Going retro with assignments from older non-textbooks gives students a break from virtual learning and inspires a new generation of readers.
By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
It is incredible to believe, but it is true. Exactly one year ago my article in the Gold Medal Classroom was Modernizing Curriculum Requires Change. Even more difficult to believe is I started with a riddle, which at the time was accurate but not appropriate now: “How many culinary instructors does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer: Change? CHANGE? We don’t change!”
Much has been written about how we teachers need to get high tech to teach our classes in the current paradigm. I am going to suggest instead—once in a while—you go retro. Go back to having your students read books.
There are several reasons for this:
- Video conference burnout is well documented for everyone including your students. You both need a break from staring at the computer screen. Reading a book (and yes, I know your students may have to do this online) is a welcome break from virtual classes for you and them.
- If your students go on after high school, they will have more and more book learning to do. They need to get into the habit of reading instead of just glancing over brief online articles with many having questionable accuracy and authority.
So, what I suggest is you have your students start reading and discussing culinary books.
Consider these 10 culinary book categories
- Recipe books are fine, particularly books such as “Joy of Cooking” that have explanations, notes, and comments for each section. For example, you could have a student read about vegetables or legumes (pages 276 and 286 respectfully of the 1975 edition) and make a presentation to the class or have them make a few samples demonstrating to the class what they learned.
- Old recipe books are even better. Libraries, bookstores, second-hand stores, etc. often have old books that are amazing to look through. My wife loves picking these up for me at yard and estate sales. One of my favorites is the 1944 edition of “A Selection of Dishes and the Chef’s Reminder” which is a mid-20th Century “Food Lover’s Companion.” The beauty of these books is no matter what you or your students find, it will be fun and different to read.
- Pick up old versions of modern cookbooks. When the shelter in place began, I used older editions of “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook” from 1972. Since it was older—with older recipes—the recipes required fewer ingredients than most modern cookbooks. And, when we couldn’t get yeast and had to ration flour, I made a lot of flat breads, quick breads and corn breads from this source. Other fun books include older editions of “Joy of Cooking,” “Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” and “Better Homes Cookbook.”
- Chef and food celebrity biographies are interesting. Much has been written about Julia Child. Of course, Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” is a bit old now, but your students need to understand this book was one of the key factors that rocketed cooking into the top of pop culture. One of my personal favorites is “Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stove” by Chef Jeff Henderson. Chef Jeff went from being the number one crack dealer to the first African American Executive Chef in Las Vegas to having a series of television shows starting with a show on the Food Network. He now lectures about turning your life around. Another favorite of mine is “Yes Chef: A Memoir,” by Marcus Samuelson.
- Books about food history and how the history of the world was altered by food. When you think about food, you don’t usually think about history. However, much has been written about how one influenced the other. For example, see Reay Tannahill’s “Food in History” or “Edible History of Humanity” by Tom Standage. This book category is unlimited. Have your students pick a country or a time in history in which they are interested and find a book. Have your students give presentations to the class.
- Regional cuisines are often popular subjects for books. I tend to pick up one for each area I go to when I attend a CAFÉ conference. I have books on Miami, Carolina Low Country, multiple books on New Orleans, Scandinavia, and countless issues on Hawaii. Want something a little more exciting? Alton Brown wrote “Feasting on Asphalt” about his team’s adventures riding motorcycles across the United States. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t go there, you can be an armchair traveler.”
- Fun books about cooking or chefs. For example, “Don’t Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs” by Kimberly Witherspoon, which is a collection of short stories of famous chefs recounting their largest disaster or misadventure in the kitchen. Another one in this category is “Beef Stew for 2500: Feeding Our Navy from the Revolutionary War to the Present” by Rudy Shappee about cooking on board ships in the United States Navy.
- Alton Brown and others have written books on more modern and edgy ways to prepare good classics and to use kitchen equipment differently. See “I’m Just Here for the Food” and “Gear for Your Kitchen.”
- A bit more edgy and controversial for your class are books about modern ideological or political issues in food such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, “Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir” published just last year by Chef Kwame Onwuachi, or “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal” by Tristram Stuart.
- The sky is the limit for you and your imagination on books for category 10.
Now that I have whetted your appetite (pardon the food analogy) for having your students read all or parts of books for their school assignments, let me give you a lesson plan example.
Sample lesson plan based on Paul Freedman’s “Ten Restaurants that Changed America”
First, divide your students into 10 groups. You can reference the article, 50 Minute Classroom: Picking Teams for ideas. Then, assign each group a different restaurant in “Ten Restaurants that Changed America.”
Tell your class before they read a chapter, they need to understand the book is not a cookbook although the book has a limited number of recipes. Explain they are reading the book as a study in the sociology of restaurants and cultures and how dining at all levels has evolved in the United States.
Explain that each chapter of the book (and they only need to do one) is to make them think about why and how food changed society and how society and history have changed food and the role of cooks, chefs and restaurant owners.
For example, why has Italian cuisine been able to go high end while, with limited exceptions, Asian cuisine hasn’t? Why was French cuisine the leader of fine dining in the United States and now almost all US French restaurants are only French Bistro style? Why did Delmonico’s have its own farms in 1834 yet we thought it was so revolutionary when the French Laundry had its own garden in 1994?
And, consider some chefs who are respecting animals when they claim they are now using all or most of the animal. However, their restaurants seldom feature organ meat on the menu when, paradoxically, organ meats were featured on menus of the best restaurants in the United States from the early 1800s through the early 1900s. Why do we still feel that women want to eat differently than men? That idea began only about 100 years ago as a marketing idea for a New York restaurant chain which has long been closed because women lost interest in eating there.
Have the student-team make a presentation to you or to the class. Presentations could include one or more of the following:
- A short-written book report or book review of the assigned chapter/restaurant.
- A PowerPoint presentation about the chapter/restaurant.
- A video preparing food based on something they read in the book or making a dish from a chapter recipe.
- A video of the group with each team member reading his or her favorite section.
- Prepare a video or presentation for Instagram, YouTube or TikTok. (Of course, follow all your school’s requirements on asking students to post on social media.)
You can vary the assignment by allowing students to pick their own reading. It doesn’t really matter how or what you do to get non-textbooks back into your classroom.
In closing, bringing back books to your classes with will help improve your students’ academic life, you will give them a break from videos and virtual learning, you will inspire a new generation to read and your students will learn how and why we are where we are as a country in our culinary history.
(Author’s Note: If you are looking for a way to start your classes online in a few weeks, look at A First Day Game for you to use. The game could easily be played online and is a great way for students who don’t know each other to get acquainted in a virtual classroom.)
Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 16 years.