Take a class that explores farming, fishing and distilling and start thinking differently about our food culture.
GMU’s ‘Sustainable Virginia’ connects suburban to rural, students to craft, food to drink. —Whitney Pipkin
When these college students show up at a distillery—where whiskey sours and Manhattans begin—they can actually say they’re “researching for class.”
All 21 and older, they are part of a new course at George Mason University that connects students living and learning in suburbia to the food creation—farming, fishing, distilling—happening just outside the Beltway.
“We’re using food as the lens to tackle larger social issues,” says professor Gabriella Petrick, who started the Sustainable Virginia course this year. Petrick has a particular passion for local food systems and wants her students to see the inextricable links between the cultural and culinary worlds. With degrees in economics, hospitality, history and the Culinary Institute of America, Petrick’s own resume depicts how all roads lead to food.
It’s a link that universities in nearly every state have recognized over the past decade as they’ve added and beefed up programs to satisfy students’ food-studies cravings. Some focus on health and nutrition while a growing number of programs, like GMU’s, base curriculum off the pioneering efforts of New York University’s food studies field, focusing on the cultural implications of what we eat.
This semester, GMU will welcome the inaugural class of about 50 students to a Masters of Science in Nutrition, which includes lessons on food systems.
Petrick is hopeful “Sustainable Virginia” will be repeated, maybe in Spring 2015. Because in this class, learning leads to tasting.
Along with in-class discussions and, of course, writing papers, the class took field trips this year to a small-scale chicken farm and a cheese-making operation. They foraged for mushrooms and ate oysters.
More though, Petrick’s students “learned a lot about how challenging it is to run a small business.” Both in terms of “sustainability and economic sustainability,” says Petrick. “It’s nice to be all green inside the classroom … but there are real ecomonic issues.”
By the time they headed to Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville for their sixth trip, the students were really getting it. “I don’t think most people know this is here,” graduate student Kim Stryker says of the “agri-tainment” options not far from the city. “People in D.C. think it’s far to come out here, but to get to the country is a little leap.”
Stryker is an example of the cross-section of students this class has attracted. Her degree is in folklore, but she’s writing her thesis on how pick-your-own orchards transform farms into tourist destinations. Others in the class study economics, environmental science or public health.
Accompanied by students from Petrick’s “Introduction to Wine and Beer” class—yes, there’s a wine and beer class—the group in April may have amounted to the most informed tour distillery owner Rick Wasmund had hosted yet.
As Wasmund demonstrated how local products like barley and scraps of apple wood turn into single-malt and rye whiskys, he fielded questions from the students and prompts from the professor to steer conversation toward the syllabus.
One student quizzed Wasmund about compost practices after seeing the vat of water and barley that begins the malting process. She was curious what happened to the extra water or to the ashes of wood imparting whisky’s smoky profile.
Wasmund was prepared. Compost, he explains, is the end of all things that don’t end up as distilled beverages or cow feed (they seem to like whisky mash).
Another student took intense interest in Wasmund’s two-liter barrel kit, which, besides being miniature and “cute,” allows customers to age their own spirits into small batches of whisky.
Wasmund sends palettes full of the kits to Europe, where, besides locally, his distilled drinks have proven to be a hit. The distillery produced some 6,000 cases a year, with plans to nearly double production.
After the tour, the class headed to nearby Thornton River Grille to distill their thoughts about the visit over lunch. Professor Petrick ordered a Manhattan.