A Recipe for Action


Carl Ipsen, professor of History and director of the IU Food Institute

As director of the IU Food Institute, Carl Ipsen challenges us all to get real.

Historian Carl Ipsen, who helped found the Indiana University Food Project and the IU Food Institute in 2015, became their sole director last fall. Ipsen has focused on Italy for much of his academic career, exploring population policy in Fascist Italy and children’s issues in late-19th and early 20th-century Italy. An Italian edition of his 2016 book, Fumo: Italy’s Love Affair with the Cigarette, is due out this summer.

But an appreciation for food was literally in the air he breathed and the soil he stood on—in other words, he’s a Californian. Ipsen grew up in Berkeley and completed his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of California, Berkley.

“I worked for a decade at restaurants when I was a grad student,” he explains. “I’ve always had connections with restaurant people, winemakers, and olive-oil producers in California.” He did have one missed connection, however: he was turned down for a job at Chez Panisse, the cathedral of fresh, sustainable cuisine, located two miles from his Berkley home.

In 2012, when Ipsen was visiting the American Academy in Rome (where he’d been a fellow in 1998-99), he got a second chance to connect. Alice Waters, Chez Panisse’s founder, had been invited to Rome to revamp the Academy’s menu because its food was—in a word—terrible.

“To go live in Rome for a year and eat badly just doesn’t make sense,” says Ipsen. Waters had launched the Rome Sustainable Food Project, which provided what she calls “eco-gastronomic” food to the Academy.

In Rome, Waters promised she’d be a food cheerleader for Ipsen when he returned to Bloomington to work on like-minded projects. Over the next three years, Ipsen got busy. Among other projects, he worked with the IU Office of Sustainability, and he promoted the Real Food Challenge at IU.

The Real Food Challenge is a national, student-led, grassroots effort to encourage universities to buy real food—sustainable food that is locally or fairly produced, ecologically sound, or humane. IU students are currently collecting signatures on a petition to urge IU to commit to buying 25 percent real food by 2025. The most recent figures show that 6.8 percent of the food IU purchases in a year is “real.” While small, that figure is up from 3.7 percent the previous year.

IU is making progress toward purchasing more “real,” sustainable food that is locally or fairly produced, ecologically sound, or humane.

Ipsen continued to work on food issues, resulting in his 2015 appointment as the director of the Indiana University Food Project, which is the education and advocacy arm of the IU Food Institute. Also founded in 2015, the Food Institute fosters graduate and faculty research, teaching, and outreach on food issues, while the Food Project is aimed at stimulating undergraduate enthusiasm and activism. Until last year, when Ipsen became the director of both the Project and the Institute, Richard Wilks, now a distinguished professor emeritus in the anthropology department, and Peter Todd, a professor of cognitive science, psychology, and informatics, co-directed the Food Institute.

Today, “food programs are popping up all over the country,” Ipsen says. He points out that the focus of food studies programs like Indiana University’s differs from the agricultural science programs offered at land-grant universities, which are closely linked to the food and agriculture industries. Many IU courses look at the cultural and social dimensions of food, as well as the scientific. This spring, for example, the geography department offered a class on food and poverty. Students could also take the French department’s course in French food and style or study alcohol and the science of fermentation with the biology department.

These courses can count toward an undergraduate certificate in food studies, which IU began offering in 2016. The certificate requires students to take 24 hours of classes in the history, art, and culture of food; the political economy of food; and the science of food. In addition, students complete two internships, one in food services and one in gardening and farming. With the opening of the IU Campus Farm in 2017, the second internship is easily accessible.

Last fall, IU opened its first teaching kitchen in Read Hall, designed to be used for academic classes, for chef demos, and by student groups. IU Dining will also use its beautifully equipped quarters to train staff. And last month, IU hosted its annual Food Summit. Among the issues the summit considered: how “real food” can feed IU and the Indiana economy. Student food groups made presentations and food research done across the Bloomington campus was showcased.

This summer Ipsen will teach a short course at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. And he is working on a book about the history of olive oil. While the Mediterranean diet has sealed its exalted position in the kitchen, olive oil had a more humble past as an industrial lubricant for English wool manufacturers, a fuel for lamps, and a soap ingredient. Only in the 20th century did people across Italy and around the globe acquire a taste for it as a culinary staple. Ipsen’s book will trace its metamorphosis.