Blog Post

Dispatches From a FoodCorps Service Member: Teaching History Through Taste

Mar. 26, 2014

by Carly Chaapel, FoodCorps Service Member, Salem County Vo-Tech School and Rutgers Cooperative Extension

Carly Chaapel The bell sounds, my cue for any last minute preparations before a curious bunch of fourth graders eagerly bounces in for Spanish class. "Aww, yes!! What are we making this week?!" - a question often elicited by my purple FoodCorps tee. This marking period, Miss Martha Arrizon is taking full advantage of her art-room-turned-Spanish-class. What was once a fully functional home economics classroom, complete with oven, stove top, and sink, now serves as the perfect space for art projects - for the aspiring Picasos and Julia Childs alike.

I'm Carly, and this year I serve with FoodCorps here in my home countryside of beautiful southern New Jersey. As part of a nationwide team of leaders bringing real food education to communities in need, my office moves from schoolyard garden, to classroom, to cafeteria on a daily basis. Though the Salem County Career and Technical High School may be my home base, my service in Salem County extends into local primary schools as well. Here at Mannington Township Elementary School, the fourth grade students are diving right in to a series of Hispanic-inspired cooking classes.

I know what you're thinking. Wonderful! The kids are learning how to make salsa! And trust me, when the glorious summer sun returns to ripen our one-of-a-kind Jersey tomatoes on the vine, our students will be eating salsa for days. But in the dead of winter, Miss Martha has another plan. One that veers off the well-beaten path of tacos and into a world of truly authentic Hispanic cuisine.

Coming from Mexico with a passion for education with impact, Miss Martha prefers to teach the majority of her class in Spanish. Her fourth graders are absorbing vocabulary, pronunciation, and cultural lessons at an impressive pace, and when she heard about FoodCorps, Miss Martha seized the opportunity for the perfect partnership. "I don't cook, but I love to eat!" she exclaimed emphatically during our first meeting. "Excellent. You tell me what we're making and I'll help you teach it!"

And so began a series of food culture-inspired classes, in which the students not only taste, but also create, dishes from around the world. In the course of four weeks, we have traveled from Spain, to Mexico, to the Caribbean and El Salvador. Our class has tasted pickled cactus paddle (nopales) and cinnamon-spiced chocolate. We've hand-pressed our own pupusas (a Central American corn tortilla of masaharina flour), and we've mashed avocado with authentic molcajetes - the ancient mortar and pestle. We've read a Mexican story about eating cactus in winter when fresh vegetables are difficult to find, and we've learned about the nutritional components of each ingredient. Yes, please fill up on those protein-rich scrambled eggs with cactus, but go light on the churros... those are "treat" foods, everyone. The students have happily splashed their cactus and eggs with hot sauce, worked some muscle into their corn tortillas, and slurped their soy milk Mexican hot chocolate to the last drop. All of this with a contagious eagerness for the thrill of new flavors, and an appetite for "more of this class."

"Hey, what were you feeding those kids just now?" a curious school food director asks. "They came to lunch REALLY happy. Can we try some?" Absolutely. Yes!

A recipe for Pupusas con Queso:

2 cups masa harina (corn flour)

1 1/2 cups water

queso fresco , crumbled, or other shredded cheese

olive oil, for frying

beans and salsa, for serving

Mix 2 cups masa with 1 cup water in a medium bowl. Add more water until the dough just sticks together when squeezed. Form a ball of dough in your palm and press into a flat cake. Add cheese on top and fold dough over, re-flattening your tortilla. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil into a nonstick pan over medium heat. Pan fry your pupusas until lightly browned on both sides. Serve with warm beans and salsa of your choice.

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