In the fourth year of its existence, the “Tasting History” project has achieved more than planned. In December, the 2020-2021 edition received a Founders Award from The Readable Feast, an annual New England culinary book festival. This win led to a trial collaboration between the students and Lowell Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services. Once a month, a student body of 14,387 was served a recipe for lunch. The students now teach the adults.
“I want people to learn about our culture because we have a lot of cultural diversity here in the United States. If you share your food, your culture, your experience, you will introduce them to your country,” says Samantha Segura Marroquin, a 19-year-old senior from Guatemala who submitted a Christmas tamale recipe last year. Adds 18-year-old senior Jamilly Marques, who contributed a recipe for Brazilian-style hot dogs this year: “When [students] When they see your food, they see your country.”
The process, which ended last week, was a success and the collaboration will continue in the autumn. Some dishes have been so popular that Michael Emmons, the food service’s chef, is hoping to add them to a regular lunchtime rotation. Dishes like lok lak, a shiny peppered beef served with Cambodian salad, and feijoada, a black bean and pork stew served with white rice from Brazil.
Lowell Public Schools is an ideal setting for this partnership. The student body is diverse: Hispanic (37.7 percent), Asian (27.5 percent), White (22.9 percent), Black (7.7 percent), and Multi-racial (4.1 percent). At least 50 languages are spoken in high school. The four cookbooks reflect this range: 42 countries and one autonomous region are represented.
The cookbooks are the brainchild of Jessica Lander, 34, a creative English history and civics teacher who affectionately calls her students “kiddos.” Her work – which also includes educational policy discourse – has received numerous professional awards. She is also among the five finalists for the 2023 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. (Lander is a regular op-ed columnist for The Boston Globe.)
Lander entered Lowell High School in 2015 and two years later developed the cookbook project while conducting her US History 2 Seminar. The course covers the 1870s to the present day and includes an era when 20 million immigrants came to the United States.
While teaching immigration history, Lander realized that her students are experts on being immigrants themselves. She developed the cookbook to “honor their stories and show that their stories are valuable, just as important” as those in US history books. “I wanted to use food as a migration story,” she says.
Sometimes students had to call relatives in their home countries for help with recipes. You will learn to explain cooking techniques as well as ingredients that may be unfamiliar to others. Family stories introduce each dish. Edits go 15-20 rounds. The dishes are prepared at home and shared with the class.
Lander serves as photographer and editor. Publishing fees are collected through book sales; each costs $30. “Just as we study the stories of newcomers a hundred years ago, it is important that we study the stories of newcomers today,” Lander writes in the introduction to the latest book. “These young people are an important part of America’s future.”
When Alysia Spooner-Gomez, the district’s food service director, learned of the win last winter, she urged Emmons to tap into the cookbook because, she says, “doing nothing would be a waste.” (The Lowell Sun reported in January that the school committee had asked food services to develop a feedback program because of complaints from students and families about school meals over the years.)
Emmons, known to students and faculty as “Chef Mike,” joined the district last fall after a stint as sous-chef for Google in California. He endeavored to pay homage to the students’ recipes. “We wanted to be culturally responsive and take a step into another world,” he says.
Once a recipe is chosen, Emmons adjusts it for size and financial viability. He then takes it to Lander’s class for taste testing. Students are quick to tell Emmons when his early versions don’t meet their expectations. “Giving the kids a voice at mealtime is the most rewarding part of this project,” he says.
Spooner-Gomez prepares internal marketing with flyers about the student and his dish, then shares meal background with faculty. Lunch, like breakfast, is free in Lowell public schools as part of a federal program for low-income counties.
Lander’s students are impressed with the results. “I’m so excited that a lot of people like it,” says 18-year-old Junior Nempisey Pout, who submitted a Lok-Lak recipe. “The important thing is that I share my culture and Khmer food with students from other countries.”
Next spring, the Tasting History cookbooks will be part of a new third-grade social studies class called Lowell, Then and Now. Lander says the class will include videos of some high school students talking about their recipes and migration journeys.
The students’ own stories – through food – are now part of local history.
Peggy Hernandez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Peggy_Hernandez.