An environmentalist, food physicist and cooking evangelist, Carla Ramsdell strives to empower others with the knowledge that taking back control of food and recognizing its potential as an energy source is instrumental in food sustainability. A professor in the physics department at Appalachian State University, Carla has developed a variety of courses to explore “how much physics is involved in our food system and in the kitchen and how large of an impact our food system has on climate change.”
Much of Carla’s life experience has provided a natural extension to her exploration of food as an energy source for personal health as well as an energy source in terms of sustainability. Growing up with her brother and sister in West Palm Beach, Florida, Carla credits her mother for establishing her curiosity about the science involved in the kitchen.
“Delicious, home-made food was an integral part of my childhood. Mom could make EVERYTHING from scratch, from eggplant parmesan to breads to homemade kumquat marmalade which she always kept on hand for gifts. She was pretty adventurous and kept very accurate record of her recipes so they could be improved upon and repeated without fail. This is a great example of the scientific process!”
Carla’s family also encouraged her to help in the kitchen from the time she was able to stand, with only one rule: nothing was to be thrown away.
“NO food was wasted in our home. If there was a bit of Italian dressing and a bit of Ranch dressing left over — Mom would just mix them together! While we frequently made fun of these concoctions, they were likely the beginnings of my passion for a sustainable food system.”
Through a professor’s recommendation in her undergraduate program at Stetson University, Carla earned a degree in physics and a master’s from the University of Florida at Gainesville in mechanical engineering. She worked in the energy industry as a mechanical designer and test engineer for 12 years before moving to North Carolina.
Carla spent her first years in the mountains working as a part-time engineer and a full-time mother of three young children. “Once my youngest headed to kindergarten, I decided to answer that nagging voice in my head that was always urging me to try out teaching. I agreed to teach a couple courses in the physics and astronomy department at Appalachian. The rest is history — I adore teaching and feel so grateful to spend my days with college-age students, helping them navigate these years of exploration about their future paths. I learn so much from my students!”
While teaching in her first physics classes, Carla noticed that any mention of food as an energy source would seem to spark some curiosity in her students. “I could tell that 80 sets of eyes were one me, and I decided to pursue that initial spark.” From here she proposed a first-year seminar course that encourages students to consider not only the quality of the food they eat, but how it is prepared, and the impact all choices involved in cooking and eating have on the environment.
Tips Carla shares with her students and those who frequent her website, www.KnowWattsCooking.com, are to begin with the basics:
1. Choose the most earth-friendly ingredients (mostly plant-based)
2. Understand how to manipulate water (one of the biggest keys to energy efficiency)
3. Consider the Instant Pot as your choice as an electric pressure cooker (“The energy-efficient superhero of the kitchen!”)
4. Dig in! (“Cooking has enormous psychological benefits and can be a great stress-reliever. Don’t be discouraged by things that don’t go so well — we’ve all been there — it’s part of the process.”)
5. Start simple and keep track of the recipes that worked well. (“You will quickly accumulate a list of “tried-and-true” recipes. My tangy lentil and red onion salad with spinach is my No. 1 potluck contribution and always results in people asking me for the recipe!”)
Carla also wants her audiences to understand that perfection is not the goal. “It is impossible to eat all organic, all locally sourced, all plant-based, all eco-friendly 100% of the time. I hope that by helping people recognize how their food and cooking habits impact food availability for future generations, they will “take back cooking” and regain control of this energy resource one meal at a time. This doesn’t require perfection, but a trend in a more sustainable direction.”
Currently Carla is working on a series of YouTube videos that will highlight recipes “to save the world with a splash of physics!” Eventually, she hopes to write a cookbook that combines great food and great stories with tips on ways to cook more efficiently.
Further, Carla encourages her audiences to “connect to their families by learning to cook some of your family’s traditional favorites. So many of us are disappointed right now since COVID-19 is making it difficult to be with our extended families this holiday season. Why not ask your grandmother, uncle or cousin to join you on a video call so they can teach you how to make your holiday favorites?”
This holiday season, Carla plans to gather around her table with as many of her family as possible while enjoying a collaboratively cooked Italian meal, lots of laughter and stories of the year’s adventures with the ever-pressing vision of ways to ensure that these moments are part of an energy-efficient future.