Chris Hawthorne and Jeannie Pierola don't appear to have anything in common. He's a poet-farmer at Sweetwater Organic Farm and she's the lauded chef at Edison: Food + Drink Lab. For work, he wears a big straw hat to shade himself from the sun accompanied by scruffy clothes and scruffier facial hair. She is buttoned up in a crisp white chef jacket with a look of confident control on her face.
But they share something, and that's evident the minute they begin to talk about what they do. They've got a passion for food. And though they show it in different ways — he as an education guide at the 6-acre urban farm and she as the guiding force behind some of the city's most creative food — they see eye to eye on many things. Respect for the sustenance the earth provides is just one.
Hawthorne and Pierola were two of about a dozen people who shared their foodways expertise for a class called "Food Fights" at the University of Tampa. In a two-week intensive course, May 13 to 24, English professors Kacy Tillman and Bill Doyle taught nine UT students that a nasturtium bloom tastes like a mouthful of wasabi and that a dill pickle-flavored potato chip could inspire a chef to develop a dish fit for fine dining. Students participated in a cooking class at the Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium in Brandon, learned about hydroponic farming at Urban Oasis and stocked shelves at Feeding America Tampa Bay, among other activities. They Skyped with food bloggers and visited Ybor City for a lesson on local food history. Food, Inc. and Super Size Me were among the movies they watched.
They discovered that some of the food we eat is produced in questionable ways.
"I never thought about where my food came from before," said Rich Demling, 21, a senior English major. "I just ate what was on my plate and if it was good, I ate more."
Now, he's thinking about organic versus traditionally farmed food, and wondering what he can afford on a student budget. "My mother never paid $10 a pound for chicken," he said, reflecting on the class trip to a natural food store.
"This class really opened my eyes to a lot of things," said Kyetra Bryant, 18, a sophomore journalism and communications major. "I won't look at things the same way."
That was the hope of Tillman and Doyle as they crafted the activities and came up with a challenging reading list for the course that drew a diverse group of students majoring in English, finance, accounting, performing arts, marketing and graphic design. Besides shorter articles, the students read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Bottled and Sold by Peter Gleick and Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. Tomatoland hit close to home because it takes an unflinching look at the effects of large-scale tomato farming, chiefly in Florida.
By the middle of the second week, after a handful of field trips and seven of the 10 required video diaries, it was clear they were thinking about what they put in their mouths and how much they spend for it. Waste was also on their minds.
While there was a lot of reading, writing and reflecting going on, the professors wanted the class to have a lasting effect, influencing the students just as they prepare to step out on their own and make choices as consumers.
"Their responses to the material are mixed. They are both horrified by the politics of food manufacturing and regulation and empowered to think they can — to paraphrase (author) Michael Pollan — vote with their feet every time they walk into a grocery store," said Tillman.
The Tampa Bay Times hung out with the class for two sessions, one at Sweetwater Farm just off Hillsborough Avenue and not far from Tampa International Airport and the second at Edison, the 10-month-old restaurant helmed by the former executive chef at Bern's Steak House and SideBern's. Edison is just across Kennedy Boulevard from the university.
At the farm
Chris Hawthorne, who has a recent degree in creative writing from the University of South Florida, is clearly in love with farming and the religion of organics. He walked the class from the compost pile through the almost-gone-to-seed sunflower field, past the chickens and the big hog, to the herb garden, all the while explaining the operation. The students pushed their noses into various herbs and breathed deeply as Hawthorne told them about all the uses for plants, including medicinal and even sartorial.
"Watch your step; Henrietta has been digging a hole," he said, as everyone trooped into the chicken coop. As if on cue, the farm's rooster jumped on the fence, preened for photos and gave out a big cock-a-doodle-doo.
Their guide talked about how companion plants — those that repel bugs — are grown near others to eliminate the need for chemicals. Hawthorne smiled impishly as he admitted that the Sweetwater staff pet their plants. The students tasted shamrocks, which they learned aren't clover and are a bit sour, almost lemony. And they all stuffed a brilliant orange nasturtium bloom into their mouths. Whoa, was the uniform response to the horseradish punch. Any traces of a head cold would be cleared out was the consensus.
The class picked slender, bumpy leaves of lacinato kale headed for a salad studded with candy cane beets, radishes and, of course, nasturtiums. They would eat that before class ended. And it wouldn't be the last time they sampled the earthy green.
At the restaurant
Jeannie Pierola sat the class down in Edison's private dining space and told them about her love affair with cooking and restaurants. She's a Tampa girl, raised in a hotel family who think she's just a bit nuts for going into the arduous restaurant business.
"Food was the most comforting thing in my life," she said. "It didn't matter if it was a wedding or a funeral. The question was, 'What were we eating?' "
She told them about how a chance sample of dill pickle-flavored potato chips at a gas station with a friend led her to develop Potato Crusted Oysters with dill pickle nectar, house Dijonnaise and micro Dijon mustard leaves. It's on Edison's menu and the students got a chance to taste it. Indeed, they agreed, it was reminiscent of a dill pickle potato chip with upscale panache.
"It's always about finding what's local, what's indigenous, what's awesome," she told them.
Besides a Cuban palomilla steak with saffron risotto and a peanut butter and jelly ice cream sandwich, they sampled lacinato kale and purple cabbage salad with mango masala vinaigrette. Piled on a stark white plate, the brilliant colors bounced, and Pierola explained her efforts to build a "tower of flavor" in that dish.
It was quite a contrast to the kale salad dished out in plastic bowls and eaten with disposable forks ("Please put it in the recycle bins when you're done," Hawthorne said) at Sweetwater. The kale, however, was every bit as tasty.
Another lesson in the different ways that passion is expressed.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.