“It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” says food historian Gabriella Petrick of her decision to come to Mason to help develop the new Nutrition and Food Studies Program in the College of Health and Human Services. “The opportunity to help found a new program is a really interesting intellectual challenge, and I am able to do something that I really care about.”
Petrick, who received a culinary degree from the Culinary Institute of America, has long been fascinated with taste, and why people like and dislike certain foods and beverages. She became particularly interested in food and wine pairings during her stints at the Beringer Vineyard in Napa Valley and Chateau Souverain in Healdsburg, California. So, when Nutrition and Food Studies Department chair Lisa Pawloski told Petrick about the new Global Health Perspectives on Alcohol class, Petrick says her response was “Pick me!”
“This class provides an opportunity for me to blend my interest in food studies and history with the more scientific aspect of taste,” says Petrick, an associate professor in the new department. “And then woven into that is my passion for wine and beer.”
In addition to beer and wine tastings, students in the class took trips to the Kings Family Vineyard near Charlottesville and the Mad Fox Brewing Company in Falls Church. “I can show as many slides as I want,” says Petrick of the behind-the-scenes production, “but it’s not the same as being there and really tasting and experiencing it.”
The class, which was offered in the fall semester, consisted of mostly public health students with the exception of a philosophy student and sports physiology student. As one of the in-class projects, the students got to brew beer. The class broke into small groups and picked recipes for their own special brews (sample ingredients included sweet potatoes, apricot, and bitter orange peel), which they created at the college’s new Nutrition Kitchen in downtown Fairfax.
“When we [brew the beer], students begin to understand what the challenges are to get it exactly right,” she says. “It seems so simple when we talk about it, but what’s going on in these vats becomes much more complicated.”
Petrick hopes that students come away with an understanding of the public and private attitudes toward alcohol throughout the world and how those change over time. In fact, for one of their short papers, students may analyze Ken Burns’s documentary Prohibition.
“A theme in all my work and teaching is to think about the complex roles that both food and alcohol play in our daily lives,” says Petrick, “and I like to look at things in ways that are quite unexpected.”
This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in Dimensions, the magazine of the College of Health and Human Services.