You’d be remiss if you called this a cooking class.
Students wash their hands as instructors pass out cutting boards, knives, and ingredients for today’s lesson in food and culture, one segment of teacher Andrew Margon’s year-long food education course, at the High School for Environmental Studies in New York City.
At the front of the classroom, Chef Carolina Mendez from La Morada, a Oaxacan restaurant in the Bronx, heats up a tortilla in a pan. It’ll serve as the base for tlayudas, a sort of traditional Mexican pizza, which Mendez has come to teach the students to cook.
A few feet away, Mendez’s sister Yajaira bounces Carolina’s infant daughter, who is preoccupied with a stuffed avocado toy, on her hip. But while food makes an obviously enticing centerpiece for this class’s curricula, taught in partnership with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, it’s only about half an hour before the tlayudas take a back seat to the real lesson: a robust discussion about migration, heritage, and life as a chef.
The students sit attentively, asking questions about how the sisters’ life stories became intertwined with restaurant ownership, and wondering how their own interests might help them to make a living as cooks or restaurateurs someday. One student raises a hand. “I’m starting to think about college,” she says. “I feel like I have two interests that don’t go together, psychology and cooking. What advice would you give to me?”
“Those things do go together,” Carolina says. “Imagine needing to treat a patient with PTSD from crossing the border. Imagine being able to help that person cook food from their hometown. Imagine what type of comfort you could bring by helping them prepare something that reminds them of home.”
The sisters also stress the importance of using food as an anchor to strengthen ties with family and community.
“Part of being native and indigenous is reclaiming our food, saying what’s ours so others won’t take it,” Yajaira says. “Things you learn about food from your ancestors are as important as things you learn from someone with a Ph.D.”
The family story behind La Morada parallels the themes these students have devoured over the past few weeks. How might personal identity influence their impact in the food system, for instance? Next, they’ll learn about food’s intersection with the environment, followed by its clashes with power.
We observed the class as part of a larger survey The New Food Economy is undertaking on the state of food education in America’s schools, how it can be expanded to more classrooms, and adapted based on geography and demographics. What follows are the most striking and memorable moments we saw in food ed at this New York City high school.