Last night a former student took over my kitchen, riffling through my cabinets, grabbing spices -- chopping, simmering, zesting, and improvising with random vegetables and the remains of an ancient bag of rice. I did buy a nice piece of steak but otherwise I took him at his word that he could make a fantastic meal out of whatever we had on hand. And he did.
This former student, currently doing graduate work in mathematics, had been in my “culture of food” class, an interdisciplinary course incorporating literature, film, sociology, history, women’s studies, nutrition, and even a bit of art history. Although I’ve read widely in “food studies” I’m no expert; however, when our university began a program to develop new courses to increase student engagement, I decided to tackle this subject that fascinated me. On the surface, our relationship with food is simple: we eat in order to live. However, what we eat and how that food is produced, distributed, marketed, consumed, and represented raises many fascinating questions.
On the first day of class, I brought in loaves of crusty bread to share while we discussed the concept of “breaking bread” and other food metaphors. There is something very primal about sharing food, about consuming the subject itself, a feat that’s more difficult when teaching, say, Victorian literature.
Perhaps because I am a novice in this subject, I was more open to students’ own expertise, and I found out more about the people in this particular class than in most others. For example, two of the students grew up on farms yet had different views of government subsidies; three struggled to be vegetarians in “Packer country”; one worked as a waitress and ended up investigating the effect of low wages on servers’ efforts to encourage over-ordering, and one ex-marine brought in beer he had brewed himself (I had to get the Dean’s approval for that!).
In general, I’m a teacher who likes to be firmly in control in the classroom. I over-prepare, spend way too much time tweaking my syllabus, and believe that I alone am responsible when a class goes flat. And while my students enjoy the occasional anecdote about my daughter, I am careful about what I disclose and, of course, they find out more about my life than I ever do about theirs. Yet with this class, I was as interested in their contributions as in my own carefully prepared notes.
As my former student stirred simmering pots and confidently checked the temperature of the meat that he was cooking “sous-vide” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sous-vide  I found myself in the odd position of being superfluous in my own kitchen. I had to trust him in a very elemental way to feed my family.
I wanted to know more about how he developed his amazing intellectual confidence, a confidence I hope my own daughter will acquire. As we talked I learned more about his early experiences in school, his transition from star undergrad to a graduate program where everyone seems equally gifted, and his parents’ attitudes toward grades. “My father couldn’t care less about grades,” he told me. I remembered meeting his father and his answer to my remark that he must be very proud of his son: “I try not to let my pride get in the way of enjoying him.”
His parents also let him cook at a young age, using the stove and even sharp knives, and experimenting with spices. Will I be able to give my own daughter the freedom to become an authority in the areas she chooses? Can I uncover the hidden competences and confidences of my future students, instead of assuming they exist to be filled with my wisdom?
When we all sat down to eat last night, there was a moment of joyful silence as we tasted the delicious combination of spices and vegetables in the rice and cut through the tender sirloin. Even my daughter – notoriously picky this year – exclaimed “This is delicious brown chicken!” A day later, I still feel well nourished.