It’s Saturday morning and ten students from ENG 434HF: Cook the Books: Modern Food Literature also known as “the English class where students cook” (and thereby learn useful life skills as some naysayers of the humanities may insinuate) are huddled in a circle at the Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market. If you haven’t heard of Cook the Books, it’s a brand new fourth-year seminar style course that has already proven to be popular class among students (a long waiting list, students not affiliated with the English program trying to get into the course, one classmate even said he graduated last spring but returned to U of T just to take this class!) where our readings are taught in collaboration with cooking projects and weekly tasting sessions. Part of the process (and a fraction of our mark) is sourcing ingredients used in our cooking projects from local farmers’ markets and small, family-owned groceries, making us critically think about the origins and production of our food.
At the Farmers’ Market, I notice my class is still functioning on U of T time despite not being on campus (it’s now 9:10 a.m. and we’re waiting for any latecomers before we start our tour).
I look over at an ally in my class.
“Rough night?” I ask.
“I live down the street,” she paused, “And I drove.”
We were already told to not feel too sorry for ourselves in class. “The farmers have to get up at (insert some ungodly hour) so they can set up at the market,” Professor Andrea Most told us during our last lecture. To be honest, I’m mostly impressed that Chef Joshna Maharaj is present, not only in a caffeine-fueled body, but mind. The night before, she gave a TEDxToronto lecture about food activism and her specific interest in reforming hospital food. Pretty big deal, just saying.
Although we won’t be gaining any extra credit for rolling out of our beds and hanging out with the professor on a Saturday morning, many of my classmates made an effort to come and learn about a community of farmers and consumers who have built a meaningful and trusting relationship on food.
Both Professor Most and Chef Joshna Maharaj took turns speaking about different stalls that featured locally-made fresh bread, eggs, cheese, tofu, honey, jams, fish and fruits and vegetables that are in season. I noticed at the beginning of our hour-long tour, they were herding our tired bodies around from stall to stall like free range livestock but by the end, we had transformed into salivating wolves stalking different food sources (when the tour was over I pounced on a slice of raw pizza).
While learning about different issues local farmers, fishers and bakers are faced with, it was also interesting to observe Professor Most and Chef Joshna outside of the classroom. While Professor Most was often greeted with a familiar warmth from farmers and vendors, Chef Joshna was constantly highfiving people who worked in the market (this is clearly her territory, as she once ran The Stop Community Food Centre located in the Wychwood Barns).
My point is that making an effort to learn outside of the classroom or lab is important. If you’re ever given a chance to go on a field trip, even if you won’t be rewarded with an extra per cent for your efforts (and swear you could hear a rooster crow as you got up), go. While Cook the Books is a particularly special and progressive course because we are literally learning in a kitchen, not strictly in a fluorescent-lit classroom with desks from the 1980s located in a basement (we learn there too), I’m glad I had the opportunity to discover another classroom at the Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market.
Warning. Do not scroll down if you are hungry!
Stay tuned for next week’s “part 2” entry when we actually cook!