Fall Lecture Series Recap: What’s Not to Like About Modern Processed Food? – A Historical Perspective

Throughout the year, the BU Gastronomy blog will feature occasional posts from special guest writers including current students, recent alumni, professors, and more. The following Guest Post is brought to you by Gastronomy student Nate Orsi.


Close your eyes…after you read the next sentence.

Visualize the history and prehistory of processed food.

Now, open them…What?!  you say…

Is it difficult to do?

Well then you missed Dr. Rachel Laudan’s engaging presentation on the evolution of processed food! Have no fear, Dr. Laudan has a website, a new book, and a long list of publications and interesting academic work to use in your own research or for pure academic enjoyment. And who doesn’t want a little bit of enlightenment now and again, especially when it is food focused.

photo by Austin Chronicle

In her recent lecture, Dr. Laudan covered everything from the cultivation of wild crops to animal husbandry, and laid the foreground for the present state of packaged foods. While several people in the audience were interested in the implications of agricultural drawbacks to large scale production, ethical concerns over food production, and food safety issues, Dr. Laudan fielded questions in a poised and balanced manner. It was enlightening to see her take information from the questions she received and incorporate those tidbits into the scope of her research. This is something I have struggled with in my own work (and I am sure I am not the only one). Scope is such a fickle beast, and looking at any historical topic within a global context is bound to be a daunting task.

photo by Retro Renovation

Refrigeration and packaging played extremely important roles in the development of processed food. It’s a little strange to think about how ice used to be something reserved for the elite classes — royalty and the landed gentry — so something to think about next time you ask for ice in a nonchalant run-of-the mill manner. No pun intended with the mill reference, even though there was a pretty in depth discussion about the development of milling and flour production. Bread is such an integral part of so many cultures, and Laudan made this abundantly clear with a distinctive portion of the lecture dedicated to talking about the Fertile Crescent.

photo by IGG

There are so many modern food related examples I can think of with regard to the development of food processing, but if you look at something as simple as lemonade, you can see the processed nature of the mix, the artificially created ice, even the sweetener. These three components sort of encapsulate some of the thematic qualities of Laudan’s discussion.

photo by Food for Thought

She noted how people tend to romanticize certain aspects of the past when considering modern food processes, and of course she explained how it is not a perfect system. I really enjoyed having a historical perspective intertwined with large scale production of processed foods, since it is important to look at the broader picture of food in its current state. It is difficult to effectively compartmentalize food systems, because there is so much interplay between all parties of an increasingly complex foodways.

photo by University of California Press

For more information on processed food and more of Dr. Laudan’s work, check out her website or pick up a copy of her new book, Cuisine and Empire, out this November 2013.

Are you a current student or a recent alum with a food-filled story to share? Pitch your idea to gastronomyatbu@gmail.com and get published on the BU Gastronomy blog!

Fall Lecture Series Recap: Sensing Microbial Diversity of the World’s Artisan Cheeses

Throughout the year, the BU Gastronomy blog will feature occasional posts from special guest writers including current students, recent alumni, professors, and more. The following Guest Post is brought to you by Gastronomy student Lauren Kouffman with photographs provided by fellow Gastronomy student Chris Maggiolo.

Boston University’s Gastronomy Program presented a lecture on Thursday September 26th, entitled, “Fall Lecture Series: Sensing Microbial Diversity of the World’s Artisan Cheeses,” in conjunction with MET ML701 (Food and The Senses), a core Gastronomy course which focuses on the physical and sensory aspects of experiencing foodways. Benjamin Wolfe, a Postdoctoral Researcher from Harvard University, presented his research to a mix of Gastronomy-matriculating students and members of the public, and later invited everyone to partake in the sensory experience themselves, with tastes of three very distinct cheeses.

via Benjamin Wolfe

Dr. Wolfe specializes in studying microbes: tiny organic particles that grow, and eventually group together into what is known as a colony, in the process of breaking down food matter. Essentially, Dr. Wolfe described, microbes are the force behind rot- but this is not always a bad thing. His current research has led him to an in-depth exploration of the microbial factors that influence the expression of various texture, smell, and taste traits of some of the most well-known artisanal cheeses, each one developed through years of precise microbial manipulation and traditional methodology.


via Chris Maggiolo

Interestingly, Wolfe and his Harvard research team have recently been at the helm of a new movement to identify and propagate uniquely North American microcultures in artisanal cheesemaking, rather than relying on imported European-native cultures or American-manufactured reproductions of the more traditional strains. The project itself might even be compared to larger national initiatives to re-popularize certain Heritage breeds of crops and livestock, based on an altruistic approach that simultaneously is concerned with preserving unique regional flavors (that is, the basis of terroir itself), and restoring diversity to the American culinary landscape. A new laboratory at Jasper Hill Farms, a Vermont dairy farm and artisanal cheese producer, has even been subsidized by the United States government for the continuation of Dr. Wolfe’s research. Evidently, the identification and taxonomy of uniquely-American microbial terroir is worth the trouble.

via Benjamin Wolfe

While identifying the individual cultures that already exist on any one style of cheese is a logical, if time-consuming, macro-approach, Dr. Wolfe explained he often takes a reverse-engineering approach to his work, attempting instead to isolate and identify each specific culture by tinkering with the conditions (quantities and varieties of salt, for example, or even the type of grass that is fed to the animals producing the milk) that might cause any particular strain to thrive.


via Chris Maggiolo

At the end of his intriguing talk, Dr. Wolfe opened the floor for questions. While he touched upon the subject briefly I was particularly interested in learning more about the influence of the DuPont-owned industrial reproduction of European-native cultures, and whether or not Dr. Wolfe’s team anticipates being at odds with the economic or political motivations of a huge corporation like DuPont. Is there the potential for a Monsanto-esque backlash in the future? Dr. Wolfe explained that since he is not actually modifying genetic material, and there’s no possible way to copyright the microbes he is studying since they appear naturally in the world, there is little threat of resistance from DuPont at this time. Still, the idea that a larger corporation might take umbrage at independent and public research isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and I am certainly interested to see how long the government will continue to subsidize this project, worthy as it may be.


via Chris Maggiolo

Dr. Wolfe’s work is equally fascinating for members of the science community, food-activists, or the average cheese-lover, and his engaging talk certainly left me hungry for more. For more information on Dr. Wolfe’s work with Jasper Hill Farms, along with his other incredible research projects, visit his website at http://www.benjaminewolfe.com/.

Benjamin Wolfe will be teaching a class in the Microbiology of Food during the Spring 2014 Semester. This class will meet on Wednesday evenings from 6 to 9 PM.

Are you a current student or a recent alum with a food-filled story to share? Pitch your idea to gastronomyatbu@gmail.com and get published on the BU Gastronomy blog!