Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2008 | Features

Food for Thought

By Amy Schoon
Betty Crocker Cake Mix Students in a UI honors seminar discover how Americans are fascinated—and defined—by what they eat.

"Like no other [course] you have ever taken"—that's the tantalizing claim professor Lauren Rabinovitz made in the syllabus for her "Food in American Culture" class. The proof was in the pudding-or, in this case, in Rabinovitz's homemade cupcakes.

In this unusual honors seminar, UI students got to taste-test their instructor's cooking as they explored the myriad connections between what we eat and how we live. In a smorgasbord of learning experiences, they also toured an 1850s-era kitchen, scrutinized the impact of Betty Crocker on society, conducted research in a world-renowned special collection, and published a cookbook.

The idea for "Food in American Culture" developed through Rabinovitz's work as director of the Center for Ethnic Studies and the Arts.Rabinovitz, chair and professor of American studies and collegiate fellow in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, had noticed a growing body of literature on Americans' fascination with food and with the history of the nation's food.

Celebrity chefs host their own must-see TV shows. More than 80,000 people around the world have joined a group called the Slow Food movement, in opposition to fast food and the disappearance of local food cultures. The New York Times best-seller list has been consumed by books exploring the connections between food and culture.

"It's not a surprise, really. It's easy to bring people together around food, because we all have to eat. And it's easy to talk about a lot of social, political, and cultural issues that surround food," Rabinovitz says. "In this course, we talk about food production, business history, social history, gender issues, family dynamics, nutrition. We're analyzing the key roles that food plays in defining and shaping American society and our identity."

Offered for the first time this past fall, the course was divided into three main units: food and cooking in American history; production, distribution, consumption-the American business of food; and ethnicity identities, memories, and food.

Cup Cake

A key component of the class was students' introduction to the UI Library's Szathmary Culinary Arts Collection, containing more than 20,000 cookbooks and related paraphernalia donated by Chef Louis Szathmary II and considered one of the most valuable of its kind in the world. Through visits to the collection and through accompanying readings, students explored the idea of early American cookbooks as cultural artifacts that offer insightful information about earlier times.

To help put American cooking into a historical perspective, students toured an 1850s kitchen at Iowa City's Plum Grove Historical Farm, built in 1844 as the retirement home of Iowa's first territorial governor. They also compared recipes of plum butter from the 1850s, 1950s, and today, discovering the different technologies, canning techniques, kitchen customs, and ingredients that were available at the time.

Next, students visited a supermarket to analyze its fresh, frozen, and processed offerings. That led to a lengthy discussion of one of the most famous American female icons of the 20th century-Betty Crocker, an invented persona and brand name of General Mills.

"I had no idea Betty Crocker wasn't a real person," exclaims Leigh Rutherford, a senior in accounting from Marshalltown. "We talked about her evolution and her impact on American culture, her use as an inspiration to women. And I had no idea she wasn't real."

In fact, this fictional marketing tool has had a far-reaching impact. When she introduced boxed cake mixes to Americans just after World War II, Betty Crocker ushered in a whole new era of processed foods. During wartime, her image was used to encourage rationing. Her "picture" changed through the years, reflecting the role of women in society-the early version of her as a grandmother replaced by a younger, more professional image.

In an eye-opening and taste bud-testing portion of the class, students compared Betty's yellow cupcakes to a homemade version from Rabinovitz. They soon determined that Betty's version had a lighter, fluffier texture and an odd, almost neon-yellow glow likely caused by artificial flavors, sweeteners, perfumes, and dyes.

While most students preferred the homemade version, they admitted they'd probably continue to buy the box kind because of its convenience. They also questioned—especially after finding out that most restaurants use box mixes—whether they'd ever eaten real homemade cake.

Taste tests became a popular aspect of the course. Treats usually corresponded with the topic of the day—for a discussion of fast food, Rabinovitz brought in French fries; talking about what food means to American culture, she served apple pie; sharing a bit of her own upbringing, she presented a favorite Jewish dish of noodle pudding. 

Such treats reminded students that food can be an integral part of people's memories—the look, scent, flavors, and textures of food offer a sensory experience that connects with recollections of a location, time period, and friends and family.

Because the class was offered in fall, Rabinovitz tied in the celebration of Thanksgiving as a ritual of American nationality as well as family tradition. She assigned students to interview someone at home on Thanksgiving break and complete an oral history about that person's memories, revealing how food helps create traditions and unite people.

Rutherford interviewed her mother about the family's beloved sour cream coffee cake recipe, passed down through generations. She learned that one element of the tradition has remained constant—the coveting of the centermost piece of coffee cake.

"There are no crunchy edges, no hard crusty corners, it's so moist and extremely delicious," Rutherford says. "Everyone always argues about who's going to get that best piece."

In the final few weeks of class, students helped produce a cookbook, Food in America, featuring portions of their essays and recipes from sources including the Szathmary Collection and the UI community and alumni. The book will be launched on campus April 4 at a one-day symposium on food, memory, and ethnic identity at the Iowa Memorial Union.

Ryan Denman, a senior in economics from Dubuque, expects the cookbook will offer readers a taste of what he and his classmates have learned from their semester-long journey.

"People go through their daily lives without realizing what we're eating and why we're eating it," he says. "Food is about a lot more than just what's on your plate."