Pairing food with conversation on Asian American identity

Anna Guevarra considers herself somewhat of a “foodie,” so she enjoys using food as a teaching tool and a means to tell stories and engage students in conversation.

Since 2012, she has taught a course that she created called “Cultural Politics of Asian American Food” (GLAS 230), which examines the consumption, production and distribution of food and the corresponding representation of Asian Americans through these processes.

“In class evaluations many students wrote, ‘I wish we had a kitchen to use,’” said Guevarra, associate professor and director of Global Asian studies.

For the course to feature a kitchen setting, she had to train for and earn a license from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Guevarra then partnered with Jennifer Scott, director and chief curator of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, which has an industrial kitchen in its historic Residents’ Dining Hall and a shared interest in the themes — food justice and decolonizing food — that are featured in this semester’s edition of the class.

“So, I weave that into the course, teaching them about using food as a lens through which we can talk about immigration, talk about food justice, but also give the students practical experience in the kitchen,” she said. “I am grateful that Jennifer and her brilliant staff supported this collaboration. This is the first time that they have opened their space to this kind of curricular partnership.”

The three-hour class starts with a lecture and discussion based on assigned readings, which is followed by what Guevarra calls “Collective Kusina,” when a weekly rotation of students learns how to cook, serve and eat a meal that she carefully curates and supervises. The menu connects food parings with the week’s class theme in order to spark dialogue around related issues. Dish cleaning duties conclude the activities.

A recent class session titled “The Urban (under)belly and the labor of eating,” included discussions on the intersection between the city, urbanization, food desserts and the role of immigrants. Inspired by her previous travels to India, Guevarra’s menu that day featured a modified version of bhel puri and pani puri, two popular Indian street foods.

In the kitchen, students diligently sliced onions, potatoes and cilantro to combine with puffed rice and sweet and spicy chutneys. The mixture produced an appetizing aroma and was served in a deep-fried puff, or puri, with a dollop of yogurt and a pinch of chaat masala spice.

“I’m focusing particularly on India to take students away from the U.S. and, not necessarily experience, but have some exposure to how other places like India are dealing with these issues as well,” she said.

The class, and its discussions, have proven to be “eye-opening,” according to Jefta Iluyomade, a third-year English major from Champaign.

“We talk about food and dishes, but a lot of the time we talk about the contexts around certain foods, which is something that I hadn’t given much thought about,” he said. “There’s reasons why people use certain ingredients. There’s meanings behind certain dishes to certain cultures. A lot of the time there is political stuff involved with food.”

Samuel Phara, a sophomore undeclared major and Global Asian studies minor, said the course is a “once-in-a-lifetime” college experience with personal significance.

“It let me reconnect with my past because I’m from an immigrant Thai family, and I never really learned about what happened, how my family got here, and the history we all had,” said Phara, a native of Seattle. “Taking this class has made me realize there are a lot of people that are less advantaged than I am and that I should be able to do something about that.”

Witnessing the students’ interaction during meal preparation and plating in the kitchen is one of the aspects of the course that Guevarra enjoys the most.

“It’s a way for them to get to know their colleagues in a different way,” she said. “In the classroom, it’s a lot more formal. You are focused on the readings, but in the kitchen other stories often come up.”

Teaching in a 130-year-old space full of history and cooking in a kitchen that served many immigrants, communities of color and marginalized communities is special for Guevarra.

“It’s changed the ways I teach and approach each week, so I’m always thinking about, ‘What would Jane Addams want to see every week?’ ‘How would she teach this course every week?’” she said.

Guevarra adds that it’s important to explore non-traditional ways to inspire students’ participation and learning.

“If students are given the opportunity to engage in a topic in different spaces, whether it’s a kitchen, a ball field, a park, I think there is something those spaces provide that triggers a different kind of engagement, a different kind of learning,” she said.

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