Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Decelaration of Independence, third U.S. president and a Colonial foodie.

Photo courtesy of:

David Holben

David Holben: Professor of food and nutrition sciences, avid gardener and 21st century foodie.

Photo courtesy of: Ohio University College of Health Sciences and Professions

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Nutrition course serves students a helping of history along with fine food

If you had to use two terms to describe Thomas Jefferson, what would they be? Founding Father and president? Republican and Antifederalist? How about gardener and gastronome?

In history class, students learn about Thomas Jefferson’s political prowess and influence. Not so much about the food and beverages of his day. It is hard to even imagine what people produced and consumed 300 years ago. However, in a nutrition course called ”Gardener and Gastronome,” Ohio University students are discovering that Jefferson was something of a Colonial foodie.

David Holben, professor of food nutrition and sciences in the College of Health Sciences and Professions, developed the spring semester course for students, with senior credits, that introduced the cuisine and beverages of Jefferson’s time. In the class, students learn what food was available and accessible, how it was prepared and how most everything was home grown – three centuries before the term “locavore” came into being.

“I love to garden,” Holben said. “I love cooking and eating great food. [My family and I] often go to Colonial Williamsburg for spring break, so that was really the inspiration for the course, just taking my kids to these history sites in Virginia – Monticello [Jefferson’s estate] and Colonial Williamsburg.”

Holben taught a version of the course in 2006, but this is the first time it is being offered as part of a regular program curriculum. Dubbed by the “Athens News” as one of Ohio University’s “weirdest courses,” Gardner and Gastronome encourages students to develop an interest in history as well as fine food. By the end of the class, students will be able to accurately describe the gardening and cuisine of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in America and Europe, as well as the culinary tastes of Jefferson himself.

“I think it is important for students to have outlets other than their professions,” Holben said. “Maybe this will cultivate in them a love for gardening or a love for food.”

As part of the grading criteria, students write weekly blogs, do in-class activities, and develop a project to present to classmates that explores one aspect of Jefferson’s diverse life.

In addition to being a unique course, Gardener and Gastronome allows students from outside the College of Health Sciences and Professions to enroll. Of the 40 or so students in the spring course, there are political science majors, theater majors, visual communication majors, linguistics majors, history majors and more. And the diversity in the class transfers over to the student projects, from a GPS overlay of the crop lands around Monticello, to a study of what slaves on the estate wore, to a military “Meals Ready to Eat” examination of foods of Jefferson’s day.

Na’Tyra Green is a student writer for Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions.