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Food for Thoughts10 min read

When you introduce food into the classroom, something shifts. People open up and reveal themselves in new ways—suddenly there’s a whole new room, a new teacher, new students. People talk with their stomachs and their hearts as well as their brains. Even more of a transformation takes place when the schoolroom gets left behind and students gather at someone’s house for a meal (and possibly a beverage). Anything could happen.

Susan and Cary Stickney (St. John’s College, Annapolis ’75), longtime St. John’s faculty members, have always brought their students into their home for dinner parties. “You’re not just having some sort of dry, academic exchange,” says Ms. Stickney, 66, of their dinner seminars. “You’re fully inhabiting your own thought and expressing it, you’re fully present. I think that making food, and eating together, and sitting around talking and laughing is the same kind of being fully present.”

“We’re trying to treat our students like somebody we really do want to be friends with,” says Mr. Stickney, 59. “If they want to talk about hip-hop, we get them to talk about it in a way that’s real.”

These dinners are a practice the Stickneys were themselves exposed to in their own college years. They see them as a invaluable collegiate tradition. “Both Cary and I had professors that brought us over when we were students,” says Ms. Stickney, who graduated from the State University of New York-Binghamton in 1970, earned her PhD in 1985 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and who has worked as a St. John’s tutor since 1992. “For me it was a Swiss professor studying in America, and he had his students over a lot. We would listen to music and eat together and drink together—lots of drinking. It came out of what was happening in the classroom.”

The Stickneys’ interest in these dinners has as much to do with carrying on a fading social custom as it does with getting to know more about their students and exposing them to other foods. (Needless to say, cellphones are not allowed on the dinner table—these are social gatherings.) Confronted by food, conversation, and each other, students and teachers loosen up; they shake off their assigned classroom roles. Ms. Stickney gives way to Susan. Susan’s students become her guests—guests not much older than her daughters.

They could almost be her daughters, since her daughters have been part of these soirees since they were kindergartners. Sarah, 34, and Amelia, 26, grew up with students as their playmates, their babysitters, their peers. They sat at the grownups’ table along with everyone else. The girls, not surprisingly, matriculated to St. John’s. Amelia is now in her senior year at Santa Fe, and Sarah followed up her undergraduate degree at St. John’s with an MFA from the University of New Hampshire, and last spring joined the faculty in Annapolis.

“I developed a huge trust in those dinners,” says Amelia. “There was never any feeling of shyness for me, or fear or intimidation. It was thrilling to see all of these really cool adults filling my house.”

“Cool adults” to kids, sure, but even the coolest of students often appreciates a home-cooked meal. That’s because, even by junior or senior year when most students might think they’ve acclimated to living far away from their family and eating food that’s been prepared, served, and disposed of by strangers, life in a dorm can still be rather disheartening. The mundane but deeply pleasurable activity of sharing a meal is rare or infrequent, along with the sense of everyone being fully present at the table. And despite continually addressing its students as adults, the college can also come off like an overbearing parent, preventing students from fully embracing their adult lives. Dinner at the Stickneys’, though, reconnects students to themselves and others, and demands participation. Students cook and clean, and sometimes bring their own ingredients and recipes. Though such tasks might be considered prosaic, it’s sometimes just these types of daily activities, missing from college life, that connect us to other people.

As far as what’s for dinner, the Stickneys make it a point of featuring dishes and ingredients that undergrads might not have encountered before. It’s a chance to experiment. “We like to communicate just how marvelous the world of food is,” says Ms. Stickney, who maintains a garden of fresh herbs, tomatoes, and other vegetables. (They also frequent the Farmer’s Market and love Santa Fe’s local olive oils.) “How beautiful it is, and how varied and how curious.”

But they are such a welcoming couple, and when their daughters are around, such a warm family, that their students immediately feel taken into the fold, ready to try whatever it is the Stickneys have put on the platter. No matter how weird or exotic.

“They are always trying to walk the line between what’s going to freak students out and what’s going to make them feel at home,” says Amelia. “They put out a lot of side dishes that are going to make them feel super comfortable and cozy, and then have a main dish that’s some crazy way to make duck or some fish they’ve never tried.”

Foods like raw oysters or salty Virginia ham are regular petits plats. Susan doesn’t personally like oysters, but she knows from experience that they can often shock students into a deeper engagement with their senses. In a way that Huygens, La Rochefoucauld, and Kant might not.

Last year, the Stickneys hosted a dinner for one of Ms. Stickney’s final classes. The reading was Sophocles’ Philoctetes. On that late-spring evening, students threaded Christmas lights through an apple tree in the backyard and set out multicolored tablecloths and candles. The menu was New Mexican, with carnitas, black beans, grilled chicken, and chilaquiles. After dinner, as the light was fading, Ms. Stickney felt they’d had one of the year’s best gatherings. No one wanted to end the conversation, even when students could barely make out their books in the candlelight. “It was one of the best times ever,” she says. “I had to end the seminar. Usually there’s a group decision that the conversation’s over, but I think it would have gone on forever. I thanked them and said how wonderful it had been— nobody moved! No one moved.”

Definitely a foodie family, the Stickneys relate to food in ways that have cultural, culinary, and educational value.

When Sarah and Amelia were teenagers, for instance, the Stickneys all spent a year in Florence. The adults took a yearlong sabbatical to pursue their own research, while the girls went to Italian schools. The experience of living in Italy changed the family’s cooking habits, palates, and their sense of culinary adventure. Sarah has since returned to Italy many times.

On one trip, she met an American student. The student was there on a Fulbright scholarship, and studying with a local baker. She told Sarah in disbelief how the baker had asked her to come to the bakery very early one morning, then handed her a cup and told her, Go fill this with dew.

It sounded like something out of an Italo Calvino story, but no, explains Ms. Stickney, adding her part to what has become a favorite family tale, “dew has yeast in it. The wild yeast they use for the local bread came from the dew they collected.” But dew? Really? “I don’t know how long it takes,” Ms. Stickney muses, “to fill a cup with dew.”

Sarah was so intrigued by the idea that when she got back to the States, she collected yeast from an old grape vine in their backyard in Santa Fe, which she used as her own experimental bread starter. That then led to a passion for homemade Italian bread baked with homegrown ingredients.

The food, too, has stories to offer. Take pomegranates. As they were growing up, Mr. Stickney took his girls for a walk outside one fall day, regaling them with the story of Persephone. He explained that the waxing and waning of the seasons followed the descent and reemergence of Persephone from the underworld— though not initially. At first, Persephone stayed in the land of the dead, causing a perpetual winter that was so terrible for the living that Zeus forced Hades to give her back. Hades conceded but not without adding his own cunning caveat. Before releasing her, he led Persephone to an underworld garden full of mysterious trees hung with mysterious fruit. Captivated, she approached a shadowy gardener who offered her seeds from one of these strange fruits.

At this point in the story, Mr. Stickney produced a pomegranate, cracked it open, and gave six seeds to Sarah and six to Amelia, just as the gardener in the story offered six seeds to Persephone, each like a tiny, perfect gem. When Persephone eats the seeds she is forever enchanted with Hades and so returns every year to spend half her time with him, one month for each seed.

For the girls, eating the pomegranate seeds was a bridge into the story, a doorway into the narrative that would be hard to open otherwise. Eating the seeds along with Persephone allowed them to “live inside” the story, says Amelia. It was so successful with their daughters that the Stickneys have both taken pomegranates to class to tell the myth of the seasons.

“It’s great when you can make food that goes with what you’re reading,” says Ms. Stickney. “It’s a way for students who are afraid of trying new things to get interested in trying them—and it’s great for a cook.” A couple years ago, one of Ms. Stickney’s sophomore math classes gave her a cookbook of recipes from ancient Rome. She had a wonderful time cooking up some of the age-old exotic dishes and serving them to her class. Still, as bold as she likes to be, “I skipped things like nightingale tongues,” she admits.

Herodotus says in the Histories that the Persians debated issues while drunk and then made decisions once they got sober. The drinking, it seems, was an essential first step—back then as it is now?—to a real discussion. And, though hosting drunken bacchanalias is probably not a good practice most nights— especially for underage students with reading to do—it’s still important to meet one another over food so that we can really understand an idea, and really discover who we are as people, beyond formalities.

In fact, it’s debatable as to which is the greater part of the experience: the food, the company, the conversation, or the readings. In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, “There’s a scene in which Woolf describes the perfect dinner party,” says Mr. Stickney. “But it’s not just a dinner party, it’s a work of art. And in that place, it’s a time where people can be real and be happy with one another and sustain each other.

“The dinner party,” adds Mr. Stickney, “is supposed to be a model of a class in session. A place where people can enjoy being together, and sharing what they have—the occasion acts partly as an acknowledgment that we need one another. We can joke and be serious, ask questions and try out answers, and clearly it is being done not merely as a necessity but for the sake of enjoyment. Eating is something we all must inescapably do, but it can be done in a way that does not make us feel constrained and unfree. Maybe learning can be that way too?”

Maybe it can become an education that, as Amelia says, “fills you up with things that make you even more delighted and more conscious and more present in everything else that you do.”

Published in Rational Animal Magazine.

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