If I’m being honest, and I have learned that it’s best to be, I came up with the idea for this book at the spur of the moment. My original idea and planned activity for our group project in the course Introduction to Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the CUNY Graduate Center needed to be reimagined because of the global COVID-19 pandemic and our subsequent move to remote classes. The original project was a hands-on demonstration of focused group experiential learning— making homemade ice cream. Now, I know that this doesn’t sound like much of a planned lesson for developing an engaged and transformative curriculum, but as we break it down and unpack the motivations behind it, we’ll see that it’s based on and rooted in sound pedagogical and social theories.
My interest in this particular course was inspired by my long-term professional goal of developing an innovative curriculum and opening an international K–12 school based on and taught in a fully-immersive, multilingual format. As part of a globalized network of schools in diverse locations, communities, and cultures, my priority is to create an atmosphere of inclusiveness, respect, and mutual appreciation for all that we each bring, our “cultural capital,” to the table. In Imagining Multilingual School: Languages in Education and Glocalization edited by Ofelia García, García emphasizes the importance and benefits of incorporating and employing cultural capital:
… teachers can create an environment that acknowledges, communicates respect for, and promotes students’ linguistic and cultural capital ... to normalize linguistic diversity within the school and result in more coherent and effective school policies with respect to (a) affirming students’ linguistic and cultural identities, (b) parental involvement, and (c) technology use within the school. (63)
Within higher education there is what can be called a “hierarchy of knowledge,” by which we prioritize (or value) certain types of knowledge more than (or at the expense of) other types of knowledge. Sonya Douglass Horsford in her book Learning in a Burning House notes and attests to this perceived divide and negative assumptions of inferiority, based on racial and/or cultural prejudices. Horsford writes, “Cultural affirmation was important to countering society’s assumptions that Blacks were unequal and inferior to Whites, particularly in regards to academic ability … discovered or reaffirmed that they were just as smart or smarter than their White counterparts” (40). It is important to acknowledge the existence of racism and prejudice while including, incorporating, and adapting effective strategies that challenge, combat, and counter such limiting notions and beliefs that still persist in society— even in the 21st century. Addressing people of color, Horsford notes “ … [a] strategy for coping with racism is to remember that although it is ‘your reality,’ it is ‘not your problem.’” (40-41).
Simply put, Western society values some kinds (and sources) of knowledge more than others. Learning to fundamentally appreciate, respect, embrace, and understand cultural diversity by expanding cultural immersion through multilingualism is essential. Because of this, it is an integral part of the academic mission, culture, and curriculums of the schools and institutions that are the core of my educational vision.
This same kind of prejudice has seemed to have infected and influenced the American educational system through the defunding and decentering of the humanities and social sciences. To see a practical example of this all we have to do is look at how the American education system has shifted its focus to a S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum and increased reliance on high-stakes, standardized testing which has de-emphasized student-centered learning. Funding for the arts and humanities has been reduced or eliminated as Diane Ravitch noted in Reign of Error observing that, “This unnatural focus on testing produced perverse but predictable results: it narrowed the curriculum; many districts scaled back time for the arts, history, civics, physical education, science, foreign language, and whatever was not tested” (13).
This obsessive turn to STEM can be seen in all levels of the American educational system— starting as early as pre-K programs through institutions of higher education. Why? Well, there are multiple factors that have influenced this, but the simplest answer is money. It is a commonly held belief that STEM is where the money is. Cathy N. Davidson, who was one of the co-professors conducting our course Introduction to Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Science (and a contributor to this cookbook), made this very point clear in her book The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Davidson explains this rationale in higher education:
Hand in hand with the STEM obsession goes the assumption that the sciences generate more money for universities and can make up for declining state support. Humanities, arts, and social sciences cutbacks are often justified on the grounds that the sciences ‘bring in’ dollars through grants, corporate contracts, and other forms of what is known as ‘sponsored research.’ (176)
This prioritization of knowledge is not only focused on what subjects are taught and learned, but also includes and encompasses where that knowledge is derived. In cultures around the world, particular kinds of culturally based and practical knowledge has been passed down by the cultures’ elders (grandparents, parents, extended family, community elders) to the young. This knowledge often contained a kind of cultural currency in the form of memories, moral lessons, spirituality, history, identity, and other kinds of knowledge that can’t exactly be codified into books or perhaps even translated into words.
And yet, much of this knowledge and many of these experiences are connected to our experiences with food, whether directly or indirectly— in its preparation and presentation, and in its consumption and enjoyment. However, not all of these emotions, memories, or lessons are pleasant or easy. There can be connection, forgiveness, healing, caring, or understanding located (imparted or placed) in a bowl or on a plate. Nevertheless, good or bad, food holds memories and these sensory perceptions are invoked when we cook with ingredients, smell an aroma, or eat something that tastes familiar.
It is exactly for these reasons that examining the meanings and acknowledging the significance of memories, emotions, experiences, connections, and knowledge we attach to food can lead to the possibilities of decolonization, re-centering and re-valuation of cultural and practical knowledge as valid and viable sources of knowledge in academia. This turn challenges the notion that experiential learning does not have the ability to create life-long learners or produce life-long useful knowledge. Student-centered education must embrace students as a whole person to develop and nurture a future populace capable of critical thinking and to ignite and inspire a desire for (self)-education and self-directed learning. Student-centered learning should impart and encourage a sense of cultural connection and social responsibility. Developing a collection of recipes as an activity in our group lesson plan reflects these values.
Having done my undergraduate work in romance languages and communications, culture has been an important recurring theme and field of interests for me. Language, literature, storytelling, film, music, art, dance, history, and food, all share similar roots and intersections as tools and mediums of culture as exhibited through the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and other social sciences. It was at these intersections and within this space of interdisciplinarity that We Eat came into being.
Therefore, my use and incorporation of food studies into a multilingual-based educational system is a natural lens to introduce, explore, expand, appreciate, and understand the fundamentals of education, the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Through this incorporation, students can develop practical knowledge, skills, and critical thinking, through first-hand experience, that will prepare them for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. These were the goals, and sound pedagogical practices and theories, that inspired our group lesson plan in our course Introduction to Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning and that led to this cookbook.
We all know, food (in a very practical, biological sense) is an integral part of life— it gives us the energy, nutrients, nourishment, and organic components that our bodies need to perform all the myriad functions that keep us alive. But when we think about food more in depth, we discover that food impacts our lives in fundamental ways that go far beyond the physical. Like language, food is another medium through which we communicate— share our feelings, express emotions, exchange ideas. Food inspires us to explore and expand our boundaries. We Eat, and we grow strong.
In the genre of cookbooks, We Eat, is about the way we express our thoughts, tell our stories, document our events, celebrate our journey, convey our feelings, move along the path, mark our passage/presence, share our collective history, and make our stamp on the world. We Eat is a celebration of our identities, our memories, our triumphs, and our sorrows. It is our daily lives, our family stories, our cultural memory. It is a bridge of past, present, and future. It is a record (an imprint) of our existence (and place) in society and the world. It is the acknowledgement that we lived (and loved). We Eat is the memory of the people we cared for and the love we shared. We Eat to live, to love, to remember, and be remembered – We Eat because we exist.