New Fellow Elise Dudley on Seeing Food Through Many Lenses

East Coast Fellow Elise Dudley

My love for food was not born at the dinner table.  

“Just three bites of your asparagus, and then you can clear your plate,” my mom insisted. One by one, they would leave, until the table of six became a table of one: one eight-year-old Elise (me) and one plate of barely touched asparagus (mine). 

My love for food emerged when my passion for creativity found the medium of food. With a camera in hand, I loved capturing the world around me as a kid. Through a lens, bugs went from frightening to fascinating and yellow dandelions revealed themselves as masterpieces. So, when I started getting paid in pastries to take pictures for a neighborhood baker (every middle schooler’s dream), my attention turned towards food. 

Years later, as a freshman wandering among numerous stations full of vibrant dishes created by Bon Appétit at Furman University’s Daniel Dining Hall, food grabbed my attention again. I was ready to create. 

I’d start at the tiled oven in the corner, where the friendly pizza guy knew me well. Without a word, he would hand over a large triangular slice of airy golden-crusted focaccia, and a bowl piled high with mozzarella. From there I’d scurry across the dining hall to the sandwich station for juicy slices of tomato. With a quick detour to the salad bar for a handful of spinach, red onions, and a dash of balsamic vinegar, my assembled masterpiece was finally ready for the panini press. The plate was my canvas and food, my medium.  

Elise “in the weeds” while farming in Greenville, South Carolina

Bringing Home a New Perspective  

With time, food evolved from a medium, into something complex and storied, a force for justice and community. This new way of thinking about food was ushered in through a summer living on a coffee plantation in Western Rwanda. As I scrambled eggs collected from laying hens outside my window, pan-fried sardine-sized fish from Lake Kivu, and peeled potatoes from the garden I helped care for, the term “local food” captured new meaning.  

Curiosity took control when I arrived home and the eggs were unblemished and white, the fish from Alaska, and potatoes from hundreds of miles away. All I wanted to do was learn… Is it even possible to eat local? What impact do my food choices have? Why aren’t we all talking about this? Within weeks of returning to campus I started a year-long position with Bon Appétit on my campus and did just that.  

With the enthusiastic support of the Bon Appétit dining staff, I dove deep into my campus food system: I spent hours in the kitchen experimenting with blenders and cheesecloths to craft the perfect oat milk recipe. I hosted a screening about food waste and the executive chef prepared bites featuring imperfect produce. I even spent a day in the turnstile scraping plates to investigate the root of compost contamination issues. 

So, when I first heard about Bon Appetit’s Fellowship Program from Peter Todaro, a Fellow visiting my university, it sounded too good to be true. I was astounded such a position existed — my sights were set. 

Discovering Stories on Every Plate 

The next half of my college career cemented my passion. Curiosity seeped into each class I took as food became a thread connecting every issue. I fell in love with the local and global food community I found and all the stories it held. From harvesting sweet purple asparagus alongside chefs (yes, I now like the taste of asparagus!), to meeting an anthropologist-turned-beekeeper in Denmark, grinding corn into tortillas in the Appalachian Mountains, and sipping thyme tea on an off-grid farm in Upstate NY, I couldn’t get enough. Harvesting my ingredients, daydreaming of dinner, and meals with friends consumed me. 

In my final year at Furman University, I honed my passion into spearheading a food justice committee, presented research on home gardening at national conferences, and landed an apprenticeship on a 12-acre organic farm upon graduating with a B.S. in Sustainability Science.  

Now as the East Coast Fellow (pinch me!), I’m proud to be working for a company with a vision so close to my own. Already, my perspectives have expanded through the new stories I have encountered. I’m energized by the opportunity to spark students’ curiosity in issues associated with getting food to our plate, in the same way my own interest was piqued years ago.  

Because food touches everything. Every plate is deeply storied. And every bite is an opportunity to create a more just and livable world.