November 17, 2014 | By Jake Weber | Photos by Dave Lawrence and Tom Hunsdorfer
"I never realized how important it is to pay attention to detail with a substance that really just looks like a gray mud. It dries moderately fast but has to be the perfect consistency, and if it's not perfectly level, you'll end up with a slanted oven," says Alena Farooq, '18, who learned something about mortar for a class project. "I can't tell you the amount of times we had to pick the bricks back up and perfectly align the mortar all the way across. It was definitely an adventure."
It's not often that poured concrete and mozzarella cheese are course materials—let alone in the same course—but one Albion College first-year seminar recently whipped up some of each. This October, the class built a wood-fired pizza oven in the Whitehouse Nature Center, presenting it as a gift to the College.
"Intersectional Pizza: Gender, Race, Class, and Food" is taught by women's and gender studies professor Trisha Franzen, who has piled the topic with everything from evolutionary biology to agricultural policy. Pizza-making provided a starting point for an in-depth look at the people who grow, harvest, process, transport, prepare, and consume food.
Focusing on such a common object teaches students the impact and benefit of critical thinking in their everyday lives, Franzen explains. "I want my students to really think about this food, which is so central to their generation. And I wanted them to 'do' pizza. I believe in experiential, active learning, with our bodies as well as our minds."
Franzen notes that along with building the oven and making their own mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce, the class researched and discussed topics including industrial food processing, migrant labor concerns, the impact of cooked food on human evolution, and gender roles centered around food production and preparation.
As students deconstructed this favored food, "they understood that increasingly we don’t have the skills needed to prepare our own food from scratch," she notes. "We contrast this reality with artisanal and local food and recognize the skills people need to grow, harvest, prepare, and cook for themselves, including building one’s own oven or other cooking technology."
Given the work involved in planning and building this oven, "I will use it regularly," says Franzen, who is involved with the Wildcat Garden, a collaborative effort with the Albion Public Schools that includes gardening and cooking projects with Albion schoolchildren. "We chose this design to stand up to institutional use. I have teased the class that the oven should be here when their grandchildren come to Albion."
"I love how building the oven really brought our class together," recalls Drew Emery, '18. "We are a very diverse group but we came together and made something great—kind of like different toppings on a pizza. I think that is what Dr. Franzen wanted us to learn."