Alligator was indeed new to Graham's classmates studying Food Writing at St. Joe's. In fact, every week seems to bring something new for these undergrads. That was the idea when St. Joe's poet, author, and teacher Tenaya Darlington proposed food writing as a onetime course offering in early 2010.
Universities that formerly focused on educating dietitians, chefs, food anthropologists, and historians have expanded their offerings in recent years with graduate programs in food studies - a broader curriculum exploring the connections between food and the environment, politics, history, and culture, as well as gender, ethnic, and spiritual identity.
"To study food is to examine civilization - from world cultures and global commerce to the arts, humanities, and the natural and social sciences," according to a brochure for Boston University's graduate degree in gastronomy.
Indiana University, Bloomington, says it now offers "the first program in the world leading to a Ph.D. in the social science of food."
And we're not exactly bereft of programs in the Philadelphia area. At St. Joe's, the business school has a well-established and respected program offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in food marketing.
But the food writing course is new in St. Joe's English Department, says spokeswoman Patricia Allen. It was Darlington's idea, and university officials were enthusiastic, Allen said.
"We seem to have a national obsession with food writing," Darlington says, "from best-selling memoirs and novels based on food, to nonfiction focused on food safety and sustainability, and blogs."
There may well be a limit to the number of such books and blogs one culture can absorb, says Darlington, who moved here from Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin to teach, and who writes a cheese blog at MadameFromage.blogspot
"But I don't think we've reached that saturation point.
"Food has become one of those topics that permeates the culture," Darlington says. "And I wanted to bring that to the undergraduate level. I think students are hungry" - she says without guile - "for information about food and how they can be involved in the food culture."
Her curriculum has a required reading list: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Consider the Oyster by M.F.K Fisher, and Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl.
And, as an English department class, the curriculum calls for plenty of writing. Darlington introduces her students to journalistic principles forbidding plagiarism and demanding more fact than opinion. She assigns exercises designed to expand the reach of their culinary vocabulary so they can describe tastes and smells.
But before they can write, the students have to get to know produce. So, they have taken road trips, shopping and sniffing at the Reading Terminal and the Italian Market. They ate in restaurants and wrote reviews that were graded as class assignments.
They kept food logs and became conscious of their habits. One freshman observed that he'd been sleeping late and eating heavily after 11 p.m. Another noticed she was eating most of her meals alone, "usually peanut butter and jelly or pasta."
They watched the documentary King Corn, and each student was required to bring in a corn-free snack to share.
"I was surprised to see how many had never cooked," Darlington said.
When she challenged her students to a 72-hour change-of-diet exercise, one student stopped eating wheat to experience the challenges faced by people with celiac disease. Another attempted to follow a diabetic diet - going so far as to interview her grandmother on the subject. Andrea Modica went vegetarian for her three days.
"As a full-time student, my health seems to take a backseat to my grades," she wrote in a follow-up report. "Frankly, I'm tired of being another unhealthy college cliche."
Kate Stulpin vowed to eat only healthful foods, "in hope of setting an example for my dad," she wrote. "I'm afraid he'll eat himself into a wheelchair soon."
Stulpin also started a blog that she's kept up: relishtherussian.wordpress.com (a nod to her Russian heritage).
Bridget Brabson discovered ginger and made a baked gingerbread pancake - a puffy, cakelike affair that deflates as soon as you remove it from the oven. Cut it in wedges and serve like pizza.
In the course of the semester, the students learned some painful truths: that fresh produce can cost more than prepared packaged foods - especially if it's allowed to go bad - and that cooking takes time and results in dirty dishes.
For a final palate-stretching exercise, Darlington displayed 12 pieces of produce on tables and challenged her students to identify each.
It was shortly after Thanksgiving, so everybody recognized the pomegranate. Chayote squash mystified them, however, as did quince and kumquats. Since then, Stulpin has developed a quince dessert.
"When I had my first taste of quince, I was overwhelmed by a dry tartness," Stulpin wrote on her blog. "Upon further research, I learned that the fruit is mainly eaten after being cooked."
Purple Velvet Cake
Makes 8-10 servings
For the cake:
1 can beets (15 ounces)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
11/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
11/2 cups flour
11/2 teaspoons baking soda
For the frosting:
1 (6 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons butter,
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups powdered sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour one 9-inch round baking pan.
2. Before draining beets, reserve ½ cup of juice. Put reserved juice and beets in a blender and puree - you should have about 1¼ cups total.
3. Beat eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in beet puree, oil, sugar, salt, and vanilla.
4. In a separate bowl, sift cocoa, flour, and baking soda.
5. Whisk in dry ingredients a little at a time.
6. Bake 45 minutes. When cool, invert on plate or cake stand.
7. To make frosting, beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until well mixed, then add powdered sugar. Tip: when cool, chill the cake in the freezer for 20 minutes so that the surface is easy to frost.
- Adapted by Tenaya Darlington from "Moosewood Restaurant
Book of Desserts" (Clarkson Potter, 1997)
Per serving (based on 10): 510 calories, 7 grams protein, 74 grams carbohydrates, 53 grams sugar, 23 grams fat, 91 milligrams cholesterol, 510 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Quince Braised in Honey and Wine
Makes 4-6 servings
4 to 6 ripe, fragrant quince (about 2 pounds)
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup dessert wine
(muscat or riesling)
2 tablespoons unsalted
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Select a wide, shallow baking dish that will comfortably hold the quince in a single layer, with some doubling up if need be.
2. Rub the fuzz off each quince, rinse, then slice crosswise in rounds about 1/2-inch thick, leaving the skins on.
(The skins will disappear into the softness once cooked; the seeds are also left in, and you eat around the seed core with a knife and fork.)
3. Arrange the rounds of fruit in the baking dish. Tuck in the cinnamon sticks, drizzle on the honey, pour in the wine, and then dot with the butter. Cover the dish with foil.
4. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and bake an additional 20 minutes. Turn the slices over and slosh the juices around. Then return the dish to the oven and bake until burnished and tender when pierced with a paring knife, an additional 15-30 minutes. In the end, the juices will have cooked down to a dark syrup.
5. Serve warm or at room temperature, alone or with something creamy (ice cream, pudding). Spoon the syrup over the fruit.
- From Seasonal Fruit Desserts (Broadway Books, 2010)
by Deborah Madison
Per serving (based on 6): 223 calories, 1 gram protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 11 milligrams cholesterol, 8 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Baked Gingerbread Pancake
Makes 4-6 servings
Butter-flavored cooking spray
1/2 cup fat-free milk
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup unsweetened
1 cup Egg Beaters (or other egg substitute)
1 tablespoon dark molasses
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup nonfat vanilla yogurt
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Coat a round cake pan with butter-flavored cooking spray.
2. Stir all ingredients except the yogurt into a medium bowl and whisk until batter is smooth.
3. Pour batter into cake pan and bake until it puffs up, about 15 minutes. Note that the cake is supposed to deflate when you remove it from the oven.
4. Cut into 4 to 6 slices, like a pizza, and serve with a dollop of yogurt, if desired.
- from The Everything Healthy College Cookbook
(Adams, 2010) by Nicole Cormier
Per serving (based on 6, without yogurt): 85 calories, 6 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, trace fat, trace cholesterol, 186 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or email@example.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.