January 14, 2009 | Ashleigh Draft

During interim, some students get acquainted with the theology of growing and eating vegetables.

Kohlrabi, swiss chard and celery root; parsnip, fennel and turnip: not a common course of study at most liberal arts colleges. But it’s interim, when the doors of the academy open to classes like "What’s for Dinner?," "Theory and Practice of Quilting," and "Examining the Right to Die." During this shortened three-week term, Calvin students can turn their attention to a specialized topic, explore an interest far afield from their chosen discipline, or both.

In a smart classroom equipped with a video projector, wireless internet and computers, groups of students carefully examine winter vegetables. A projection screen at the front of the room lists basic questions: What is it? What can I do with it? Where and when does it grow? How do you cook it? With the help of Wikipedia and a small “foodie” library, the students decipher vegetables that many have never seen before, let alone eaten.

"So often people don’t eat vegetables because they don’t know what to do with them—they don’t know how to prepare them,” explains instructor Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence. Her goal is not only to demythologize winter veggies, but to prompt students to explore problems and solutions in North American eating habits and food systems. “I want them to ask, ‘How can Christian belief inform my personal decisions about what to eat?’” says Lawrence.

Farmers, freegans and documentaries

The course includes a guest lecture from a freegan student, readings from Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan and a documentary on Michigan’s asparagus industry. Students are also expected to reflect on their own relationship to food, interacting with all of these ideas in the context of Reformed worldview.

“It’s been really interesting to think about food as a gift,” says first-year student Alyssa Tammeling. “I hope to learn more about nutritious eating … [and] to change the ‘hate’ part of my ‘love-hate’ relationship with food.”

Adds student Rebecca Dorn: “I think sometimes we can end up turning to food rather than turning to God when we’re bored, or feeling sad. It can be a space-filler rather than something that’s good for you.

"I think women tend to have a different relationship with food,” Dorn continues. “I remember starting to feel guilty, or self-conscious, about what I ate towards the end of junior high. I started worrying about what others would think of me, or would think ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have eaten that much.’”

It’s precisely this kind of reflection and self-examination that Lawrence encourages through writing a “food memoir,” one of the course’s assignments.

Developing a Christian Mind

What’s for Dinner? is a “DCM,” or “Developing a Christian Mind” class, designed especially for first-year students to explore the central tenets of Reformed belief.

Alongside food journalism, cultural criticism and agrarian essays, the class reads Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s Engaging God’s World and applies the concepts therein to issues of food and eating. The day I visited, the class was discussing the creation narrative, exploring Christ’s presence in creation and reading Genesis as a theological story that can tell us about the nature of God.

"Greens provide nutrients,” offers a student, when asked for concrete examples of Plantinga’s tenet creation has purpose. “But sometimes we fill our need for nutrients with vitamin supplements instead.” The class continues to work through themes from the creation account: responsibility and concern for others, loving the world without worshipping it, identifying our place within the created order.

“This is our response to climate change”

The course includes a visit from Anja Mast ’91, an ardent organic farmer who, with her husband, Mike VanderBrug, has created a thriving community-supported farm out of 50 acres of fertile muck in Jenison, Michigan.

At Trillium Haven Farm, Anja and Mike don’t just cultivate vegetables; they cultivate a way for urbanites to connect to their earth—and to their food. “Our members learn to rely on nature in a way they didn’t before,” she says. “After a big hailstorm, for instance, we’ll receive lots of emails—‘How does the farm look?’”

Students learn that members of Trillium Haven Farm receive a share of the harvest each week during the growing season. Many of the vegetables members receive, such as kohlrabi, are not a common part of the American diet, but Anja is quick to assist members by providing recipes for the more unusual produce. In fact, Anja and Mike plan to begin offering cooking classes at the farm in the coming months.

From Theory to Praxis

What’s for Dinner? students will also be entering the kitchen this month. “I wanted the course to be practical as well as theoretical,” says Lawrence. Together they will spend two classes in the kitchen cooking a dinner and introducing students to some simple, healthful, sustainable recipes. “Hopefully,” says Lawrence, “we'll enjoy the fellowship of cooking and eating together, too!”

Required reading

Getting in touch with the earth

More on Interim

Read about other interim courses:

Handling Disaster

Representing the devil

What’s for Dinner?

Spies, Lies and National Security

See a list of interim blogs.

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