Popular Cook the Books course gives literary studies added flavour

November 14, 2022 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

It might be the only English class where you put down a pen and pick up a fork.

Cook the Books is a popular first-year English course that combines literary analysis with cooking classes and food-oriented field trips, enabling students to better understand their relationship with food, and how culture, environment and economics influence their food choices.

“When I first saw the course description, I felt like I was dreaming,” says Ariana Aghaeinia, a first-year life sciences student and a member of Trinity College.

“Cooking and eating have been my biggest passions in life, so this course was a no brainer. I also wanted to explore another type of learning, since the majority of my courses were the typical classroom sit-down style.”

The course is taught by Andrea Most, a professor with the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of English, alongside professional chef and author, Joshna Maharaj.

many plates of food on a picnic table outdoors
Andrea Most lectures her students before enjoying snacks from the Trinity Bellwoods Farmers Market. Photo: Sean McNeely.

“While it's hosted by the English department, it has a much broader scope,” says Most, who has taught the course for 11 years. “We bring in lots of different issues around food systems insecurity, environmental issues, culinary issues, as well literary stories. We talk about how what we're eating changes the way we think about the text, which I think is crucial.”

“You can't teach about food without any food!” adds Maharaj. “It amplifies the lesson for students if they're able to taste, touch and experience the food that we're talking about.”

The course is divided into three sections — farm stories, kitchen stories and table stories.

With farm stories, students explore how food is grown and produced, and how food gets from a farm to a table. To bring these lessons to life, the class visited Sundance Harvest Farm, local leaders in the urban farming movement, committed to tackling inequalities within agriculture and increasing diversity in farming.

“It was inspiring to hear the origin story of Sundance Harvest and incredibly interesting to see what a local farm looked like and how it operated,” says Elaiza Palaypay, a second-year English student and a member of Woodsworth College.

“I now have a clearer understanding of our food system and have gained a new appreciation for food in regard to where it comes from, how it’s produced and who makes it.”

The class also read, Leah Penniman’s, Farming While Black — a book that outlines the contributions of African-heritage people to sustainable agriculture, and also provides a ‘how to’ guide for aspiring African-heritage growers to become successful.

four people smiling and holding up vegetables
Sundance Harvest is a year-round farm located on a 1.5 acre site in Downsview. During the main season they have a team of four. Photo courtesy of Sundance Harvest.

Kitchen stories focuses on home, restaurant and institutional cooking — home kitchens, dining halls, cafeterias, factories, hospitals and prisons. For this section, the class engages with many different texts and experiences, including Maharaj’s book, Take Back the Tray, where she offers insights into how to bolster institutional food in a sustainable way that supports local economies.

The class also examines Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“Students don’t usually think of this as a food story,” says Most. “And they don't think of it as a story about processed food, factory farming and fair labour. But I find this book brilliant for all the ways it lays out the issues of the industrial food system. It’s remarkable for what it allows us to unpack.”

The course finishes with table stories, focusing on what it means to cook and eat together, breaking down the importance and significance of cooking and family meals.

“We also have sessions on celebrations and feasts, where students really think through rituals and the function of food in bringing community together,” says Most.

Students also learned about a community’s connection to local producers, visiting the Trinity Bellwood Farmers Market.

“It’s one thing to talk about the importance of locally sourced food, but to actually be immersed in the community is something you can’t put into words,” says Aghaeinia.

Back on campus, the cooking portion of the class takes place in a dining hall and kitchen in Trinity College where Maharaj creates “food experiences that make the classwork come to life on a plate.”

“To see the students make food connections that help them make deeper personal connections and understand themselves and their world more fully is magic for me,” says Maharaj.

Andrea Most leaning against the bed of a mint-blue coloured pick-up truck in the country side
Andrea Most has been teaching Cook the Books for 11 years. Photo courtesy of Andrea Most.

“I want them to feel the joy and pleasure of good food that’s sustainably sourced, sustainably farmed, delicious and nutritious,” says Most. “I want them to feel the incredible joy and pleasure of that.”

The course ends with a ‘global food potluck’ with students each bringing their own dish and sharing its origins and history, and why it's significant to them. Because the class of 24 students has such rich diversity, Most expects a truly international feast.

“It's incredible,” says Most. “We have international students, students who are new Canadians, and students who have been here for generations. We'll have as many as 15 different countries represented.

“And even beyond all of that is the building of community. In this class, the students build community almost instantly because they sit down and eat meals together, so they form really fast friendships.”

And that’s both especially refreshing and rewarding for Most and the students considering the social impacts of the Covid pandemic.

“This class has been incredibly important because we’re creating community by sitting together and eating together,” she says. “That’s something we really have lost in the last few years.”

“That’s why I took Cook the Books,” says Palaypay. “I wanted to take a course that focuses on experiential learning and encouraged close connections among students and the instructors.”

“Cook the Books has put a deep focus on learning the journey of food, whether that’s back at the farms, or the journey of simply tasting the dish,” says Aghaeinia. “One thing’s for sure: the story of food doesn’t end with our consumption.”