Over the last semester, ENG 434 Cook the Books has garnered media attention from the likes of the Toronto Star and CBC Radio for its innovative approach to learning as students engage in food literature, a genre that has received very little academic attention, and then cook dishes inspired by their readings in the Hart House kitchen.
This course has made me bond with classmates on unprecedented levels for an English class . This week, my presentation group made a three course vegan meal based on Jonathan Safron Foer’s Eating Animals and in preparation, we all went shopping together one Friday evening, tried out different recipes and sat down and taste tested everything over wine and conversation about life. This is far from the “normal” English course where students typically try to engage the professor more than their peers, sit in rows with backs turned to faces and rarely learn the majority of their classmates’ names. In Cook the Books, it’s not unusual to want to impress our peers with delicious meals, we share our personal stories about food and when we sit down to eat student cooked meals in Hart House, we relax a little. I have to say, the level of bonding and personal dialogue I’ve experienced in Cook the Books is rare for an English course.
But this approach to learning is actually the norm in a lot of my Aboriginal Studies courses. I remember sitting with our desks formed in a circle in ASB 250 Indigenous Environmental Education and Professor Erica Neegan saying it was alright if we ate during the lecture and emphasized that we shouldn’t separate our bodies from our minds (a Western view). At the end of many terms, it’s not unusual for Aboriginal Studies courses to have a feast on the last day of class to celebrate a semester well done. In fact, the similarities between Cook the Books and ABS300 Oral Traditions taught by Daniel Justice and Alice Te Punga Somerville is astonishing. But what I find even more astounding is that when Aboriginal Studies courses push the boundaries of pedagogy with Indigenous ways of learning through food and storytelling, they rarely get the credit they deserve. In fact, the opposite happens and Aboriginal Studies courses often get a bad rap for being “bird” courses. This is far from the truth. In fact, the expectations that Justice and Te Punga Somerville (both actually come from academic backgrounds in literature) have are exactly the same expectations every one of my other professors have had for their classes. It’s the University of Toronto. Expectations are high.
In Oral Traditions, each week a student will share “kai” and bring in food and tell a personal story about the item they are presenting to the class. Through these stories, I’ve learned about goat slaughter in Pakistan for Ramadan, macrobiotic diets and German pastry and baking. Last week, my lovely classmate Rebecca brought in elderberry jam made from berries picked at U of T and wine made by her father, weaving in a story about her family who is Zoroastrian and a brief history of Persian winemaking.
Coincidentally, a poached pear recipe I had to make for Cook the Books called for both red wine and jam and I immediately thought of Rebecca as an amazing source. Not only is Rebecca’s wine and jam locally made and sourced from Ontario and campus (we actually get marked on where we buy our food), I can actually say that I know the story behind the product.
The poached pears turned out to be a success thanks to Rebecca. If it hadn’t been for Oral Traditions, I don’t think the pear desert topped with elderberry jam and shaved chocolate would have been nearly as special and unique. Now that I’m in my final year, I can look back and really see connections between different classes more clearly. It’s always amazing when stories, people and courses as different as Aboriginal Studies and English come full circle.