I’m thinking about food today.
I just read this article in the New York Times about how cooks in Houston are still managing to prepare meals after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, which flooded their homes and destroyed their kitchens. One man, Al Marcus, a 70-year old famous for his huge Thanksgiving feasts, went so far as to fire up his backyard smoker in the days after the storm and prepare 140 pounds of brisket for relief volunteers to enjoy.
Cooks, it seems, simply have to cook.
“What else was I going to do?” Mr. Marcus asked the Times reporter.
Here in South Florida, before Hurricane Irma bombarded us last week, I was asking myself the same question as I moved four bags of perishables over to my sister’s house in preparation for the storm. As the hurricane came closer, I set up shop in her kitchen, and I cooked. Three baked zitis. A mess of fried chicken cutlets. A pan of white beans sauteed in olive oil. This is what I do before a hurricane–I plan meals for when the power goes out, as it surely will, and I cook for the people I love. It calms me, it nourishes all of us, and it gives us little oases of normalcy to look forward to, little times of coming together to simply enjoy a meal and each other’s company, in the aftermath of a frightening storm.
This need to prepare food and to feed it to others whom we care about is universal. The enjoyment of a meal, whether a simple Tuesday night meatloaf or a gourmet extravaganza featuring twelve kinds of sea creatures, is also universal. Food and the kitchen are truly, as the cliché tells us, the heart of the home, and feasting with our families and friends makes up a big part of our sweetest memories.
This universality makes food a perfect subject for a story exchange between students from different cultures. When you ask kids to talk about their favorite foods, or the foods they enjoy on various holidays, there’s always more to that story than what’s on their plates. As they talk about the meals they’ve had, they also talk about who was around the table with them. Grandparents, family friends, even pets enter the story. They talk about the other traditions that go along with their holiday meals–opening presents, going to worship, playing games. They tell us about how their parents prepare those special–or ordinary–meals. They share their emotions, their anticipation, their delight or disappointment.
And always, always, as they describe the succulent dishes that they love best, they end up crying out, “Oh my gosh, now I’m hungry!” Stories about food are always fun to share across borders, as we describe the deliciousness produced by our culture and learn about the delicacies prized by another.
In an international story exchange, of course, it’s also possible that you might be connecting with kids for whom food scarcity is, or has been, an issue. A few years ago, I was working with a group of high school students in an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class, leading them in writing stories about their far-away hometowns. All of them were immigrants–from 11 different countries–and the story that the boy from Kenya wrote was about his country’s 2007 contested national election that spawned violence in the streets and a terrible food shortage.
How do you exchange stories about favorite foods when the students in the overseas group may not always have enough to eat? This is when it’s time to do more learning about another culture than teaching about our own. Let the overseas students be the teachers. Let them tell their stories of why food shortages exist in their country. Is it flood, or drought, or remote location, or the expense of civil war that keeps food from reaching them? Are their families able to work around the shortages somehow? Is relief aid available from NGOs or the government programs of other countries?
Have your students look at instances of food instability in the US. They can research how these problems are being addressed here, and have a conversation with their international partners about the methods being used in both countries to solve the problem of hunger. They can look up humanitarian organizations, such as Oxfam and Feed the Children, and learn how they themselves can help in the fight against hunger. They can take that extra step–a volunteer project or a class donation, for example–to not just learn about the issues facing another country but to be a part of the solution to those issues.
So, yes–whether you and your partners in an affluent country are going to trade stories of amazing holiday meals or you and your counterparts in a developing nation are going to address the issue of hunger together, food is a great foundation for the creation of an engaging and educational international project. What we eat is important, and interesting, to us all.