In their first lesson sorted into level groups, my high-level students grapple with a proposal: what and how a culture eats can tell you something about the character of its people.
I write “FOOD/CULTURE” on the board in a bubble, and demand: Tell me about Spain. Unfailingly, the first two terms out of their mouths are paella and cocido (further shout-outs have included chorizo, lentejas, “spanish omelette,” and the mediterranean diet). The students must tell me what paella is, assuming I’ve never seen one before. It’s rice and meat and veggies, okay, so it’s like an Asian stir-fry? No? You say it’s in a giant pan? But I can’t eat all that. It’s for sharing?? Well, I didn’t know! You’ve got to tell me these things!
We run through the same process with cocido, giving us enough information to begin speculating conclusions on the nature of Spaniards given their gastronomy. This is the magic step – I’m asking students to take the information they’ve spontaneously generated (okay, with a little prodding), synthesize it, and use their force of reason to put forward a conclusion. Some groups get it immediately, while others completely balk. The look on their face when I balk right back is absolutely priceless: “In order to answer, you’ll have to think! I know!! I warned you this class was different!! Think now!!!”
These squeals and general jumping around like a loon eventually elicit some pretty solid conjectures on Spanish culture – the communal meals are demonstrative of a remarkably social character, the specific eating rituals reflect a culture rich in both tradition and individualism. Paella is Valencian, cocido is madrileño. Fabada comes from Asturias, gazpacho is andalucian, pan tomaca from Cataluña, migas from Extremadura, etc etc etc – all speaking to the importance of Spanish regionalism. Three hour lunches, the idea of sobremesa, the intertwining of celebration with daily life allsuggest an unhurried pleasure-seeking people.
After generating this list, I offer a quick-take on American culture as demonstrated by what and how it eats. We value individualism at the expense of the group, partiuclarly in big cities – people frequently eat alone in the name of efficiency. There’s state importance, clearly, but nowhere near the level of the Spanish – there’s a trend towards nationalism rather than regionalism. And Americans wouldn’t know what to do with themselves for the latter 80% of the time it takes to have a proper Spanish comida.
[[I note, clearly, that I’m making vast generalizations here – the point of the exercise is not to pigeonhole anyone, but rather to connect the way in which a people choose to conduct a daily necessity to an explanation of more general trends within the society. it’s a 50-minute conversation class: don’t get uppity and I won’t either.]]
I proceed to explain the concept of food trucks, something nonexistent here in Spain and, I think, exemplary of American gastronomic trends. After drawing a rudimentary doodle of a trailer on the board and giving a skeleton of the concept, I inquire: would an American-style food truck work in Spain? Students overwhelmingly respond that it would not – which I don’t entirely agree with, but okay – and so it opens up the discussion to go in reverse. Would a Spanish-style food truck work in New York City? What would a Spanish-style food truck look like? Suppose we have an investor and must draw up a proposal. What should we offer, how is it going to look? Paella in paper cones, a mobile tent for purposes of caña concealment next to your traveling tapa truck?
Admittedly, this creative bit of the lesson plan never quite blossoms as I’d envisioned; the Spanish educational system isn’t set up to foster innovation. I’m hopeful, though, that by continuing to insist upon original thought from my students, they’ll grow accustomed to the idea of throwing caution to the wind in the name of imagination.
The final activity is prompted free conversation, which is something I plan on incorporating into all of my High and Medium level lessons. Each student receives a question card, bearing a food culture-related query that must be posed to the rest of the class. I first did this by requiring everyone to stand up and mingle, but they floundered with the freedom. For the rest of the classes, I push desks together into a round-table discussion. Questions include:
Is buying organic food worth the cost? Why or why not?
If you were an ingredient, what ingredient would you be?
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever eaten?
Would you ever consider vegetarianism?
Is eating healthy important to you? Why or why not?
Have you ever eaten horse or dog meat? Would you like to?
The last question in particular gets students talking – eating horse meat is not traditionally strange in Spain, so I was surprised at how many students recoiled at the thought. A scant handful had tried it, and only a daring few wouldn’t turn up their nose at a hot plate of fresh grilled canine.