What Does It Take to Be a Cooking Teacher?

By Ellen Garcia
 

As part of my work with Leah’s Pantry, I teach classes on everyday nutrition and healthy cooking. I pick a healthy recipe that even the most inexperienced cook can make, demonstrate, and talk with participants about to set health goals. One of my favorite things about this work is that every class is different— I may show up to find a room packed with rambunctious elementary school kids, or veterans transitioning from homelessness, or Spanish-speaking moms. The groups may be big or small, chatty or quiet, knowledgeable or not. My job is to read the room and try to offer inspiration to whoever shows up.

            A particular group sticks out in my mind though, from one of my very first classes for Leah’s Pantry. A little over a year ago I found myself in front of a room of senior ladies, all originally from the Philippines or China, all living in kitchenless single-room units in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. I was there to teach the first in a six-class series. The ladies had just finished a coffee hour and a din of social chatter filled the air; this is usually a great sign for a new class. But as I set up my materials at the front of the room my participants quickly hushed. I turned around to see all 16 of them facing me, pens and notebooks in hand, expectantly (and quite seriously) staring at me with full attention. I joked that they all looked ready for my show to start. No one cracked a smile. You could have heard a pin drop, in fact. I had a feeling it would be a long 90 minutes.

            I learned long ago that if I can get even the shyest person to talk within the first 10 minutes of class, they will likely pipe up later. So I started this group with an icebreaker. I asked each participant to share their name, their favorite vegetable, and something they know how to cook whether they think it’s healthy or not.  First, an impeccable woman with cropped hair and rimless glasses described steaming a whole fish with vegetables and a homemade fermented bean paste in the Chinese tradition. This elicited nods of recognition and approval from the group. The next participant explained softly, but in great detail, her recipe for making Filipino pancit noodles for a large crowd. Again, this was met with nods. By the time we got to the third participant, who talked about making longanisa sausage from scratch, my heart sank. Suddenly the Americanized “Easy Fried Rice” recipe I planned to demo did not seem like such a good idea. What fake Asian food could I possibly teach these moms and grand moms? What could I teach them about cooking at all!??

            To be fair, the ladies were extremely patient with my recipe— its absurd lack of garlic, the chewy short-grain brown rice I substituted because it’s what I had on hand, my lack of technique while chopping a pineapple for garnish. They all tried the finished dish, quietly, some chewing a single rice grain at a time, faces resigned as if to say “Yeah it’s edible.” They were a little more impressed with my explanation of how leafy greens are a good source of calcium for people who don’t eat dairy. But for all the pristine new notebooks in the room, no one took many notes. And I realized with some alarm that, due to the lack of input from participants, my voice became hoarse from talking nonstop for over an hour. What’s worse I had run through most of the nutrition tips I’d planned to cover over a 6-week course. My only relief came at the very end of class when, having already decided to abandon my vegetable soup recipe for the following week, I announced we would instead be making handmade tortillas and salsa. Definitely something no one in this group had done before. The idea seemed to perk everyone up.

I continued this revised approach for the next five weeks: trying recipes that the ladies might find exotic even if they were exotic to me too, meanwhile explicating all related nutrition science in excruciating detail. Some recipes were successful; the ladies loved our tortilla-making party, as well as my spinach salad with quinoa in it. Other attempts, like smoothie week using berries from the SF Marin Food Bank, did not fare so well. This crowd was not ready for a drink with blueberries in it. Some were not ready for blueberries at all.

No matter what I did though, the ladies always had countless suggestions for similar dishes (usually more complicated and interesting than mine). Still, I was happy to prompt any discussion whatsoever. I remember one blissful 10-minute block during the 5th class when I did not have to do much talking at all. I had asked for suggestions on making canned soup healthier and the ladies busily exchanged ideas about which fresh vegetables worked well in recipes with canned soups, doing my work for me. This was a very fulfilling moment, but I did not get many of these. Mostly I felt like the ladies just politely hoped I’d eventually say something important.

            Imagine my surprise, then, when I showed up on the last week of class to a party in my honor. Several of the ladies had brought me gifts, including nuggets of homemade fermented bean paste presented in a tiny jar like gold nuggets. Another had made two types of empanadas for the group to share plus extra for me to take home. We spent 20 minutes posing for class photos, followed by photos of the ladies with me individually. One woman hugged me three times. It was a genuinely celebratory moment.

As I drove home that day, I felt humbled by the ladies’ generosity but also the realization that maybe I’d read this group wrong. I had assumed— like most beginning cooking and nutrition teachers I train for Leah’s Pantry— that my students expected me to be the expert in the room. So I had done what I had seen so many other teachers do in my life and attempted take total authority over my topic. But I doubted I had been successful in this case. So what had the ladies found to celebrate? I couldn’t escape the uncomfortable suspicion I’d gained way more cooking knowledge from the class than anyone else in the room. For example, I learned that the flavor of browned garlic does not permeate food the way the flavor of sautéed garlic does, but it leaves a much stronger aroma. Pancit is not a single dish but a more general term for noodle dishes, of which there are many varieties, and when chopping a fresh pineapple, take the skin off and then cut diagonal grooves all the way around the fruit. You not only get all the eyes out this way but create an artful pattern which looks, when sliced, almost like a sunburst. Was there anyone else in the room that had gained all that?

            Eventually it occurred to me that I’d been drawn to teaching— like many people— in hopes of sharing a topic I feel very smart about. I had taken this mission for granted. Others who fall into teaching for more practical reasons worry they cannot measure up to this mission and find it not-so-fulfilling. For example at Leah’s Pantry, when we offer group trainings to new cooking and nutrition teachers, we hear this a lot: I’m not ready to be in charge. I need more education to be convincing. These individuals often feel more comfortable delivering flat lectures on nutrition tips, or Powerpoints, or fact-laden handouts— even though they themselves do not enjoy these things.

            Perhaps we teachers would be better off thinking of ourselves not as experts, but as lifelong students of a topic we love. We model enthusiasm and inquiry hoping that these things might be contagious; knowing how to expertly chop a pineapple (or expertly do anything, for that matter) is optional. One measure of a successful class: whether students can actually teach it themselves at some point; like that magical 10-minutes I’d had in class when I didn’t have to speak at all.  

One particular gift I received during that last-day party in my class was a book of Filipino home cooking created by a friend of one of the participants. A short note was scribbled on the inside cover, along with the careful signatures of all 16 participants:

Dear Ellen, this cookbook is a small token of appreciation for all the new knowledge you have taught us. Maraming salamat!

I have to laugh about what “new knowledge” I offered these lifelong cooks, in spite of my best efforts. I had done a lot of talking it’s true. But I really doubt these ladies remembered my obscure facts at all, my nervous attempts to fill the quiet space, or— thankfully—how many foods I’d brought in they didn’t like, or that no matter what simple dish my “professional” self demonstrated for class, my prep table ended up looking like someone dropped a bomb on it. Ultimately I doubt these things made much impression on them. I think what lingered was what they learned in class as a whole: their shared response to shared experiences both neat and messy. And, possibly, having a good time. I believe now that my job, our job as cooking teachers and maybe as teachers in general, is simply to create space for that.