Princeton Food Project brings together farmers, chefs, scholars, artists, activists

Written by
Sarah Malone, Effron Center for the Study of America
Nov. 10, 2022

A fall 2019 conversation over a buffet of recipes drawn from Frances Moore Lappé’s groundbreaking 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet germinated over the years since into an interdisciplinary collective, the Princeton Food Project, a Humanities Council Magic Grant for Innovation, which on Nov. 16 presents its first Farmer-to-Table conversation.

Farmer to table this November means “Sustainable Oystering,” on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 4:30 p.m. in Shultz Dining Room in Robertson Hall, with “Iron Chef” Anita Lo, cookbook author and for 17 years the owner and operator of the West Village restaurant Annisa, and Greenport, New York oyster farmers Mike and Isabel Osinky, owners and founders of Widow’s Hole Oyster Farm. Malin Pinsky, associate professor of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at Rutgers University, moderates.

Tessa Lowinske Desmond

Tessa Lowinske Desmond. Photo courtesy of Tessa Lowinske Desmond

Lo will conduct a cooking demo as part of her presentation, using Widow’s Hole oysters, followed by a reception with small seafood bites and a “learn to shuck” oyster shucking station.

“The Farmer-to-Table conversations are meant to bring about connections between our ideas of food at Princeton and the practices of people who work on farms and in kitchens, where they are innovating and developing new ways around sourcing, aesthetics, diets, and so much more,” said Tessa Lowinske Desmond, associate research scholar and lecturer in American studies.

This academic year, the Princeton Food Project is co-led by Desmond and Hanna Garth, assistant professor of anthropology and and affiliate faculty with the High Meadows Environmental Institute.

The Princeton Food Project, Desmond said, aims to be a holistic intellectual effort. Bridging disciplines and practices, its member scholars and its events and community partnerships engage with the social, ethical, aesthetic, and ecological complexity of food cultures and systems, historical, present and possible.

Desmond was among those in the 2019 buffet conversation, along with current Princeton Food Project affiliated faculty Allison Carruth, professor of American studies and the High Meadows Environmental Institute, and steering committee members Anne Cheng, professor of English, and Daniel Rubenstein, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and affiliate faculty with the High Meadows Environmental Institute. The buffet followed Lappé’s address at the conference “Considering the Counterculture.” The conference aimed to reexamine the events, and ideas and aspirations for new ways of living that bloomed in late 1960s and early 1970s America.

“Connecting how we think of our food to how we consider our planet and experience cultures has flourished in recent decades,” said Rubenstein. “What we eat will be a major driving force in transforming agriculture and its impact on the environment. To change what we eat we need to change attitudes and behavior and this requires a great deal of ‘new’ in thinking around food involving rediscovery, cultivation of heirloom varietals, reviving traditional methods by considering ideas across cultures and times.”

Anne Cheng, Andrew Chignell, Daniel Rubenstein, Shana S. Weber
Along with co-leaders Tessa Desmond and Hanna Garth, the Princeton Food Project steering committee includes Anne Cheng, Andrew Chignell, Daniel Rubenstein, and Office of Sustainability Director Shana S. Weber. Photos courtesy of the Department of English, University Center for Human Values, High Meadows Environmental Institute and Office of Sustainability

Following the 2019 conversations, faculty including those who were at the Lappé event brought together students in a Zoom reading group over the 2020-21 academic year, in which students involved presented ideas on inventions and innovative practices that have been important to the development of the modern food system. The development of barbed wire, drip irrigation, pasteurization, refrigeration; the tea trade, influenced by and influencing class and aesthetics; the history of prepackaged meals, intertwined with inequality and wartime cultural practice — the conversations developed a complex picture of interests connecting culture, ecology, politics, technology, exploring ideas prevalent in different eras, inventions that altered what was possible and what was conceived of as possible, and traditions forgotten, persistent and recovered.

Desmond, noting that the group identified seven courses and 35 faculty across campus whose work related to food, said that “Princeton has assembled, without design, a number of agenda-setting scholars involved in food studies. We want to create a forum, teach together, organize events, share ideas.”

A Humanities Council Magic Grant for Innovation enabled the formal launch of the Princeton Food Project, and the ability to offer a roster of programming, with members’ home units joining in to provide communications and administrative support. The Effron Center for the Study of America provides grant administration and logistical management.

“PFP fosters meaningful, interdisciplinary conversations about food — an accessible topic that involves and impacts everyone,” said senior Alison Hirsch, Princeton Food Project student liaison. “We are all familiar with food, of course, but such familiarity can cause us to overlook its cultural, historical, economic, and environmental implications. PFP is an evolving community that encourages students and professors alike to engage with food in these crucial ways.”

The Princeton Food Project website and mailing list launched this past summer. Public events in 2022 have featured:

Hanna Garth

Hanna Garth. Photo courtesy of Hanna Garth

  • Alex Blanchette, associate professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Tufts University, who gave a lunchtime talk on his book Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm (2020, Duke University Press);
  • Joseph Ewoodzie Jr., associate professor of sociology and the Vann Professor of Racial Justice at Davidson College, who gave a talk on his book Getting Something to Eat in Jackson: Race, Class, and Food in the American South (2021, Princeton University Press);
  • Campus Dining Chef Christeen Griffiths, who led an interactive cooking class using collard greens grown at the Princeton Seed Farm, followed by a special southern style meal.

“We are so excited to be creating a collective space for all things food related at Princeton,” Garth said. “We hope to connect students, faculty, and staff across the broad range of food-related teaching, research, and service happening on campus and in the community.”

Registration for “Sustainable Oystering” is now open to all Princeton University students, faculty and staff.