UC Berkeley classes on food, murder and San Francisco detectives help summer students explore America's cultural geographies

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--Why don't Americans eat the faces of animals? Has murder become entertainment? Why is San Francisco a popular backdrop for detective stories?

As Summer Sessions near a close at the University of California, Berkeley, hundreds of students are exploring these kinds of questions and more in unique, three-week classes currently being taught by renowned campus faculty members and distinguished visitors.

Part of the American Studies Institute, these 15, one-unit classes are taking an interdisciplinary look at America's cultural geographies.

The courses -covering such subjects as America's Chinatowns and depictions of the 1960s on film - offer professors and lecturers the chance "to combine serious scholarship with more experimental methods and unconventional subject matter," said Kathleen Moran, co-director of the American Studies Program, which houses the institute. "Teachers can use student input to flesh out ideas for new academic courses."

The American Studies Program is unique among the nation's universities, said Margaretta Lovell, also a co-director of the program. "Most programs are a wedding of English and history with text and context serving as the axis of inquiry," she said. "Here, we have a much broader view, using disciplines from across campus, including the professional schools."

Here are highlights of some of the institute's classes, which end August 13.

"Murder and the Media"

Murder means big business for mass media, and these days, business is brisk, says Annalee Newitz, a freelance journalist and instructor for this course.

With the recent Atlanta shootings and the arrest of Cary Stayner, print and broadcast outlets are busy providing daily doses of lurid details to curious consumers.

The media's fascination with murder, according to Newitz, dates back to the days of Lizzie Borden, a wealthy, New England woman who allegedly hacked her father and stepmother to death with an ax.

Daily coverage of Borden's trial captivated editors and readers alike because it shattered one of the accepted social norms of the time - that women are not physically or mentally capable of committing violent crimes.

Over the years, said Newitz, coverage of sensational murders has evolved into a macabre form of entertainment.

"These murders are very exotic, and the media's treatment of the stories gives them an almost a fictional quality," she said. Like an author writing a novel, reporters provide incredible detail, such as timelines, maps, photographs and gory descriptions, added Newitz, "enabling the consumer to conjure up a visual image of the crime."

While murders happen every day in America, only a select few are deemed worthy of intense, national coverage, she said.

"Society defines murder to suit its needs," said Newitz. "Killings among gangs, the poor, and during war are more acceptable. But when a murder breaks social taboos, the entertainment value is greatly increased."

Some examples of "taboo" murders, according to Newitz, include the slaying of young JonBenet Ramsey, who strutted before judges at beauty pageants for little girls; O.J. Simpson, a wealthy, black celebrity who was charged with - and later found not guilty of - the murder of his ex-wife, who was white; or Susan Smith, who broke the sacred mother/child bond by killing her two offspring.

Today's media, said Newitz, also is eager to "psychologize" the murders in an attempt to pinpoint the killer's motivations. News organizations often brand murderers as deviants while ignoring the social or political issues that may have influenced them.

"Susan Smith was presented as a psychopath because she killed her kids, but she was also a poor, single mother under a lot of stress," said Newitz. "Society doesn't want to feel any responsibility for these kinds of crimes and is more secure knowing that these murderers are nothing like ourselves."

"Food Culture in America"

As the political issues that once consumed Berkeley's young radicals in the 1960s faded away, many activists traded in their picket signs and bullhorns for shovels and wheelbarrows.

A new revolution was in the air, and it smelled a lot like fresh, locally grown vegetables, produced by small, independent farmers.

This shift in activism, which eventually led to the rise of Berkeley's "gourmet ghetto," is just one of several topics discussed by instructors Margaretta Lovell and Kathleen Moran.

"Alice Waters and others like her want to move food production and preparation away from giant, manufacturing companies and into the hands of the consumer," said Lovell, a UC Berkeley associate professor of History of Art. "She encourages people to grow their own vegetables, shop locally, eat seasonally and be attentive to the politics of the food we consume."

Their class also covers topics such as food taboos, how all five senses are involved in eating, and how the way foods look influence our interest in eating them.

Food warrants this kind of attention, said Moran, an American Studies lecturer at UC Berkeley, because "it is more than just a necessity, it permeates virtually every aspect of our culture and is one of the most gratifying human experiences."

Food involves all five senses, even hearing, said Lovell. "Imagine if you couldn't hear bacon sizzling or potato chips crunching."

One class exercise involved students bringing in samples of food they did not or could not try until adulthood because of the food's color, texture or its associations with a particular culture or social class.

In another exercise, students prepared a particular food in two different forms - one traditional, the other missing its normal visual clues. Lovell said students were hesitant to try blue baba ganoush. They also were surprised that thin, heart-shaped cookies with red sprinkles were peanut butter cookies.

"People expect peanut butter cookies to be round, with rough edges and fork hash marks on top," said Lovell. "Visual clues are just as important as taste in food."

The many food taboos in America are being discussed in class. "We don't eat rodents, insects, domestic animals, reptiles, carnivores or adult male animals," said Lovell, adding that these practices can be common in other cultures. "We also don't eat faces, genitals, heads, tails or living things."

"San Francisco Detectives"

The quintessential San Francisco detective - immortalized in such classic films and TV shows as "The Maltese Falcon," "Vertigo," "Bullitt," "Dirty Harry," "The Streets of San Francisco" and "Nash Bridges" - is tough, unsentimental and street smart. Not even dense fog or steep hills can prevent such a gumshoe from cracking a case.

Richard Hutson, a UC Berkeley associate professor of English, created this course to help students better understand the legacy of these fictional characters. His class is exploring the philosophical and psychological implications of this genre and the significance of San Francisco as the location for these narratives.

Be it the high-speed car chase up and down The City's hills in "Bullitt," the view of the Bay Bridge from Sam Spade's office in "The Maltese Falcon," or Kim Novak's plunge into the bay's frigid waters in "Vertigo," these San Francisco landmarks help anchor the story to its location and add a hint of drama to the plot, said Hutson.

Students in the class are viewing these classic detective films and reading two novels as part of their coursework. Some students also will join Hutson for a Dashiell Hammett-themed tour of San Francisco. Hammett, the famed author of "The Maltese Falcon," lived in San Francisco and used many of his surroundings in the novel. The tour makes stops at Sam Spade's apartment on Post Street; a murderous alleyway at Bush and Stockton streets; the Geary Theater, where one of the villains attends a play; and Spade's office on Sutter Street.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for students to see where these great novels and films played out," said Hutson. "When I visit these places, I am awestruck. These spots are sacred to me."

The group also will visit Hammett's favorite hangout, John's Grill, with its "Sam Spade Special" - two chops, a baked potato and sliced tomatoes.

According to Hutson, a number of current authors are continuing the tradition of the San Francisco detective. One of them is Marsha Mueller, whose novel takes place within The City's gay community.

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