COVID ‘s impact on schools is broad and deep. The challenge for every educator is immense.
It’s hard enough teaching math or social studies to half a class via Zoom. But what about a hands-on course like Culinary?
And how do you cope when a collaborative course you’ve honed with a colleague in another department no longer fits the new schedule?
Those are the challenge facing chef Cecily Gans and English instructor Kim Herzog. Their popular “Food in Literature” class no longer meets for long, back-to-back, discussion-and-cooking sessions. Half the students are not even in the well-appointed Staples High School kitchen.
Despite the obstacles, the teachers have cooked up something special.
The semester-long course is intense and demanding. It takes students who love to write out of their comfort zone and into the kitchen — and those who love to cook, out of their comfort zone and into the classroom.
Herzog and Gans adapted the curriculum together. They balance the twin ingredients of food and literature, adding a dash of whatever is needed to keep each day fresh and challenging.
It’s a master class in all the skills of cooking (following instructions, flexibility, time management) and all those of reading and writing (critical thinking, analysis, synthesis).
The heart of the course is a theme. Each student chooses something that appeals to him or her.
Many select foods based on their heritage: Italian, Greek, Pakistani, Mexican. Others choose vegan or paleo diets — even desserts.
They read core texts and food memoirs. They write about their own memories and associations. Then they cook those dishes.
They study restaurant reviews, and learn to write their own. (They’re far more in-depth, insightful and objective than anything on Yelp — or the local media.)
All along, students document their progress on personal blogs.
Gans gives the teenagers plenty of credit for managing the many elements of the class. They all cook — though with social distancing, the usual complex choreography of a kitchen is even more difficult. “We are dancers,” she says.
But distance learning has its benefits. With time at home, students have learned to understand their families better, and celebrate their heritage.
Gans sees this in the stories they write about the role of food in their lives. She’s always believed that food brings people closer together. Now she has proof.
The chef encourages all students — novices and moderately experienced alike — to cook often at home. They’ve taken that to heart.
“This is a unique time in all of our lives,” Gans says. Documenting those memories — in part through food — helps everyone get through it.
Herzog misses the chance to work personally with Gans. Together, they’ve watched students grow as cooks and writers. Now, the gap is bridged mostly by the blogs each student maintains.
She misses too the chance to get to know each teenager’s “voices and styles” as they work communally in the kitchen — and of course the chance to share the fruits of their labor, together at the table.
But they’ve feasted on the work their first semester students accomplished. Many of them have made their websites available to the public.
The writing is insightful. Some is pandemic related: food as a remedy during tough times, celebrating an 18th birthday in isolation by making Bundt cake; what happens to a refrigerator when a family member quarantines.
But there is plenty that is timeless: cooking with the senses; food waste; rising early to bake; Cajun turkey on Thanksgiving; using food to overcome shyness; the dilemma of a picky eater; the joy of ramen noodles when you’re sick.
Click below to read the Staples students’ blogs, food journals and recipes. Bon appétit!
Ben: A Little Taste of Home in Every Bite
Avery: Picky Eaters Guide: Vegan Cooking
Richard: The Comfort of Winter
Nicole: Buon Cibo Italiano
Justin: Scorching Hot
JJ: Breakfast for Kings
Anooshka: Biryani N’ More
Lina: A Taste of the Mediterranean