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Exploring the Literature of Food: Current Trends in American Food Writing and Environmentalism

Exploring the Literature of Food: Current Trends in American Food Writing and Environmentalism


In our era of fast grub, rock-bottom prices, and huge supermarkets (stocked year-round with food that is only ripe thousands of miles away), people have begun to take steps to know more about their food.  This movement takes many forms, including Organic, Free-Range, Locavore, and Slow Food.  In this course, we will read texts that have helped popularize the need and the techniques for paying more attention to what we put into our bodies and how the way food is produced impacts the environment.

4.5 Credits, English 179, GH and US

The syllabus will include works by Henry David Thoreau, Upton Sinclair, Michael Pollan, Novella Carpenter, Wendell Berry, and more!

This is a hands-on course!  We will visit and work on three farms tied to the local food economy in State College.  We will grow more conscious about our own consumption by thinking about where the food we eat comes from, encountering producers through local farmers’ markets, and writing about our experiences with the local food community.  Finally, along with sharing food each week in class, we’ll cook a meal together, using local, sustainable produced food to end the semester in style!  Good nourishment for body and mind: That’s the goal for this course.


Class meets each Thursday of the semester from 6:00 to 7:30

February:  Blue Rooster Farm. Tour a working organic meat farm and sustainable forest with the owners and operators of the farm

March/April:  Mystic Springs Farm. Help with spring farm chores on an organic farm

April: Mountainside Homestead. Tour the 250-year old farmhouse and learn how the owners work to feed themselves and to live sustainably.

Late April: Class meal prepared with local food from various farms we have visited.

Although the assignments may change slightly, this sample syllabus is intended to give you a sense of the types of reading and other work required in the course.

Eating Your Ecology: Food Writing and Environmentalism

Course Description:

This course aims to bring you closer to your food — intellectually, literally, and ecologically. In our era of fast grub, rock-bottom prices, and huge supermarkets (stocked year-round with food that is only ripe thousands of miles away), people have begun to take steps to know more about their food. This movement takes many forms, including Organic, Free-Range, Locavore, and Slow Food. In this course, we will read texts that have helped popularize the need and the techniques for paying more attention to what we put into our bodies. We will consider questions such as: What, exactly, are we eating? Where does it come from? What are the environmental impacts of our food culture at Penn State, the United States, and the world? How do our eating habits map onto other aspects of our life, including urbanism, corporatization, and consumerism? How can we use food, and narratives about food, to look at community development, politics, spiritual enrichment, and ethics? And just what is it that farmers really do, anyway?

You’ll read a series of food narratives and food exposés that will be both fun and informative. None of these books are strictly scientific — that is to say, behind each of our readings there is a humanist, thinking in philosophical and cultural terms. Together, we’ll discuss those underlying philosophies, their origins, and how they might come to effect change in our society. Then, we’ll add our own perspectives to the conversation.

There will be multiple experiential aspects of this class. We will travel to farms and work on them. We will note the kinds of things we choose to eat, and will expand on our personal encounters with local food and the people who grow it in a reflective essay. And, best of all, we’ll share food with each other each week in class, and cook an end-of-year feast together — using only food we can get here, produced sustainably. Good nourishment for mind and body: that’s the goal of this course.


  • Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
  • Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America
  • Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
  • Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation
  • Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
  • Mark Winne, Closing the Food Gap

The readings will be supplemented with bits of other works, which we will provide through E-reserve or Angel.

You should also have some warm clothes that are sturdy and that can get a little dirty, a small paper journal, an open mind, and an appetite.


Group Research Project: 20%
Critical Response (5–7 p): 40%
Experiential Writing (5–7 p): 30%
Participation/Cookbook: 10%

Activities and Trips:

Blue Rooster, Farm Tour— Blue Rooster Farm is a meat-producing farm located in East Waterford. We will spend a day touring their grounds and talking to the Hurst-Brubakers about running a small-scale farm. From genetic diversity to animal care and management, we’ll investigate what a small farm can offer that farming on a mega scale cannot.Activities and Trips:

Mystic Springs Farm, Work Weekend — The family that runs Mystic Springs Organic Farm in Selinsgrove has offered to take us on for two full days of farm work. We will not stay on the farm; we will arrive there early in the morning and leave around dinnertime. This is a vegetable farm, so we’ll be putting seeds in the ground! We will learn about the intricate planning that a produce farm must undertake to keep their customers in the greens (and carrots, onions, garlic, potatoes, etc.). Succession planting, organic pest control, long-term land use, and certification are all open for discussion.

Fiedler Farm, Workshop — Fiedler Farm, run by Nell Hanssen and Bob Vernon, is the “home base” for one of the region’s more robust community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. We’ll spend the morning touring the grounds, which might include a little horse work (they do much of their small-scale farming with animal power), and in the afternoon we’ll learn about Groundworks CSA and a little about container gardening. Plus, by this point in the spring, the farm is likely to have their free-range chickens (and chicken tractors) up and running!

Weeks 1 to 7 — Leftovers: A History


Henry David Thoreau, from Walden; Upton Sinclair, The Jungle; Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

Class content

For the first portion of the class, we will investigate the history of food writing. Thoreau will introduce us to the ecological mindset as he ponders growing beans in the woods near Walden Pond. Sinclair takes us to the end of the nineteenth century, when industrialization and immigration had changed the landscape of America — both literally and socially. Berry introduces us to an environmentalist’s history of agriculture and sets the scene for understanding how far our food culture has changed since his radical 1970s text was published.

Weeks 8 to 12 — Food as Bestseller: The Contemporary Uptake


Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation; Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Class content

This portion of the syllabus covers three of the iconic works of contemporary nonfiction food writing. Pollan’s book examines large- and small-scale organic farming since the FDA regulated the usage of the term. Schlosser continues where Sinclair left off, examining the intersection of labor, industrial production, and fast food culture in our society. Kingsolver suggests the practicality of uniting modern life with sustainable food practices by sharing her own family’s yearlong experience of eating a local food diet.

The primary questions that we’ll be dealing with in class will concern food ethics; our relationship to industrial production and the implications it has for labor, the environment, health, and family; and the practicality and viability of being more local-food conscious, given certain socioeconomic constraints. At this time we will also work on our food-staple research projects and spend a couple of weekend days on local farms.

Weeks 13 to 15 — Contorno: Food as Politics, Ethics, and Community


Mark Winne, Closing the Food Gap; Peter Singer, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter

Class content

We’ll spend the last weeks of the course contemplating the future of sustainable food. Winne’s text describes his experience as an organizer of food relief programs for America’s poor, helping raise questions about class and access to good, local, sustainable food. Singer’s text will help us ground a final consideration of international connections with a critique of fair trade practices. Our last class will take place in a kitchen, where we will cook and eat a locally sourced dinner.

Fees and Registration

The $195 class fee covers transportation, some meals, and all entrance fees to the Pennsylvania locations:

Blue Rooster Farm, East Waterford
Mystic Springs Organic Farm, Selinsgrove

For full-time Penn State students (with 12 or more credits)
Upon your acceptance, this course will be added to your semester schedule. No additional tuition payment is required. Your class fee will be charged to your student account.

For non-full-time students (part-time students or non–Penn State students)
You will receive a bill for payment, which includes tuition — based on your residence and semester status — and the information technology, activity, and class fees.

How to Register

Current students are encouraged to register on eLion, using schedule # 804136. However, anyone can register by mailing the printable registration form. Enrollment is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis.


Because of the nature of this program and the commitment we make to it, the registration deadline is January 18, 2012, or when the course fills. After this date, please call the program planner at 814-863-5144 for information about late-registration opportunities, if applicable.

Penn State Cancellations or Changes

You will be notified of any cancellations or changes. If some unforeseen event forces Penn State to cancel or postpone the program, you will receive a full refund of your registration fee; however, the University cannot be held responsible for any related costs, including cancellation fees assessed by airlines or travel agencies.


You may use eLion to cancel your participation in this course through the first day of class without the charges to your account. After the first day of class, you will need to contact the program planner by fax at 814-863-5190 or e-mail at to cancel. The class fee is nonrefundable after the first day of class.


The University reserves the right to revise the schedule of tuition and charges without further notice. For more information on tuition, visit


Penn State encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs. If you anticipate needing special accommodations or have questions about the physical access provided, please contact the planner at 814-863-5144 before your participation.