5 Questions with Professor Todd Armstrong

October 19, 2022

Not only is Professor Todd Armstrong fluent or proficient in several languages, but he can also cook a delicious meal from items he foraged or grew in his garden, and he can process a chicken and make a tasty broth from its feet. In other words, he’s someone you want nearby in the event of complete societal collapse. Armstrong joined Grinnell’s Russian department in 1993 and served as the first director of the College’s Center for International Studies (now the Institute for Global Engagement). He is currently a professor and chair of Russian, Central European, and Eurasian Studies, and is developing new approaches to teaching and writing about Russian and Soviet culture through the culinary arts in Grinnell’s new Marcus Family Global Kitchen. We caught up with him long enough to ask a few pressing questions about foraging, chickens, food, and culture.

What is the best and strangest thing you’ve found while foraging?

Armstrong: The best thing for me to find while foraging? Mushrooms! I suppose one that is strange is the giant puffball, which can be bigger than a basketball. I found one a couple weekends ago and was going to cook it with my class in the Global Kitchen, but when we cut into it, it had already started to go bad.

How can the culinary arts be used as a tool to teach about culture and society?

Armstrong: Few would deny the importance of food as a marker of cultural and personal identity, as a universal that brings people together. Everyone has a food story, and so much can be learned by sharing those stories — and not just by hearing them, but by learning how to prepare a treasured dish from another culture, and through sharing it together. For those of us with the privilege of access, it’s easy to draw on good food stories, memories that bring comfort, stories that we are eager to share as we break bread together. But what about those whose food memories involve hunger and starvation? In this light, the culinary arts offer a response: if people are hungry, we should do all we can to try to feed them.

What lessons can one learn from raising chickens?

Armstrong: I’ve never raised chickens, but I have helped slaughter and process them with a friend. It’s one thing to buy chicken shrink-wrapped in a Styrofoam tray from the store, it’s quite another to see what needs to be done to get them to the table. I’m not a vegetarian, but I can easily imagine becoming one, especially after seeing the whole process. (For more on this, I highly recommend Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.)

If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Armstrong: This almost seems like an unfair question but given that a lot of the world often subsists on very little variety and quantity, we should all consider it. Maybe rice and beans? Or some kind of pasta?

What is your favorite meal to create?

Armstrong: My favorite meal is always one that I come up with after gathering a bunch of fresh ingredients from my garden. Rather than being tied down by specific recipes, I start with ingredients.

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