

“It’s the type of food intended to be appreciated by an audience that has a certain level of cultural capital,” Linda Wang said, meaning that the menu caters to restaurant goers who recognize the art of the dishes.

Students also explored their own relationships with food, keeping food diaries to keep track of their food choices.

Brittany Thompson, a senior majoring in gender studies, said recording what she ate each day made her realize that convenience plays a large part in her choices.

“I definitely eat out a lot,” Thompson said.

The class also experimented with cooking — a new experience for most students. One afternoon, Tongson and her students met at Echo Park Lake, bringing grillable dishes that reflected their cultural backgrounds. They used ingredients they had purchased the previous day on a group trip to Silver Lake Farmers Market.

Igawa and her Japanese grandmother, Wakiko Igawa, prepared a family recipe of teriyaki marinade for a grilled chicken dish. That day, her grandmother joined the class for lunch and ended up inviting students to her home in Whittier for a lesson in making sushi.

In preparation for the sushi lesson, students visited a Japanese grocery store, where they purchased seaweed wrapping paper, rice, vinegar and sashimi-grade tuna, yellowtail and mackerel. At Wakiko Igawa’s home, they were treated to tea and cold soba noodles prepared by her husband.

They listened as Igawa’s grandmother carefully explained how to prepare the sushi rice with the perfect mixture of vinegar and sugar, and how to roll the ingredients in just the right way.

While prepping, Wakiko Igawa talked to the group about Japanese culture — how food is presented, how Japanese eating habits differ from those of Americans, and what it was like to immigrate to the U.S. as a 19 year old.

This kind of cultural exchange was what the course was all about. Wakiko Igawa touched on culture, explaining the role food played for her as an immigrant assimilating into a new country. She also addressed gender roles, discussing how as a wife and mother she would prepare meals for the family.

“Avalon’s grandmother put a very human face on the subjects we’d been studying throughout the class,” Wang said.

Read about how Foodstagramming is incorporated into Karen Tongson’s course.

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine‘s Fall 2014-Winter 2015 issue