Foodways and Teaching Culture

Food appears at unexpected times while teaching. I was discussing color metaphors (What does it mean to say, “she’s blue” or “he’s green with envy”?) and brought up “peachy” as a slang response to “How are you?” Then I had to stop to describe a ‘peach,’ not a common fruit on the Arabian Peninsula. I tried to triangulate as I know the Arabic words for orange and apricot but it turns out that no one in the class has seen a fresh apricot; they only know the dried ones. Getting the word “dried” straight somehow led to talking about how raisins are dried grapes and prunes are dried plums, but no one knew plums. So I tried to go by colors, looking around the class to see if anyone had ‘peach-’ or ‘plum-’ colored pen or notebook.

In one class we were confronted with the metaphor “chill iron,” so I did a quick run through the differences between chill (verb, to make cold), chill (verb, slang – to relax) and chilly (adjective). And then chili (similar to stew) and chili peppers.

Getting the vocabulary down is only the first step, as food interactions in stories almost always bring out cultural differences. Reading Peter Pan meant discussing that Mr. and Mrs. Darling were not horrible parents for leaving their children at home (and with a dog!) while they went out to eat. In Oman, children are almost always with their parents or relatives in the evening and would normally go out to dinner with the family.

Even my everyday actions spark conversations as bringing a cup of coffee with me to class and drinking it while teaching is not normal teacher behavior on the Arabian Peninsula. And I warn students that if they visit an American family, they will probably not be pushed again and again to eat. I tell them the story of one Arab administrator who, when he arrived at his host family in America, was asked if he wanted dinner once and only once. As he was expecting the offer to be repeated and food to be given to him as a matter of course, he refused. The Americans did not repeat the offer and he went to bed hungry.

This photo is from social media and I love it because the food in the back-left corner could be ‘read’ as pita (Lebanese  bread) rolled with processed cheese or fried bread with cinnamon and sugar depending on your cultural back-ground.

y - good morning

 

 

 

 

Foodways and Literature – Animal Poems

As I was looking for food poems last week, I realized how many animal poems I have taught and have written out a partial list below.

One starting place is the Mu’allaqa, most of which have many vivid descriptions of desert animals, for example in Imru al-Qays “Halt, friends” and Labid’s “The campsites at Mina.” Another group of early poems which feature animals are by the sa’alik poets; no one who has read Shanfara’s Lamiyyat (“Sons of my mother”) can forget the wolf metaphors.

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Adrienne Rich

“Bear,” Valerie Worth

“Butterflies,” Fawziyya Abu Khalid

“Cat, Valerie Harper

“The Crocodile,” Lewis Carroll

“The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy

“Darwin’s Finches,” Deborah Digges

“December Snow,” May Sarton

“The Dromedary,” Archibald Young Campbell

“The Eagle,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“The Face of the Horse,” Nikolai Alekseevich Zabolotsky

“The Gazelle Calf,” D. H. Lawrence

“The Goat Paths,” James Stephens

“The Horses of the Sea,” Christina Rossetti

“How To See Deer,” Philip Booth

“The Last Wolf,” Mary Tall Mountain

“Minnows,” Valerie Worth

“A Night with a Wolf,” Bayard Taylor

“Not Swans,” Susan Ludvigson

“The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn,” Andrew Marvell

“Pangur Ban,” unknown, Irish

“The Plaint of the Camel,” Charles Edward Carryl

“The Poet and the Moth,” Ahmad Qandeel

“The Raven,”  E.A.  Poe

“The Seal’s Lullaby,” Rudyard Kipling

“Sister Cat,” Frances Mayes

“Snake,” Emily Dickinson

“Snake,” Valerie Worth

“The Terrapin,” Wendell Berry

“To a Skylark,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Turtle Came to See Me,” Margarita Engle

“Upon a Snail,” John Bunyan

“The Vixan,” John Clare

“The War God’s Horse,” unknown, from the Navajo

“The White Stallion,” Abu I-Salt Umayyah

and many poems by Mary Oliver including “Ravens,” “Swans of the River Ayr,” “Turtle” and “White Heron”

More of her poems can be found at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver

Short stories: “Pepsi” by Mohammad Al Murr, “A White Heron” and “A Dunnet Shepherdess” by Sarah Orne Jewett and all the Jungle Book stories by Rudyard Kipling

Foodways and Literature – Food Stories and Poems

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I teach literature classes but my most recent book is on foodways, which might seem like two dissimilar topics but food is omnipresent in poems, stories and dramas so my students and I often have conversations that include foodways, literature and cultural differences. Explaining a reference to Persephone in a poem led to my telling the story of Demeter/ Ceres, which led to a conversation about cereals.

Sometimes I focus simply to the vocabulary aspect: explicating “civil as an orange/ and something of that jealous complexion” in Much Ado about Nothing or “cucumber sandwiches”  and “sugar tongs” in The Importance of Being Earnest. But occasionally food takes center stage as with the fishing with a sword scene in Tawfiq Al Hakim’s Princess Sunshine when the question of ‘who makes dinner’ helps carry the theme of the play. Another food-centered example is the dual breakfast scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. On our first run-through, it’s simply a confusing jumble of random statements. But when we have read it a few times and then ‘perform’ it with one student per character, the beauty (and sadness) of that section shine through. Students often remark, “it’s like that at my home.”

Some stories show cultural similarities, such as Laura bringing food to the widow in Mansfield’s “Garden Party,” but they can also show differences. Unlike in Oman, only Laura visits the house (not with her mother and older sister) and she only stays a brief time.

Another Mansfield story “The Doll’s House” uses food to give insights into the social standing of the schoolgirls – having a sandwich with meat shows wealth while a jam sandwich wrapped in newspaper points to poverty. Similarly, the social niceties observed in the dining room at the beginning of Room with a View preview the theme of the novel. Who sits at which table reveals the hierarchies which Lucy will eventually break.

Food issues can even be the comic element of a story as with Elizabeth Gaskell’s magnificent Cranford with its details of manage your cook, take care of your cow and why you should eat your orange in your room (so you can roll it under your bed to check if anyone is hiding there and then slurp the orange sections in private).

Food essays are also wonderful for sparking good student writing. “Jam” and “A Thing Shared” from The Gastronomical Me  by M. F. K. Fisher, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” by Alice Walker are great example texts to help students see how to write about their own food experiences.

As for poems about food, we have to start with

“Talk,” Gökhan Tok

You never hear it

but at breakfast the sweetest talk

is between the jam and the honey.

and Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful “Arabic Coffee,” “My Father and the Fig Tree,” “Sifter,” “The Traveling Onion” and “The Tray.” For more, please see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye and https://poets.org/poet/naomi-shihab-nye

Other poems include:

  • “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost
  • “The Angler,” Thomas Buchanan Read
  • “The Bean-Stalk,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Blackberry-Picking,” Seamus Heaney
  • “Coolness of the Melons,” Matsuo Basho
  • “Cynddylan on a Tractor,” R.S. Thomas
  • “The [Date] Palm Tree,” Adnan Mohsin
  • “The Fisherman,” Goethe
  • “From Blossoms,” Li-Young Lee
  • “I Return to the Place I was Born,” T’ao Yuan Ming
  • “Love Poem With Toast,” Miller Williams
  • “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost
  • “The Solitary Reaper,” William Wordsworth
  • “Sorry I Spilled It,” Shel Silverstein
  • “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” Marge Piercy

A few food-oriented short stories include: “A Dash of Light” by Ibrahim Aslan, “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour, “A Cup of Tea” by  Katherine Mansfield and “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, as well as several by Mohammed al Murr including “A Late Dinner,” “The Night’s Catch,” “Look After Yourself” and my favorite: “Dinner by Candlelight.”

y - morning coffee

Poems

September is the time to read lots of poems, trying to find good ones to teach. Here is one of my favorites:

My childhood is a long way off

My old age is a long way off

My country, my exile, a long way off.

Tourist!

Give me your binoculars

Perhaps I might glimpse a hand or a handkerchief

In this world

Waving at me

Take my photographs as I weep

Crouching in my tatters on the steps of the hotel

Write on the back of the picture

“This is a poet from the East.”

Spread your handkerchief on the pavement

And sit beside me under this tender rain  

Let me disclose to you a great secret:

“Go dismiss all your guides

Throw to the mud…to the fire

All the notes and impressions you’ve written

Any old peasant in this land

Can tell you with two verses from our sad ‘Ataba songs

All the history of the East

As he rolls his cigarette in front of his tent.”

            Muhammad Al-Maghut (1987)

Other good poems

“Arabic Coffee,” a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye

Favorite Poems

and the favorite poem of all poetry teachers:

Poems – “Finding Poems for my Students” by Mohja Kahf

 

 

 

I am pleased to announce that my chapter “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts” has been published

Risse, Marielle. 2020. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts.” Advancing English Language Education,  Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou (eds.). Dubai: Zayed University Press. 221-223.

“Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts” – This chapter focuses on a technique which increases students’ participation, creativity and analytical ability in literature and language classrooms. By teaching two texts in English together, one from a Western and one from a Middle Eastern culture, students can compare and contrast a familiar text to one that has new settings, themes, people and opinions. This analysis allows students to see how characters, leitmotifs and points of view can be both similar and different across cultures, and in turn improves students’ reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking abilities. As some teachers might be hesitant to use literature in a language classroom or be unfamiliar with texts from a different culture, this chapter gives several specific examples, in addition to explaining how to teach paired texts. When teachers overcome the fear of working with new texts, they can pass on their insights to students.

Click to access AELE_Book_ALLT_ZU_Web_V02.pdf