Finding Her Place at the Table
As we go into this season of Thanksgiving, I find myself reflecting on and profoundly grateful for one of the most joyful courses I have had the privilege of teaching, Foodie Literature. In Foodie Literature, a senior level course, we have a wide range of writing abilities. The students who select the course range from those who self-identify as writers with some planning to write professionally, to students who explicitly self-identify as “not good at writing” or “not a writer.” However, through the power of experiencing food, telling our stories through food, and building relationships, most everyone leaves the course with a writer identity and deeper connection to the world and people around them.
The beauty of food is that we all have a relationship with it. Everyone knows what it is to eat and hunger and savor. Even if we don’t realize it, we each have foundational stories of identity that can be discovered and told through food. In our class, we explore others’ stories through food in works such as Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. We find stories and new worlds of food in Maangchi’s videos, The Biggest Little Farm, Ratatouille, and M.F.K. Fisher’s prose. While we engage in traditional literary and film analysis, the students are also invited to explore, discover, and bring their own stories told through food to our class. With this invitation, those who don’t self-identify as writers begin to transition.
While it might not be comfortable for everyone to tell the stories of family dynamics or formative experiences of self-identity, examining our personal narratives through the lens of food makes these stories more understandable and accessible. Telling the story of family dynamics through family meal traditions provides a unique lens for understanding relationships and connections. Telling the stories of formative experiences of self-identity through homemade lunches in the school cafeteria gives weight to the seemingly mundane details that shape our identities and how we see ourselves. Telling stories of personal successes and facing challenges with impressive resilience through food feels to the students less like bragging and more like sharing an intimate and beautiful part of themselves. Once the students start to explore their stories and discover the long tendrils of food experiences in creating connection and identity, there is a sense of urgency to tell these stories well and tell them in a way to be truly heard and understood. Every spoken and written word becomes more infused with meaning and intention. With this sense of purpose, the students write. And they write. And they write more.
Telling stories of personal successes and facing challenges with impressive resilience through food feels to the students less like bragging and more like sharing an intimate and beautiful part of themselves.
In our class, we find joy in each other’s stories. Some of the students will share stories with others in the class. Other stories are just for my eyes or a select few. I often ask before reading a student’s work, “Do you like your story?” While there are no right answers to this question, I am generally greeted with a smile, and something along the lines of, “I really do.” There are stories of discovering greater truths, connection, and purpose. Even the stories that emerge of pain and suffering that come from the girls’ food stories are ones that need to be told.
In Foodie Literature, through many techniques and methods, we create community and a sense that each student is an expert in her own experience, but especially through formal tastings and sharing food together. The first tasting of the year is vanilla ice cream, which is intentionally seemingly unexciting. Most every student has tasted vanilla ice cream many times before and we discuss that vanilla is known as the plain or boring flavor in the ice cream line up. However, the invitation to taste it again in a formal academic setting reorients vanilla ice cream and illuminates the power of really engaging with and tasting. With students helping, we pass out little cups of vanilla ice cream. I make sure to have a dairy-free option as well which creates another chance for building relationships as those who have allergies or, even if they don’t, but know someone who does, feel cared for and seen. I walk the students through experiencing vanilla ice cream again as if it were the first time to encounter it. The students take notes: “I can smell the vanilla. It smells nostalgic”; “It looks well ‘vanilla,’ plain, trusting. I know what it’s gonna taste like from memory. I feel comforted when I look at it”; “It smells like the trips I would take to Mexico where my family and I would have a whole pint of vanilla.” There are giggles as it feels ridiculous and vulnerable to note that ice cream feels cold in their hands. And with each of the giggles and feeling silly to re-experience something as simple as vanilla ice cream, the students allow themselves to be vulnerable in a safe way and yield to the actual experience without expectation or preconceptions. They then write about their experience and find themselves experts in what they are writing about because only they know what it is to be them, a unique individual fully engaging with food, and have their personal experience of fully tasting.
Activity: Tasting and Fully Engaging in Tasting. We eat every day, but how often do we truly fully engage in the experience of tasting. If you have not before, it can be very different (and slow) compared to how we normally functionally eat. Please respond to the following questions as you are guided to do so.
What do you notice around you before you taste? If you are sitting, what does your chair feel like? What does the temperature of the air feel like on your skin? What sounds do you hear? What is your sense of time? What do your hands feel like? What does your face feel like?
Look at it – What does it look like? Is it familiar? Does it recall anything for you? What do you feel when looking at it?
Smell it – What notes or flavors can you pick up on from smell? What is your response?
Feel it – What does it feel like in your hand or if you push it with your utensil? What can you tell about the texture?
What questions or curiosity do you have going into this tasting?
Get a spoonful, smell it, and then put it in your mouth. Closing your eyes as you put it in your mouth can help you really focus on what you are tasting.
What are your first impressions? What flavors are you picking up on?
What adjectives or experiential words would you use to describe what you are tasting?
What textures do you feel with your tongue and roof of your mouth? What adjectives or experiential words would you use to describe what you are feeling?
For the next tasting a few weeks later, I aim to choose something the students would not have tried before. The last two years I have brought injera, an Ethiopian flat bread made from teft flour. Each time this was new to all of the students. Injera has a unique texture and smell. The girls delight in touching it and guessing what it will taste like. Upon tasting, some find it too sour and some find they want more. I then offer to add missir (lentils) or gomen (slow cooked spinach) or tibse (sauteed beef) if they want to see how the flavor and texture of the injera changes for them. The students become scientists, observing and exploring, yet again developing expertise in their own experience. We then discuss, and they write about what only they can know–their own interaction with and experience of this food: “Looks like gauze and the texture feels like a crepe; almost feels like smooth fabric with texture, a combination of silk and winter blanket texture; smells sour and hints of sweet.”
We taste and experience together iteratively. We taste different styles of kimchee as we read Crying in H Mart. We explore differences in eggs as we read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, scrambling eggs from very local (my backyard) pasture-raised chickens and scrambling eggs from mass-production egg farms. The girls note differences and similarities every step of the way, from how the shells crack to the color and consistency to how the different eggs taste in the end. The girls become experts in their own tasting experience, which only they can know and tell about, and they write: “It was refreshing to indulge in a food that is familiar and sensitive to the taste buds; it almost caresses it in comfort. Loving.”
A couple weeks from now, before Thanksgiving break, our class will gather in our classroom around a long dining table made of desks pushed together and covered with fall-themed, burnt orange tablecloths. At this table, we will have our Foodie Literature Feast of Thanksgiving together. There will be a formal tasting of a tofurkey roast with stuffing and gravy. Each student will have her own experience of the tofurkey. Some girls will bring dishes from their family traditions and the stories that come with the dishes to share with the class. We will taste and experience and enjoy in community together, each of us belonging with a unique place in our feast with her own perspectives, experiences, and stories. And we will sit and write together as well.
Through all this, if one writes enough, she will quietly discover she has a unique place waiting just for her at the writers’ table.
Through all this, if one writes enough, she will quietly discover she has a unique place waiting just for her at the writers’ table. For the students who came into class knowing they are a writer, their place at the table simply grows. For each student who came into class self-identifying as “not a writer,” through consuming the food stories of others, telling her own food stories and discovered truths, and engaging in the experience of truly tasting, the thought emerges that she is a writer and belongs at the table as much as any other.
Liesl English Mayerson currently teaches English to sophomores and seniors at an all-girls independent school. She has also taught communications skills and writing best practices to corporate professionals, taught ESL, and worked as a writer in marketing and corporate communications. Originally from San Antonio, Texas, she has her Bachelor of Arts from Duke University where she studied English and Economics and has her Master of Science in Counseling from Southern Methodist University. Liesl currently resides in the Dallas area with her husband, three daughters, two dogs, cat, five chickens, and an African Gray parrot who she has had for 30 years (and will likely have for another 30 or more).