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Coming to our senses

Food symposium promises to please the palate and nourish the mind

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Art by Chris Hall
  • Published: March 8, 2012
Hot Dog painting

"Hot Dog," an oil painting by Columbia artist Chris Hall, is part of a three-painting series that took second place in the juried art show "Food: Fact or Fiction" at PS:Gallery. The show is held in conjunction with Food Sense, the MU Life Sciences and Society Program symposium set for March 16-18.

What drives our food choices? A sweet tooth? An arousing aroma? Pretty plating? Good company?

Chefs, scientists, cultural critics — maybe even a foodie or two — will gather at Mizzou March 16-18 to examine the ingredients of the human appetite. During Food Sense, the 2012 MU Life Sciences & Society Symposium, experts shelve standard obesity-epidemic talk and food-movement dogma to instead explore sensory satisfaction and communal comforts.

A biochemist looks at the science of successful cooking. An experimental psychologist examines the evolution of digestion. A law professor shows how meals yield obligations. A writer dissects classism in slow/organic/local food trends. A sensory scientist explains how wine drinkers distinguish oaky flavors from their brawnier counterparts.

All put what we eat into context.

Off our diet

Though talk of sensible dining is on the menu for the symposium, attendees should expect no nagging about the benefits of eating one’s vegetables.

“Nutrition is sort of what lurks in the background,” says Stefani Engelstein, symposium planning committee co-chair and director of the Life Sciences and Society Program. “Rather than focus on that explicitly, we thought it made more sense to look at food consumption and eating behavior. We want to look at this from the perspective of taste and how we react pleasurably or unpleasurably to food, which ties into what we decide to buy and what we decide to eat.  It’s also a question of what we perceive the role of food to be and how it functions in our communities and our families.”

The keynote speaker, bestselling author and Cornell Food and Brand Lab director Brian Wansink, directs diners at the intersection of psychology and food intake. Presented in conjunction with MU’s Nutrition and Exercise Physiology Research Week, Wansink’s talk, “From Mindless Eating to Mindlessly Eating Better,” includes habit-changing solutions culled from 20 years of behavioral research. 

Local flavor

While the annual LSSP symposium always has included area experts, this year’s topic particularly lends itself to increased community participation here in America’s heartland. Three Missouri chefs are taking part in panel discussions. Mizzou’s own Daniel Pliska, executive chef and assistant manager for the University Club and University Catering, joins a panel with Leigh Lockhart, chef and owner of Main Squeeze Natural Foods Café and Juice Bar in downtown Columbia.

Jonathan Justus, executive chef and co-owner of Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Mo., serves up a presentation titled “The Theatre of Dining” in which he contends, essentially, that cooking is art. Justus’s small-town, everything-from-scratch eatery has earned national recognition from Travel + Leisure, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, USA Today, the New York Times Magazine and, most recently, Time magazine, which featured the restaurant amid its 2011 top ten food trends. High praise for high art.


Every year LSSP symposium organizers hold a buffet lunch for all registrants. This year, with renowned culinary experts seated around the table, the planning is peppered with complications. 

“You can imagine what kind of pressure it puts on us,” Engelstein says with a laugh. “We’re doing our best to make sure it’s food that will be appreciated.”

A more specialized dining experience awaits guests of the VIP reception, catered by Columbian Sara Fougere. Offering supplemental snacks, high school students from local chef Brook Harlan’s culinary-arts course prepare five varieties of hors d’oeuvres, each designed to particularly entice one of the five senses. Diners vote for their favorites. Any member of the public who donates $100 or more to the program receives two tickets to the event.

Entry to the Friday evening keynote address and all talks Saturday and Sunday is free for those who register, thanks to support from campus and community sponsors. Lunch is included

Read more in:  Business, Law & PoliticsAgriculture & the EnvironmentEducationSpecial Features & SeriesBeyond CampusOn CampusFamily & CommunityHealth & MedicineArts & Culture

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Last updated: June 6, 2013