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Radio Readers BookByte: Food and Common Ground

Jason Harper
Ft. Hays State University

Today my focus is on Mark Kurlansky's Edible Stories, and how food is one of the many bonds that people find as common ground.

This common ground through food is true in fact, fiction -- and in teaching. Years ago, beginning in 2006, I taught college composition courses in a partnership program between Pittsburg State University and a university in Asunción, Paraguay. Then, a year later, I was teaching for partnership between Fort Hays State University and a university in China. 

I entered these international teaching assignments feeling a little constrained by international borders and boundaries both real and imagined — by the home universities’ expectations, the host universities’ expectations, the students’ expectations, and by my own expectations.

So to break the ice and better facilitate their education in both essay writing and English language skills, I  engaged my students in writing projects that involved sharing their fond memories of food and culture while writing essays and recipes about their favorite cuisines. I had no idea what incredible culinary compositions I was getting myself into!

In Paraguay, students wrote about Bori-Bori, a chicken soup that is served with cornmeal dumplings. I learned that Chipa is a bread made with flour, eggs, and cheese and that Chipa Guasú is cake made with corn and is great with asado. Asado means "barbecue" and that word is used in the same way that "barbecue" is used in English.

Lomitos are small sandwiches made with carne asado, and with an an egg inside, became the go-to lunch I often bought from street vendors and ate while walking back to my apartment after classes.

My students in China wrote essays that showed me how Chinese cuisine is as massive and varied as the country and its people. 

Cantonese Cuisine, Shandong Cuisine, Jiangsu Cuisine, and Sichuan Cuisine are just a few of many. 

I learned through their essays that Chinese cuisines differ by way of availability of resources, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques, and lifestyle.

While one cuisine uses garlic and shallots instead of chili and spices (and vice versa), another uses sea food over farmyard meats or fowl. Jiangsu cooking techniques uses stewing and braising, and Sichuan Cuisine might use a baking method.

All the while these students were writing these essays in Paraguay and China, I was learning centuries' worth of Paraguayan and Chinese culinary culture. But the students also were learning how to write to a new, foreign audience in a second, foreign language. I told them I knew nothing about their food, that I wanted to know everything about their food, and then I showed him how to explain it all to me through academic writing assignments.

Our common ground was the essays that began as a homework assignment and evolved into a cultural culinary cornucopia that offered insight into the perspectives of the people I got to know on opposite ends of the earth. 

Just as Mark Kurlansky brings a keen eye and an unerring sense of humanity into his stories, a shared knowledge of food shows just how important of a role what we eat plays in the lives of people everywhere.