Alice Julier: the woman who is growing Chatham's master of arts in food studies program


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It's 3 o'clock on Friday afternoon and way out in northern Allegheny County farmland, with storm clouds threatening, Alice Julier is regrouping -- an everyday experience when you're a working mother of two.

The group of Chatham University undergrads she's scheduled to speak to have started filing into the Craftsman-style home at Eden Hall Farm, the school's campus in Richland. They've traded spring break for an organic gardening class at the 388-acre working farm -- a pile of muddy rubber boots announces their arrival from the greenhouse -- and are eager to hear thoughts on food politics from Ms. Julier, the director of Chatham's brand-new master of arts in food studies program.

Ms. Julier's daughter Zoe, however, is due at a friend's house somewhere in Hampton, like, five minutes ago.

Hmm. Kathy Robinson, gleaning coordinator of Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, can keep the young women occupied while Ms. Julier makes the 25-minute roundtrip drive. But what to do with a reporter? Looks like we'll have to move our chat to the front seat of her Honda Odyssey van. "If you don't mind," she says, laughing.

Minutes later, we're rolling down the Red Belt while Zoe, 14, shouts directions from the back seat from her cell phone's GPS.

Ms. Julier's ability to juggle projects and people without driving herself (or others) crazy has proved essential to her new job at Chatham, launching this fall one of only three such master's programs in the country, and one of just two with "food studies" in the title. (The other is at New York University-Steinhardt.)

Ms. Julier can talk to anyone without talking down about topics as varied as sustainable agriculture (she's a huge fan of organic community supported agriculture, or CSA) to issues of race and ethnicity to the nation's obesity crisis. If you're not familiar with Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," for example, she won't make a face. She will, though, tell you she's not a fan (too preachy).

You have to be able to connect with people when you're creating a program from the ground up, notes Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of community partner Grow Pittsburgh, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting urban farming. With her easy laugh and willingness to listen with both ears, Ms. Julier "is a natural collaborator."

Interested in Chatham University's Master of Arts in Food Studies program?

There will be mini-open houses for prospective students from 10 a.m. to noon on April 18 and 25 at the school's 388-acre Eden Hall campus in Richland.

When it launches this fall, the program will be in elite company, joining just a handful of graduate food studies programs in the U.S. It also will take this emerging, interdisciplinary field one step further by becoming the only master's program to offer both sustainable agriculture and culinary arts and cuisines within a liberal arts environment.

Developed by sociologist Alice Julier, who also will head the program, the curriculum will explore how food affects people and the global environment, with courses in food theory, systems and ethics. Students also will get hands-on experience in cooking and sustainable agriculture at Eden Hall.

The largest undeveloped plot in Allegheny County, Eden Hall Farm belonged to Sebastian Mueller, cousin to Henry J. Heinz and one of the first vice presidents of the H.J. Heinz Co.. Mr. Mueller built the summer country home in 1912, and in the 1930s offered it as a retreat and picnic spot to thousands of "Heinz girls." The Eden Hall Foundation donated it to the university in 2008.

The MAFS is a 42-credit program (tuition is $720 per credit, plus a $14 per credit college fee) and includes an internship and field work or international study. Part of the university's new School of Sustainability and the Environment, it will offer concentrations in food politics, history and culture, and food markets and marketing. Eventually, the entire program will be based at the Eden Hall campus, which, when housing is completed over the next few years, will be the second free-standing school of sustainability to open in the U.S.

Local community partners offering "real world" experience include Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and Parkhurst Dining Services.

More information: 1-800-837-1290 or www.chatham.edu/mafs.

What has further endeared her to the local food community, adds Ms. Pezzino, is that she's not afraid to take risks.

Soon after Ms. Julier got the job in August, for example, she raised the possibility of setting up an internship specific to Grow Pittsburgh that would give students real-world experience and help keep the five-year-old program running.

"That she had faith in us when her program hasn't even started ... it's exciting and comforting," says Ms. Pezzino.

Starting a new program also takes some know-how, and Ms. Julier, who moved to Hampton four years ago when her husband got a job at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, brings with her a breadth and depth of knowledge about food systems and culture.

An interdisciplinary field, food scholarship examines accessibility, cultural and social justice issues along with distribution and food safety. Ms. Julier holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, taught gastronomy at Boston University, and has been writing about food for more than a decade. So she understands how the different and intricate pieces of the food puzzle fit together.

Says Chatham vice president of academic affairs Laura Armesto, "You need someone who knows not just food but also the context in which food will be placed."

Ms. Julier has spent the last seven months developing curriculum while also teaching undergraduate courses and reaching out to groups such as Grow Pittsburgh. It hasn't been completely smooth sailing: The hardest part, she says, was imagining the students who might enroll.

Because applicants have nothing to compare it to, "having that open door is a gift along with a curse," she says.

The bulk of her time, then, has been spent promoting the program at events such as last month's Farm to Table conference, taking groups on tours of Eden Hall's greenhouse and talking up the curriculum when a potential student visits her office or classroom.

But Ms. Julier, who favors jeans, T-shirts and arty necklaces to academia's suits and heels, has at least as much energy as the 20-somethings she'll be accompanying to Italy in May as part of an undergraduate course in food studies. Get the 47-year-old talking about the farms and chefs who are starting to call and her voice brightens.

"It's so much fun!" she exclaims. "I love it when people come up to me and say, 'This is such a great thing for Pittsburgh. We need this.' "

Women's work

A career in food studies wasn't first on the native New Yorker's plate: She spent the early years of her career on feminist health activism, at one time working with Our Bodies Ourselves, a nonprofit women's health organization based in Cambridge, Mass. There also was a short stint as a middle school art teacher before grad school. As the women's health movement became more corporate, though, Ms. Julier started thinking: what now? An inkling came in the early '90s, after she read "Feeding the Family" by sociologist Marjorie DeVault. The book explores how the "caring activities" within a household -- cooking, provisioning, feeding -- are socially constructed as women's work. It had a profound effect on her.

"I started thinking about all those people who fed and took care of me, and what counts as good food," she remembers. Before long, she was attending conferences and writing about food and culture.

Arlene Voski Avakian's 1997 anthology, "Through the Kitchen Window," further cemented her interest in the emerging study of food. The dessert in this sweet collection of essays and poems is the writers' recipes. The main dish is a frank discussion of the "invisible work" women do in the kitchen. Written by women of different races, classes, sexual orientation and cultural backgrounds, it offered a then-provocative look at food as more than just the construction of a meal.

Today, writing about your relationship with food won't raise an eyebrow or someone's hackles. But then, it was unusual enough that when Ms. Avakian's call went out for papers, some feminists dismissed it.

"It was like, 'You're writing about food? How trivial!' " says Ms. Julier. She chuckles. "How things have changed."

Ms. Avakian soon became a mentor and friend, and by 2003, Ms. Julier's food-related writing was such that the Association for the Study of Food and Society made her its president.

"And once you open that door ..." She shakes her head, letting loose another of her frequent, happy laughs.

Food in the family

Despite a packed schedule that includes her daughters' gymnastic meets and music lessons, Ms. Julier -- who almost never goes out to eat -- tries to cook for her family most nights. She cheerily admits, though, that like her mother, she feels no guilt in taking culinary shortcuts with ramen and pancake mix and often plays with ingredients. Thursdays are especially challenging, what with teaching, meeting with faculty, marketing the program, maintaining a house and chauffering kids to activities.

"You know, there's just no time," she says.

In her tiny electric-blue office in Coolidge Hall on Chatham's Shadyside campus, decorated with 10-year-old daughter Esme's colorful artwork, she talks about how the seeds of her career were sown when she was a child. Growing up in New Hyde Park on Long Island, she was surrounded not only by good food that spoke to her Polish-French-German heritage but also people who enjoyed growing, preparing and eating it. Her grandfather grew tomatoes in his back yard. Her mother, Helen, a teacher and librarian, tended a garden.

There weren't many rules or limitations in the Julier kitchen. Her aerospace engineer father loved to cook breakfast at a time when most men couldn't so much as break an egg, and filled the family freezer with garbage pails full of flounder he caught himself. Mom almost always cooked from scratch, though like most '60s moms with several kids, she also wasn't afraid of convenience foods. She was particularly skilled at baking, turning the fruit of a sour cherry tree in the back yard into a single, but terrific, pie each summer.

"The joke was, my parents would roll over in bed in the morning and the first thing that popped in their heads was, 'What should we make for dinner?' "

Food continued to play a central role after the family moved to southern New Hampshire when she was 12. She still remembers the day she and her sister ate jelly donuts and ice cream for breakfast and when her sister surprised the family with an entire menu of blue food. Later, as a newlywed in Amherst, Mass., the former 4H-er and her husband, whom she met at Brandeis University, drew friends into their home with the promise of home-cooked meals.

"It might be ordinary, but food also is such a central piece of life," she says.

Even after children arrived, the couple remained adventurous cooks who loved to try new things with the veggies they got in their CSA share from the nearby Food Bank Farm.

Last year, Ms. Julier was a visiting professor in women's studies at the University of Pittsburgh and working on a book ("Things Taste Better in Small Houses: Food, Friendship, and Inequality" is to be published next year by University of Illinois Press) when Chatham started looking for someone to develop a food studies program. She'd already been charmed by the city's food scene; her husband, Zack Rubinstein, a systems scientist, actually "seduced" her into coming to Pittsburgh by taking her to the Strip District on a sunny October weekend. But the opportunity to build her own program from scratch, with its own faculty? That was something she really could sink her teeth into. She quickly put in for the job and did a little dance when she got it.

"It was like, Here I am!"

A farm-centered program

Western Pennsylvania, too, is ready for its close-up. Thanks to its racial and ethnic communities, the area is blessed with a rich food history, says Ms. Julier. It also has a deep tradition of commercial and small-scale artisan farming.

Chatham's MAFS is a rare program. The pioneering degree at Boston University, started in 1993 by Julia Child, is awarded in gastronomy. The Department of Anthropology at Indiana University also recently started a food studies concentration, leading to a Ph.D. What really will set Chatham's MAFS apart from the handful of other food studies programs, aside from the school's long tradition of environmental awareness, is Eden Hall Farm.

No other school offers a working environment where students can have regular in-the-field experiences in sustainable agriculture to see what works, and what doesn't.

She says, "The farm will be the center."

If the large number of Pittsburghers who've been showing up at events such as last month's Farm to Table and the inaugural Local Food Showcase at Chatham are any indication, there's a growing interest in sustainable agriculture and good food; already, a dozen students have been admitted to the program this fall, with more in the pipeline. The ultimate goal, she says, is to churn out 30 or more grads each year who can ably push ideas of sustainability and cultural understanding.

"Someone needs to do that job intelligently," she says.

For some, the degree will validate what they already do on a daily basis. Others will pursue careers with food companies, help hospitals and nursing homes "rethink" the way they choose and prepare food, or help develop programs like the National School Lunch Program.

"This idea to resurrect Pittsburgh from its industrial past," she says, "this program will help make that happen."

Not Tom's Thai Green Noodles

This green noodle dish is inspired by my very good friend and chef Tom Hidas, who used to own an Asian noodle shop in Amherst, Mass., called Amber Waves. This is the kind of cooking I do most often -- the dish is different every time because most of it depends on the availability of ingredients on any given day. It feeds four of us, but for four with big appetites, you can double the noodles and still have enough sauce.

-- Alice Julier, Chatham University

  • 2 large bunches fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons rice or apple cider vinegar
  • 1 fresh green chili minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon peeled and chopped fresh gingerroot
  • 1/4 cup coconut water or milk (more if you like it creamy)
  • Olive and sesame oils for cooking
  • Choice of vegetables, chopped into slivers: bok choy, onions, baby kale, broccoli and shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 pound chicken, beef, or tofu, cut into thin slices and marinated in soy sauce
  • 1 pound fresh noodles from the Asian grocer (we usually buy yellow egg-based noodles, but rice noodles or soba both work fine, too)

Set a pot of water to boil. While it's heating, mix the cilantro, vinegar, green chili, garlic, ginger and coconut liquid in a blender or food processor for all of 1 minute. Heat a skillet or wok, adding a mixture of olive and sesame oils. When the oil is hot, saute the vegetables quickly, stirring constantly. When the broccoli appears crisp but no longer "raw," remove the vegetables and cook the protein in the remaining oil.

By now the water is boiling. Add noodles, cook for just a minute or 2. Remove, drain and mix with green sauce, vegetables and protein. Garnish with chopped scallions and chopped roasted nuts or sesame seeds.

Serves 4.

-- Alice Julier, Chatham University

Red Chili

I had a very good friend who used to go to New Mexico every summer to paint. When she'd come back, she'd bring us new dried or powdered chilis to try, along with ways to cook them. This is a variation on Chile Caribe, which uses chili pods rather than powder. The first year I made this was one where we got a ton of tomatillos from the Food Bank Farm CSA and I finally had some way to use them.

I love this recipe because it makes great use of something distant and something local. I also love it because it can be vegetarian -- or not.

When I make this dish outside of tomato season, I use tomatoes that have been roasted at 350 degrees for 2 hours with sea salt and basil.

-- Alice Julier, Chatham University

  • 2 to 4 chicken breasts or 4 thick pork chops, trimmed of fat (reserve fat) and pounded and dredged with flour, pepper, and paprika (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 6 to 10 tomatillos, cored and halved, then run through a food processor to mince
  • 2 or 3 large tomatoes, cut up and then run through food processor to mince
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup flour or thickener
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 cups stock
  • 2 tablespoons ground chili powder ( I use a mix of mild and hot)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika

If you are using meat, start by cooking the reserved fat and trimmings in a large skillet. Remove fat when browned and add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Saute the meat on both sides until brown; remove and place on platter. Keep warm.

If you are not using meat, begin here with a hot skillet. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon butter.

Using the same skillet without emptying the oil, add the minced tomatillos and tomatoes, diced garlic, flour and salt to the skillet. As it begins to cook, slowly add 1/2 of the stock. When you have about 1/2 cup of stock left, add it with the chili powders, pepper and paprika. Cook, stirring constantly to keep it from sticking, over medium heat, for about 2 minutes. Do not let it burn.

Add remaining stock and cook for about 2 more minutes. Remove from heat if you are serving it without meat. If you are using meat, add to skillet and cook for 2 more minutes.

Serve the sauce over rice garnished with chopped scallions and sour cream or tart yogurt. Sauce refrigerates well and can be used over almost any meat or fish, with pasta, rice, or potatoes.

Serves 4.

-- Alice Julier, Chatham University


Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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