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Thought for Food

Dr. Ken Albala, History
2009/2010 Winner of the Spanos Distinguished Teaching Award

The Spanos Award is granted to a faculty member with at least 10 years of teaching in the College who has gone beyond teaching in the classroom through activities such as advising, directing research, and mentoring students and new faculty members.

Dr. Ken Albala is a well-published food historian with an international reputation who is often consulted by the media on matters of food history. He has published 10 books—many with intriguing titles like "Beans: A History" or "Eating Right in the Renaissance"—and more books are underway. The Lost Art of Real Cooking, a cookbook he co-authored about traditional home-made foods, will be published soon by Penguin/Perigree. In addition, he has published short volumes, encyclopedia entries, articles and essays.

Despite his rigorous pace of scholarly production, Dr. Albala continues to teach a regular load of courses that support undergraduate History majors and the general education program. His always-strong student evaluations reflect on his innovative teaching practices. For example, he takes students into factories, farms, supermarkets and restaurants for his "What Is Good Food?" class to give them a real-life perspective.

Dr. Albala gives a hands-on lesson to students of his “What Is Good Food?” class.

Dr. Albala gives a hands-on lesson to students of his "What Is Good Food?" class.

A former student recalls a lecture about Spanish cuisine from the 16th century combined with reading from a cookbook from that period. Dr. Albala prepared several dishes from the cookbook for the class to try. "Having a professor cook for his students dishes from the 16th century was an extremely unique and unforgettable experience."

Throngs of students get their first taste of Albala-style inspiration in core classes such as Western Civilization or the Global History of Food, and many go on to take his popular but demanding upper division classes covering the Renaissance and Reformation era. It is not uncommon for a student to declare History as his or her major after taking a class from Dr. Albala.

Recipe for Student Success

Dr. Albala has encouraged a steady stream of students to undertake their own historical research, and he is always generous with his support and guidance throughout the project. Last year, English major Ann Mazzaferro '10 received a Pacific Fund grant to pursue research about a cookbook produced in 1886 by a group of suffragettes in Boston.

"Had it not been for Dr. Albala, I would never have had the opportunity to represent my university at the Radcliffe Institute on the Harvard campus, where I was able to conduct extensive research," said Ann. She has been preparing a scholarly article from the research, which she plans to submit for publication this year.

Practicing What He Preaches

Dr. Albala's passion for food and the way he takes challenging tasks in stride are evident in this entry from his blog: "Spring makes most people want to clean. For me the changes of season make me want to replenish the larder. So yesterday I ended up stuffing 6 nice foot long salamis. Made a new sourdough starter, put up cabbage for kraut, dried some jerky. Nothing new."

Read more from Dr. Albala's blog here!

Students and colleagues share their regard for Dr. Albala:

"I am continuously impressed with his range of knowledge, the verve and passion that he brings to a class lecture, and the excitement he is able to generate in the classroom....It is his ability to inspire individual students to excellence that is truly astonishing in the light of the large classes that he teaches."

-Caroline Cox, Chair of History

"Ken's vibrant personality and true passion for history bring an incredibly rare and valuable perspective to every class he teaches. ... Many students have been to Ken's house for a meal, or have visited his office hours only to delight in viewing his fantastically cluttered office—covered from floor to ceiling in books containing ancient recipes for interesting foods. Ken's personality is truly golden, and it permeates through everything he does."

-Paul Fraidenburgh (former student)

"I realized that never before had I attended a history class where the professor expressed genuine passion and excitement about the material. I wanted to learn more."

-Melissa (Cyfers) Stewart (former student)

"It is no easy task to convince a room full of sleepy-eyed and listless undergrads of the importance in acknowledging the link between the evolution in human food ways and the advancement of our civilization, but Dr. Albala succeeded admirably."

-Ann Mazzaferro (student)

"Ken Albala is obviously a strong scholar, but he is equally adept in the classroom, and so truly an exemplar of the teacher-scholar model."

-George Randels, Chair of Religious & Classical Studies