"So, do you understand why I sent you out of the room?"
"It's NOT FAIR! I didn't say 'Ewww!' I said, "Oooohhh!'"
His eyes are full of tears at the monumental injustice of this situation.
"Boris, I was standing right there; I heard you. The reason I make such a big deal about this is..."
"But it's NOT FAIR!!"
I break out the Stern Teacher Glare of Doom . Boris stops protesting and makes a lateral move to seething, sniffling resentment.
"As I was saying, the reason I make such a big deal about the whole 'Eww...' thing is that everyone around you is taking a big risk by trying something new and when you make fun of the food, it makes it harder for them to take a risk."
"But I DIDN'T!! I was just..."
"Boris, I'm going to interrupt you here. I'm not mad and you're not in trouble. My homeroom students are waiting to get into the room. I just want to make sure we understand each other."
"Do you want to argue with me or do you want a piece of candy?"
It's a tough choice, but after a second or two, he goes with the Turkish Delight.
That put me in a bit of a quandary.
As a morbidly obese, sports-phobic Social Studies teacher, I didn't really see how I was in any position to do much in the way of health-promotion. I certainly wasn't setting much of an example. And I really didn't see how I could gracefully integrate healthy lifestyle messages into my curriculum.
"And so, Class, we see how Tai Chi could have helped John Wilkes Booth channel some of that aggression into more productive choices..."
[As a side-note, over the years, I actually have been able to use John Wilkes Booth as a really interesting jumping-off point for a discussion of substance abuse, alcoholism and the spiral of bad decision-making that it leads to. Interesting how these things work out...]
On the other hand, I'm a big believer in using whatever gifts you have to meet challenges. What special assets did I have that I could bring to the table, health-education-wise?
After a really rolling it over in my head for awhile, I realized that what I did have was a passion for was food.
I cook. I eat. I watch far more on the Food Network than I should. I've been a food writer and was briefly the food editor at a newspaper. I know a lot about the history and nutritional background of a wide variety of exotic and really, REALLY interesting foods. I'm that guy who almost everyone avoids at pot-luck dinners.
There was potential there.
I started a program called Food of the Month. Once a month, the 6th grade students in our school come to my classroom, where I introduce them to a new food that few of them have heard of before and virtually none of them have eaten. I give them some background on the history and cultural context of the food, try to tie it into some bigger culinary or nutritional theme and tell them an interesting story about it.
And then we eat some.
I teach in a particularly white-bread community in a very white-bread state. New Hampshire is not exactly a seething hot-bed of cultural diversity. So it's pretty easy to come up with foods that seem exotic to our students. Coming up with exotic foods that are:
- just exotic enough to be interesting, but not so much that they are threatening
- inexpensive enough to pay for out of my pocket
- available in New Hampshire
- and that serve to teach a broader lesson
has been a little more challenging. I remember posting about this on an online food forum and getting responses like, "You should introduce them to duck confit." or "You should set up a wine tasting so they can start training their palates early." I realized early on that I was pretty much on my own, here.
In addition, because I happen to be a vegetarian, I make it a point make sure that all the food we try is meat-free. This serves a couple of purposes. It avoids the weird, "I dare you" aspect of exotic meats. It also helps give me a little credibility; I'd feel really hypocritical if I told the kids, "No, I won't eat this, but you totally should..."
Edamame - I use this as a way of discussing the role of protein in a balanced diet.
Jackfruit - An awesome, non-threatening, cool fruit that gets them excited about eating fruit.
Cheese Fondue - I use this as a way to discuss what cheese actually is, how it's made and some of the chemistry that goes into making and cooking it.
Pickles - a discussion of food preservation and how a lot of cuisines are built around keeping seasonal produce year-round. (We usually have pickled ginger, Indian mango pickles and something Polish during this tasting.)
Kheer (An Indian rice pudding) - This is an interesting way of introducing them to the fascinating and very, very complicated world of Indian cuisine. [Note - this is always very popular with the adults in the room. Not-so-much with the students.]
Mangos - Sometimes, it's just good to eat an awesome, delicious fruit. There are more than enough multi-cultural connections to mangos to make this worthwhile.
Kumquats - These are fun and let me discuss the value of Vitamin C in a diet. (Yes, we talk about scurvy.)
Matzo Balls - Leading up to the December holidays, I try to touch on Jewish culture a little by discussing Kosher dietary rules and how to read a label.
Plantain Chips - I use bananas as a way to discuss the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates and what a "Low Carb" diet means.
Sushi - I actually haven't done this one in several years, but it was a great way of discussing pre-conceptions. Sushi doesn't really refer to fish - raw or cooked - but the rice component of the dish. Vegetarian sushi is NOT a contradiction in terms. A few students told me that they talked their families into going out for sushi, which strikes me as a small victory for multi-culturalism.
Lychees - This is part of a presentation on looking beyond the Sweet and Sour section of the menu at a Chinese restaurant.
Turkish Delight - I use this as a way of discussing the role of aroma in tasting foods. This rose-flavored candy is always a huge hit. Many of them have heard about it through the Narnia books and movies, as well.
1) This is all "Challenge by Choice"; nobody has to try the food.
2) If someone tries the food and doesn't like it, they don't have to lie and pretend that it's wonderful.
3) What nobody is allowed to do is talk his or her friends out of liking it. No daring your friends to try this disgusting, weird food. No gagging sounds. No "Eww-ing"
Which brings us back to Boris.
But here's how I judge how successful Food of the Month has been:
An outraged, teary 6th grader considers it a miscarriage of justice that he can't get what everybody else gets - a chance to try weird, new foods.