Home Cooking

Writing about food can help students feel "at home"

By Linda Christensen

Food is not just a commodity to be picked, packed, and traded on the stock exchange. Often, food connects us to our heritage and our homes. Most families have “traditional” foods prepared for celebrations. For some this might be lefse and lutefisk, for others it might mean sweet potato pie or Grandma’s famous green bean casserole. The food poem provides a connection between classroom and home as students share poems about food they love or foods that make them feel “at home.”

Matzo Balls
Grandma’s hands,
wise, soft, and old,
mold the Matzo meal
between the curves of each palm.
She transforms our heritage
into perfect little spheres.
Like a magician
she shapes our culture
as our people do.
This is her triumph.
She lays the bowl aside
revealing her tired hands,
each wrinkle a time
she sacrificed something for our
—Sarah LePage

Indian Kitchen
The sounds and smells
have been with me since birth.
Curries and soups.
Chicken to eggplant.
Cabbage to potatoes
My mom stirring,
a new and better smell
with every stroke.
A whole herbal garden rising
up from the pot.
Curry on the stove and
rice or roti on the other.
The splashing, sizzling sounds of
fresh vegetables as they hit the
bottom of the steaming pan.
The smell of curry powder.
The scent of spicy peppers
punctures the clouds of steam.
The curry presses against my tongue
a hundred different flavors jump
toward me at once.
The last bite leaves me wanting more.
—Frances Ram

Read the two poems “Matzo Balls” and “Indian Kitchen” with students. I point out that Sarah LePage’s poem is about a food, but it is also about her grandmother making the food; she makes an explicit connection to her heritage. Frances Ram’s poem, on the other hand, celebrates the food itself — the smell, the taste, the sound. He names the dishes, using a list — which I point out is a valuable literary tool. (Teachers may also want to read Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes” or “Ode to Maize“. I use a version of Neruda’s Book of Odes, which has both the original Spanish as well as the English translation. I have students read the poetry in both languages. In a small way, this validates students who speak Spanish as well as locating writing in the broader linguistic world. I encourage students who speak more than one language to use their home language in their poetry. For younger students, I use Pat Mora’s book My Own True Name and Gary Soto’s Neighborhood Odes.)

Ask students to list foods that connect them to their families or homes. These might be “heritage” foods, but beware that some students don’t feel they have “heritage” foods because they aren’t connected to their family’s roots. Assure them that any food that conjures up home and love counts. My student, Sam Jackson, wrote about his mother’s chocolate chip cookies, and Jenelle Yarbrough wrote an “Ode to Kool Aid” and the summer memories it inspired.

Ask students to choose one food from their list and quick write a memory about that food: Who makes it? When and where is it eaten? Or ask them to write favorite memories connected with the food. Watermelon, for example, reminds me of my mother eating thick slices over the kitchen sink, juice dripping down her arms; it also reminds me of summer picnics at Swimmer’s Delight and how as soon as we set up our picnic site, my father buried the watermelon in the Van Duzen River to keep it cold.

Once students have some memories and details about the food, invite them to close their eyes and remember the smell, sound, and taste of the food the way Frances did in “Indian Kitchen.” I turn off the lights during this activity, and when I turn the lights back on, I ask the students to write as many details from their visualizations as they can capture.

Now, students are ready to create a poem. I remind them that poems sometimes have repeating lines or repeating words or lists — like “Indian Kitchen.”

Once students have written their poems, invite them to share their poems with the class. (See “Read around” in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up.)

Linda Christensen (lchrist@aol.com) is the author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up and an editor of Rethinking Schools.