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Carolina Cooks, Carolina Eats

The class “Carolina Cooks, Carolina Eats” gives students a chance to learn North Carolina's food system and food culture from the ground up.

The students chat a bit as they take their seats and prepare to learn, just as usual. But instead of pencils and notebooks, they grab forks and plates.

American Studies 375 – better known as “Carolina Cooks, Carolina Eats” at UNC-Chapel Hill – isn’t your normal class. Here, ‘course’ also means appetizers, entrees and dessert.

“Food is a really critical area of study today,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor of American Studies and one of the course’s instructors. “It’s been growing in its importance for years. We have to pay attention to how we’re feeding ourselves.”

Gathering around the table is just one part of “Carolina Cooks, Carolina Eats.”  The main goal of the class, offered by the Department of American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, is much broader.

Ferris teamed up with her colleague Sharon Holland, professor of American Studies, to create a class designed to teach students the ins and outs of food in North Carolina. Instruction includes course lectures and readings, a host of experiences outside of the classroom and guest lecturers.

“We have chefs, farmers, academics — anyone involved in our local food system from the ground up come to talk to our students,” Holland said.  Last semester’s speakers included North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler and Crook’s Corner Chef Bill Smith — who invited the students to his restaurant to sample some of the North Carolina cuisine they had been learning about in class.

“We started off with some deviled egg appetizers,” said Hannah Collier, a senior American Studies major.  “Our main course is cornbread and collard greens and salt-cured ham from eastern North Carolina, as well as soup beans, which are western North Carolina.”

The students also spent an afternoon at Funny Girl Farm in Durham to learn more about agriculture from the ground up.

And in addition to their course work and in-the-field experiences, the students are taking part in a project that will endure long after they graduate.

“It’s time for a new major work that’s not just a cookbook, but it’s really a social history that addresses all these many issues in which food brings us to the table to understand North Carolina culture and history,” Ferris said.

To gather the material for that project, the more than 70 students spread out across the state to record oral history interviews with farmers, fishermen, restaurant owners and more.  The material will live online in the short term, but ultimately become part of a book that will benefit all North Carolinians.

“I think people question the importance of food and why study it,” said Bo McMillan, a junior Journalism major. “And the fact that we’re walking away with a legacy that talks about the history of our state and the culture of our state is something you can’t attach a material importance to.”

The Carolina Cooks, Carolina Eats class filled just a few minutes after it opened for its initial registration in the spring of 2015.  The course will be offered again in spring, 2016.

“This class has taught me how food isn’t just sitting around the table and eating good things that taste good,” Collier said.  “It’s the story of what’s on the plate and whose labor went into what’s on the plate, and really just getting to connect on a deeper level to what I’m eating every day.”