It's A Matter Of Taste

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Summer workshop for K-12 educators explores food in Middle Eastern and North African History and Cultures

As she instructed a group of sixty K-12 teachers how to prepare dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), Barbara Petzen, Outreach Director at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, set three rules: they should be the thickness of a pinkie finger, stuffed so that they won’t burst when steaming, and spiced to the future mother-in-law's tastes. In the Middle East, women often sit around a table and make dolmas together, not unlike a quilting bee. They make hundreds at a time for their families to eat all week, or for a special occasion. But changing social and cultural factors in the region – including more women working outside the home and decreased interest among younger women – are threatening such traditions, says Petzen. However, she pointed out, the socio-cultural implications of regional foods such as dolmas go far beyond the household. Although the basic recipe consists of a rice mixture rolled into a grape leaf and then steamed, regional and national variations abound. For example, Palestinians use cumin and allspice, while Iranians are fond of mint and pomegranate flavors. Each variation denotes cultural specificity and taste, allowing cultural groups to create their own unique interpretations of a shared dish.

The two-week Summer Workshop, held July 25-August 6, engaged teachers from schools throughout Los Angeles county in an examination of the role that food has played in history and culture all over the world. Mornings were devoted to large group presentations on topics such as the worldwide coffee trade, agricultural economies, the historical evolution of international trade, food as an expression of identity, and the impact of global politics on access to food and water. In the afternoons, the teachers separated into three regional tracks: Africa and the Black Atlantic, Europe and Eurasia, and the Middle East and North Africa.

“Local food cultures and cuisines are really the product of global exchange, drawing on ingredients from the world over” said Sherry Vatter, workshop coordinator and CSULB history instructor. For example, tomatoes – a New World crop – and spices from the East are commonly used in the making of Moroccan dishes. “Food gives something very personal to teach abstract global concepts as well as literary symbolism,” added Vatter. “It helps teachers understand the unique cultures and heritages of students and provides the know-how to make broad, complex global processes more concrete and comprehensible.”

Afternoon sessions in the Middle East and North Africa track included a wide range of dynamic lectures and demonstrations. For one of them, Barbara Petzen teamed up with Latifeh Hagigi from the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures to explain Iranian food traditions and practices observed during the spring holiday Nowruz, or Persian New Year. The following day, Petzen and Sherry Vatter talked to the teachers about McDonald’s in the Middle East and how this international brand has adjusted to various cultural norms and tastes in Israel, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Presentations by Juan and Magda Campo from UCSB revealed the nuances of hospitality culture and the ways that food reflects values, social connections, and gendered identity. UCLA alum and Cal Poly Pomona professor Amanda Podany talked about food in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, highlighting recipes from that era and showing how contemporary Middle Eastern staple foods emerged from explorations and experimentations that were pursued in antiquity. Charles Perry, former food writer for the Los Angeles Times and aficionado of the culinary arts, shed light on early Islamic cuisine by recreating recipes from the Abbasid period and their main ingredients, such as fermented barley and yogurt. UCLA alum and CSULB history faculty Houri Berberian showcased Middle Eastern cookbooks in order to demonstrate historical methodology and to advocate their use as primary sources for studying Middle Eastern and American cultures. Lastly, CNES Assistant Director Jonathan Friedlander discussed the appropriation of Middle Eastern iconography in the branding and selling of coffee products by some of the most well-known companies in America.

Curriculum development constitutes an integral part of the program, ensuring that teachers can utilize the workshop experience for the benefit of their students. To assist the teachers, consultant Mark Elinson modeled teaching strategies dealing with the politics of hunger in the Middle East. As part of the accreditation requirements set by Los Angeles Unified School District and UCLA Extension, teachers produced their own lesson plans and instructional units based on workshop themes and concepts. Examples of the final products will be posted on Outreach World, the national online portal for K-12 international studies resources developed and hosted by the UCLA International Institute.

Overall, the Summer Workshop received very positive reviews from the K-12 teachers who participated. Friedlander, who has directed CNES precollegiate outreach for over 30 years, explained that “[the organizers] sought to offer teachers an intensive summer workshop that would challenge them to think critically about history and culture while using food as the thematic catalyst to develop critical academic and pedagogical skills and a more profound and nuanced understanding of the Middle East and its people. We are delighted by the outstanding response and feedback we’ve received.” Like hundreds of teachers before them, the participants of the 2009 workshop will continue to impact the profession and countless students throughout Los Angeles and nationwide.


Duration: 7:38

Published: Thursday, September 17, 2009