True love at second language: Professor Ravalico teaches taste

(Photo courtesy of Lauren Ravalico)

French 490 students and Professor Ravalico (far right) at a tasting (Photo courtesy of Lauren Ravalico).

It’s the last day of finals and social media reeks of tired students ready to ditch town and kiss every class they’ve had this semester goodbye. Final reminders of completing course evaluations (due today, coincidentally) flood our emails and we hastily go to fill them out. But somewhere in between the bubbles of “Agree” and “Strongly Agree,” we pause to think about the semester, and the professors we’ll miss and the quirks of each classroom. While there’s an obvious desire to flee campus and make the most of the holidays, there also seems to be a lingering feeling of appreciation for the professors and the things we learned while sitting in a circle in Maybank three times a week. We could chuck it it all to “higher education,” or we can decide to take a moment to appreciate that we’re all just people trying to learn.

In CisternYard New’s last post of the semester, we wish to linger a little longer on a professor who has created a class worth taking and thoroughly enjoying — FREN 490: “The Culture of the French Table” taught by Professor Lauren Ravalico. In the following interview Professor Ravalico shares her love of learning and language with us, and delves into the concept of taste and its meaning in French culture.

Christina D’Antoni: Tell me about your background in education…why French?

Lauren Ravalico: I can’t really remember how it started — why I chose French over Spanish — but then I absolutely adored my middle school French teacher so that kind of started the whole thing for me. I went to public schools and then I went to Cornell for undergrad…I majored in French there. In 2000 I decided to move to New York City because that’s what a lot of people did after college. A the time in 2000 it was pretty easy to get a job — it was kind of a boom in America before September 11th and all that stuff. And so I just looked in the newspaper under bilingual.

I interviewed with the government of the principality of Monaco which is where I ended up taking a job doing marketing for tourism. So that was fun, because I got to use French everyday and use the degree I had just gotten and learn about marketing which was something I didn’t know anything about and go to go to Monaco on business…so it was an exciting time. But I ended up moving to New Orleans because I knew I didn’t want to live in New York for the long term and I ended up getting a masters degree there at it really awakened me to the idea that I wanted to go all the way and do a Ph.D. From there I decided to go to Harvard, when I got in. I moved to Boston where I lived for almost ten years and was on fellowship in Paris for a year…so I was in Boston and that’s where I got my degree.

CD: Did you like living in that many places?

LR: I’ve never had a grand plan about my life, I’ve never had a grand plan about being a professor, I have just sort of followed my whims where they have taken me. But I always loved traveling and I wasn’t afraid of new things and I’ve always been interested in other cultures. America has a lot of different cultures and I’ve learned that through living in all these different places….Although I have to admit when I was a little girl, the room where I played in at home, they bought me a chalkboard and I used to have school and yell at all my fake students. So maybe it was in my blood from when I was little.

CD: Where have you taught previously?

LR: After Harvard, actually a week after I defended my dissertation, I went to Ohio State University in Columbus to teach for a year. And that was great. It was really different teaching in a big, public university and after that I went back to Boston to teach at Boston College. I taught at Boston College for two years before coming here.

CD: Where did your specific interest in French come from? Is it more of a love of language underneath it all, or is French your one love?

LR: French is not my one love anymore. I used to be monogamous with French. I married an Italian so I was a polygamist with Italian as well (laughs) — I’m involved in an open relationship with the two languages. I think it was a combination. I’ve told this story before but it’s true…my first day in French class when I was in seventh grade my teacher had a poster on the wall with a picture of a chateau and it had the word “architecture,” and I just loved that, I thought it was so cool, the seniority of the word and I wanted to do what she could do because she had this beautiful accent and it seemed sort of magical and mystical and secret and it seemed like this code I wanted to know. And so, that kind of started it for me. So I would say it’s a combination of language and culture. I loved France and I loved the language at the same time. I took Spanish and Chinese also in high school and I added Italian and German in college and then I learned Latin when I was doing my Ph.D. But I would say that my true love was French and, as I’ve said, I learned to have another relationship with Italian as well.

CD: Can you tell me about the times you visited France and what you took from it?

So, the first time was when I was 15 and I did an abroad thing over the summer and I went to Southern France and went to to the Riviera, and [I] was in in a beautiful palm tree-lined riviera city in Southern France and lived with a family who had four daughters and a pool in the backyard and family lunches on Sundays outside and it was quite a nice introduction to France. At this point I’ve traveled all over but I lived in Paris and I lived in a college town in Provence and did and abroad program with Wellesley College. That’s the thing about France…there are so many cool cities to discover that are really well maintained — they have such a pride of place and so much history in the different parts — so it’s been one of the pleasures getting to go back over the years to do research and really to go and have fun too and eat the different foods and [go to] the different places.

CD: Speaking of food…can you tell me about the concept for your French food class?

LR: So I developed this class because I thought that food would be a good lens for understanding French history and culture — especially modern French history and culture — because food culture changed a lot in France over the years. There was a big change in the modern era – let’s say the 17th and 18th centuries people ate and understood food and people started talking about taste. So I wanted to develop a class where we would trace that and at the same time take advantage of a lot of the really interesting Francophone eating experiences that are available in Charleston and there’s a pretty strong Francophone community here. It was a good way to explore those two avenues — to learn something interesting from a historical perspective but to also take advantage of integrating that learning experience with the city that we’re living in and to show that it endures and is part of French culture persists today.

CD: Can you describe the components of the class that a student might see the first day on the syllabus?

LR: The class is called “The Culture of the French Table” and I divided it into several sections. There’s a more theoretical part where we talk about “what is taste” and how philosophers first philosophized taste in the 17th century into today. In the 18th century they were trying to find more of a universal taste and define taste in terms of hierarchy and so forth and now in the 20th and 21st century we learn that taste is very subjective and it also had a lot to do with how you were educated, who you are, what racial group you belong to and so forth — there are a lot of sociological aspects that contribute to how we understand taste. So to go from the actual physical act of tasting something on your tongue to this whole crazy concept we have of it being good and bad and how we define elegance and high and low and so forth based on taste.

And then we did a part based on cooking and tasting because how to actually enjoy food and taste food is an integral part of French culture. One of the most interesting things is that the menus for preschool students in France now are posted on the door and they cook four course meals and it must be something different for each day. Each little three year old is fed individually by their teachers — and so food education and the importance of food and enjoying food and taking pleasure in food and eating a balanced meal and eating at specific times is something ingrained in French life from birth essentially and it’s a really beautiful thing and so different from American life.

It actually surprised me because my research fields are the history of the senses and the emotions, and how we come to understand the world, and how we come to know ourselves and so forth. But my research has been on listening, and so I hadn’t done research on taste but I was always interested in it even before conceiving this class. And so it opened up this whole thing for me when I realized it’s so essential to understanding French culture.

CD: Do you think having the class in French lends a specific something to the class as a whole?

LR:  Food vocabulary is very useful vocabulary and so I wanted to teach a class where [the] food vocabulary students were learning wasn’t all archaic. When you teach a literary class it can be a kind of specialized literary vocabulary…they’re learning a kind of vocabulary but it’s not necessarily useful for everyday life…what’s nice about teaching culture classes is that you can integrate this super useful vocab so it’s not just the words and recipes but knowing how to describe something — so it really hones language skills in a productive way. That’s the point of having our French majors come to the end of this so that they can get a sense of immersion and integration into a culture that you can only get speaking the language.

CD: What would you say to people who say, “French people are food snobs?”

LR: (Laughs). That’s what you have to understand about the French, theres a more kind of universal French culture so this idea that the little kids are learning how to eat from a very young age is very important for French identity and that you understand how to taste and enjoy food. The way that we’re raised in America is more of an individualistic ideal, you know find out what your kids like and don’t like, and so I think about these things all the time…And so they’re not snobs as much so as they are appreciators and there’s a lot of French food that is very simple. Niche food movements like the slow food movement in America are integral parts of eating in France. I would say that the French have a general appreciation for simple products prepared well.

CD: What is your favorite French food? Maybe let’s narrow it down to savory dish?

LR: That’s a difficult question because there are a lot of things that I love. The French make a lot of really nice stews…there are a lot of cultures where you take harder cuts of meat and you cook it slowly for a long time with wine and the French also do that. I taught in Dijon in the Burgundy Region, and the classic dish in Burgundy is Beef Bourguignon which is a delicious dish with meat braised first on the stove and you braise it with vegetables and you can serve it with noodles or rice and make this beautiful rich winter dish.

CD: Will you continue the class, and if so, how will the class change?

LR: I think all classes evolve over time, and I look forward to teaching it again and again — It’s a class that I hope attracts students to the major and attracts students in general. But yes, all classes are works in progress, it’s not written in stone like the Ten Commandments — I can always change things. I look forward to doing that.

CD: Finally, can you tell me about some of the foodie excursions the class has gone on? Our EIC Nicole DeMarco, who’s in your class, mentioned Christophe…

LR: I thought it would be interesting as a culminating event to go and taste different chocolates so we went to Christophe Chocolatier on Society St. and had a tasting and discussion with one of the women that works there. We also went to Gaulart & Maliclet (Fast and French) and I also organized an event at the Le Creuset Atelier. And they have their American hub here in Charleston so I organized an event with the chef de cuisine at Chez Nous restaurant downtown here and she did an demonstration and a tasting for the students in my class, for faculty, and the French club. We tasted three dishes. It was this really cool event [where] she cooked three dishes she cooked mussels in a pesto sauce and braised a chicken and roasted it with a tarragon vinegar sauce and then she did clafouti which is sort of like a raspberry flan for dessert. So it was really convivial and lovely!

CD: Can you teach us a French word or phrase to say if we ever find ourselves in French company?

LR: Santé! (Cheers!)

Santé to exams being over, the professors and courses we love and to all the eating we will be doing this holiday season — hopefully with French taste in mind.


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Christina D'Antoni is the Features Editor at Cistern Yard News, and an intern at the food culture magazine The Local Palate. She is a CofC senior, a writer, and above all, a foodie looking for any and every excuse to hit up Xiao Bao Biscuit.

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