From plant to palate

“I hate plants.” “I don’t want to study plants.” More than once, Furman Biology Professor and plant physiologist Laura Thompson has heard these words uttered from the mouths of incoming biology and pre-health advisees. But that was before the rumors about her Applied Plant Science class spread like wildfire across campus.

This is no ordinary class. Sure, students learn about plants and look at cells under a microscope. They also learn the history and origins of food, make soap and aromatic salts, take trips to an apple orchard, winery and grist mill, make dyes from the plants growing outside the lab, spin cotton and process flax, and they craft paper by beating Mulberry to a pulp, literally. And the pièce de résistance—the final, in which students prepare vegan menus from one of three cradles of agriculture: New World, Near East, and Far East.

Says Katrina Morgan ’14, “I’ve been waiting to take this class since my freshman year because it’s so awesome.”  Morgan, part of a five-member team responsible for the New World cradle menu, says finding recipes with ingredients (including oils and spices) that originate only in the Americas was challenging. “What I thought originated in the New World, didn’t.  So the only spices we could use were allspice, vanilla, and peppers.” For team New World’s Butternut Squash Soup, allspice was substituted for off-limits nutmeg, which comes from a tree native to Indonesia.

For nine years Thompson has taught Applied Plant Science and has organized 11 “Plant Banquets” where students, faculty, and staff are invited to sample fare from the three regions. Among the international noshes—from the Near East: Homemade Pita Bread, Falafel (think chickpea, garlic, parsley and cilantro pancakes), Daal Curry (yellow split peas), and Baklava. Far East: Miso Soup, Spicy Steamed Bok Choy, and Mango Sticky Rice. New World: In addition to Butternut Squash Soup (sans nutmeg), Roasted New World Veggies (red and green bell peppers, hot peppers and sweet potatoes), and Black Bean Salsa. Yum.

The aromas alone wafting from the dual kitchen-equipped lab would be enough to draw hordes of people, but handmade invitations (fashioned from paper made of recycled blue jeans) were sent out announcing the lunchtime event in April. Thompson estimates 50 filed through the lab-turned-international cafe (a.k.a. Plyler 144) to sample the gastronomic delights.

Thompson, who drives a pick-up and is handy with a rototiller, says she wants to shift opinions of pre-health students who might come in with misguided notions about plants. She says, “Nine years ago, I told Dennis (Haney, chair of the Biology Department) I’ll come up with a plants class that students are excited about.” And indeed she did. Determined as she is energetic, Thompson says, “I’ve never had a problem filling this class because its reputation gets out there—and I have a blast.”