Feasting on Food For Thought: Curriculum of Culture, Place and Relationships by Allison Eagon

Feasting on Food For Thought: Curriculum of Culture, Place and Relationships by Allison Eagon

Internationalization of Curriculum Studies, Week 2. Theme: Mexican.

I rush around in a panic on Wednesday afternoon, trying to decide what Mexican dish I can bring to class that evening. A Google search of “Mexican recipes” returns pages upon pages of results, ensuring authentic traditional and modern Mexican dishes, including ones hailing from Canadian Living magazine. Finally, I settle on a recipe for churros that looks easy enough and set to it. A few hours later, after puffing up four flights of stairs, I enter class and tentatively place my Tupperware container on the designated table. It is adorned with a plethora of tortilla chips and assorted dips. Is this an authentic representation of Mexican cuisine, I wonder? What about the following week, when Mohammed generously provides a full dinner in accordance with the evening’s theme of Pakistani food. Is this authentic? The weeks progress and as we explore the different culinary themes I continue to ponder if food can be connected with authentic representations of culture.

Fast forward to Week 5, when the theme is “100 Mile Diet”, and the sharing of food in class highlights another connection: this time between food and place. So often, it is easy to get caught up in believing that our food comes from the grocery store, until we are presented with the challenge of providing food that has been grown and produced within 100 miles of here. Luckily it was still early October and pies and apples dominated the table. This lack of variety is perhaps an indication of the challenge of the assignment, causing me to reflect on the nature of our relationship with food and where it comes from.

As week after week went by, I began to think that this sharing of food succeeded in not only alleviating our hunger but also in connecting use with one another. Every class the camaraderie around the food table grew. We appreciated one another for the different interpretations of the theme, for the generous contributions and, for the chats and laughter had around the table. The epitome of these developing relationships came last week, when upon viewing a delicious looking potato salad, Nisha immediately exclaimed, “This must be Doreen’s!” This ability to anticipate what had come from others, as well as to share stories and experiences with classmates around this food is indicative of the strong connection that exists between food and relationships.

Exploring food from a narrative perspective has aided in transforming the everyday and mundane into an autobiographical technology to disrupt, provoke and complicate the usual dinner table conversation. Examining food through an international curriculum lens has rendered it malleable and uncertain. By deconstructing it, food has become more than sustenance, more than a basic survival need, even more than a delectable treat. By trying to perceive food as global connector, relating it to culture, to place and to relationships, this food has become “worldly”, situated within the global text. In this context, it is to be read, to be consumed and to be digested (Miller, 2005). Using food as a curriculum through which to challenge “representations of content, self, and other” has caused me to re-imagine and re-conceptualize my relationship with what I eat (Miller, 2005, p. 247).

We Are What We Eat

Food can be negotiated as a cultural representation through which authenticity and otherness can be explored. Everyone holds preconceived and stereotypical views about what other cultures consume. Sushi is associated with the Japanese, guacamole with Mexicans, curry with Indians, haggis with Scottish, tea with the British, maple syrup with Canadians and the list goes on. Often times, entire cultures are narrowed down into a single story. One food item becomes synonymous with an entire culture. This notion of food as cultural representation creates a cultural identity based on a specific food. Drawing on Hall’s (1990) theory of representation, identity is considered “as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (p. 222). The representation of this identity, insofar as food is concerned, is in constant flux. Given the interaction between cultures, and the incorporation of the Exotic Other and its foods into cultures worldwide, cultural identity in relation to food is simply a snapshot representation of the culture as a whole. This view of representation, however, “problematises the very authority and authenticity to which the term, ‘cultural identity’, lays claim” (p. 222). Representation contradicts the notion of one culture, one identity, and replaces it with a shifting and mutable construction of culture and identity.

When viewing food and cultural identity as a representation, rather than as something fixed and static, its authenticity is called into question. Thomas King highlighted the futility of the search for an “authentic Indian”, not “because it had vanished, but because it had changed” (p. 57). This can be applied to the search for an authentic cultural food. The world is no longer geographically isolated, leading to foods being disconnected from the local and introduced globally. There has been a blending of “authentic” cultural foods, such that a specialty previously unique to one culture may now be found in many different cultures. As evidenced by our sharing of food according to theme each week in class, the lines of distinction are often blurred. Not only are foods, at one time “authentic” representations of particular cultures (sushi and Japanese, for example) readily available in Canada, but the same foods find their way onto the table for a multitude of themes. Hummus, breads, coffee and more have found their way into class week after week, regardless of the international theme. Ingredients and culinary practices previously unique to one culture are being increasingly incorporated into other cultural cuisines. Therefore, it forces one to critically examine if food authenticity in fact exists, or if it would be more appropriately entitled ‘food history’. What used to be authentic in one setting, and what is often considered to be an ‘authentic’ representation of a culture’s food, may in fact be what the culinary cultural representation was in the past but is no longer in the present. It seems likely the “authenticity of this Other…is established against a standard constructed outside the Other’s own culture” leading to misrepresentations about cultural cuisines (Heldke, p.44). Minh-ha (1989) shares her experiences with these notions of authenticity and Otherness by confessing that

Now, I am not only given permission to open up and talk, I am also encouraged to express my difference…We did not come to hear a Third World member speak about the First World, we came to listen to that voice of difference…to divert us from the monotony of sameness. They…whose specialty it is to detect all the layers of my falseness and truthfulness, are in a position to judge what/who is ‘authentic’ and what/who is not” (p. 14).

In relation to food, the notion of authenticity is problematic for making “judgments about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of various cooking and eating practices. It rests upon the assumption that cultures exist in isolation from one another” (Heldke, p. 42). As this is an unrealistic assumption, interactions between cultures will continue to cause the identity, and in essence, the authenticity of foods to mutate and shift. Asking questions about our own motives and experiences with the Exotic Other, authenticity and cultural representations, and trying to conceptualize food from this perspective opens up a space for a complicated conversation. Food, in this context, is no longer simply nourishment, but a part of who we are and constantly contributing to who we will be in the future.

A Place at the Table

Considering that we are what we eat, we are living an embodied food curriculum that leads one to question the relationality between that body and the land. There seems to be a growing disconnect between ourselves and the land that sustains us. Where once it was common to know exactly where your food came from, these localized experiences are becoming increasingly rare in our globalized world. Though this connection may appear to be weakening, it does not mean that it is disappearing altogether. Place figures prominently in all of our personal landscapes and now the challenge is to determine what is appropriate to do in that place. It is important to be cognizant of a curriculum of place, a construct whereby “the activities in which we engage children are the very activities they need to dwell in this place, to be nourished by the place and to nourish it” (Chambers, p. 120). When considering food as curriculum, it is essential to consider food in relation to place. This relates to where food is grown and produced, but also to where, how and under which circumstances and representations it is consumed.

Having grown up in downtown Ottawa, one could argue that I lack a connection to the place where my food comes from. My rural dwelling cousins would agree with that opinion, especially during the days of our childhoods, when they thought it was funny to trick the “city girl”. This included everything from daring me to touching an electric fence to urging me to bring a cow skull we found to Show and Tell at my kindergarten class, after convincing me that it was from a dinosaur. These experiences, and more, brought my ignorance of farming into sharp and often painful acuity. I would beg to differ, however, for one does not need to grow up in the great outdoors to understand how things grow into the food we eat. Certainly it is important to realize that there are large scale farming operations and that it is indeed farmers who feed cities, however, I feel that even in my urban landscape, I forged an early connection to place in relation to food. I was lucky that my family had a large backyard garden with a variety of edible “crops”. I remember picking and eating both tomatoes and green beans, not even bothering to rinse them off. I would chew on mint leaves and devour miniature strawberries. My favourites, however, were fiddleheads. These tightly coiled “baby ferns” grew in abundance around our back fence, and every spring, my sister and I would wait excitedly for the day when they were ready to pick. When the occasion would at last arrive, we would snap the fiddleheads off the stalks and soak them in water. Excitedly, we would await that evening’s dinner, when they would be served, boiled and flavoured with a splash of lemon juice. As a child, I don’t remember liking any food as much as fiddleheads. This may seem unlikely as they taste remarkably similar to spinach, the known adversary of children everywhere. These may have tasted so good to me because of the funny name or because I did genuinely like the flavor. Most likely, however, I found them absolutely delicious because I had watched them grow and harvested them myself.

Some researchers are very interested in using food and agriculture as a method of reconnecting children to place. In his research, Wynne Wright (2006) uses the idea of ‘civic agriculture’ defined as the “emergence and growth of community-based agriculture and food production activities that not only meet consumer demands for fresh, safe and locally produced foods, but create jobs, encourage entrepreneurship, and strengthen community identity” (p. 226). Using this definition of civic agriculture, Wynne Wright concentrates on how food is embedded in place, considering food to be “simply the lens which I used to integrate students into local and global communities and engage them in communities of place” (p. 225). Food, in this case, is being used as a method to reconnect people with place.

Soul Food

Given the central role it plays in all of our lives, culturally and individually, the food that we eat engages us with our surrounding world and shapes our experiences with this lived curriculum and with each other. Often, experiences surrounding food are about more than just nourishment. Springgay (2009) introduces us to Borsato’s performance art project of cooking with her aunts, where her attention shifts

… from “learning to cook” a prescriptive curriculum based on recipes, organized procedures, and particular ingredients, towards a bodied curriculum situated in the everyday, where bodied encounters become the performance. Although a passion for food brought the women together, it was the relationality of bonding, of conversation, and of the incompleteness of the event that constitutes it as a bodied curriculum. (p.32)

The concept of a bodied curriculum through such performances reminds me of living in a large house with six other girls during my undergraduate degree. One evening, bored while her dinner was cooking, one of my housemates sat down in front of the TV and switched on the Food Network. Soon after, we were all gathering daily to watch our favourite shows. As university students, we lacked the money for fancy ingredients. We had a typical student housing kitchen with the world’s oldest appliances and hand-me-down pots and pans. This led us to be ill-equipped to try many of the recipes we saw demonstrated. However, none of this mattered, for these shared experiences were less about the techniques we were learning and experimenting with and more about our interactions with one another. Through watching these shows and cooking together, we developed a tradition which lasted for the three years we lived together. Our many culinary adventures, from simulating our own Iron Chef challenges to attempting to make homemade strawberry jam, came to be about more than the food. I still remember our “kitchen talks” fondly, as it was in that room, and over dinner preparations, that our interactions with one another turned us from housemates into best friends. Like Borsato, although it was a passion for the food that was bringing us together, it was the bonding, the conversation and the event in and of itself that made it special and situated us in a position to live an embodied food curriculum in relation to others.

In addition to the use of food to form bonds of friendship, it can also serve to strengthen familial connections. In their research on the use of food (specifically salad recipes) to engage students with a science unit on plants, Barton and Tan (2009) found that through sharing their recipes, and “embedded within the science talk about salads were deeper connections to family traditions and histories” (p.57). Like many of my feelings when thinking about food in connection with family, “the family funds that students specifically drew from in this study revolved around family life involving food such as birthday celebrations, everyday nutritional habits and specific roles students play in their family related to food preparation” (p.57). Cwiertaka (2006) also finds a strong connection between food and family relationships. In her analysis of soy sauce in Korea, she became aware of a relationship between home-made soy sauce (chang) and family connection. ”Because the taste of Korean dishes largely depends on the taste of chang,” she explains, “each household’s home cooking acquired its own distinctive flavour through the use of sauces. Consuming the same chang created a bond among family members” (p. 391). Through these examples, food is seen to be able to establish a powerful connection between family members. The use of food to connect students with science, or simply the act of creating a home-made soy sauce, served the deeper purpose of connecting families beyond place and into an embodied and familial space.

Food unearths a passion within all of us, as it is so deeply connected with our most primal needs. More than survival, it is bound to culture, place, friends and family. The power of food extends to cultural representations, where it calls into question the authenticity of cultural experiences and identities. Food does, however, create a space in which to live an embodied curriculum, tied to the land and to each other. Using narrative inquiry to examine my relationship with food has led me to uncover these connections but has also led me to question the many other representations food might hold for different people and in different places. By trying to examine food from the perspective of international curriculum studies, I feel that I have been led to my own backyard. For me, the meaning of a food curriculum is:

A large pine table, made by my grandfather that sits in the middle of the screened-in porch at my cottage. The night is warm and there is a slight breeze wafting through the screens. The table is heaped with barbecued meats, fresh summer vegetables and a few bottles of wine. Everyone crowds around the long, banquet table, twenty seven of us altogether. Tonight’s meal is shared among aunts, uncles, parents, siblings, boyfriends, girlfriends, daughters, sons, cousins, grandparents; family. The plates and glasses are filled and we sit down to enjoy the feast and to enjoy each other. It is true that food has the potential to divide and to “other”, however it is through its abilities to reconcile, to connect and to nourish your soul that its true power is served.


Barton, A. C. & Tan, E. (2009). Funds of Knowledge and Discourses and Hybrid Space. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1), pp.50-73.

Chambers, C. (2006). Where are we? Finding Common Ground in a Curriculum of Place. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 6 (2), pp.113-128.

Cwiertaka, K. (2006). The Soy Sauce Industry in Korea: Scrutinizing the Legacy of Japanese Colonialism. Asian Studies Review, 30(4), pp. 389-410.

Hall, S. (1990). Cultural Identity and Diaspora in J. Rutherford (ed.), Identity, Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Heldke, L. (2003). Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer. New York: Routeledge.

King, T. (2003). The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Chapter 2). Toronto, ON: Anansi Press Inc.

Miller, J. (2005). Sounds of silence breaking: women, autobiography and curriculum, (Chapter 16). New York, New York: Peter Lang.

Minh-ha, T.T. (1989) .Woman, Native, Other. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Springgay, S. & Freeman, D. (2009). M/othering a Bodied Curriculum Sleeping with Cake and Other Touchable Encounters. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 25(2), pp.25-37.

Wynne Wright, D. (2006). Civic Engagement through Civic Agriculture: Using Food to Link Classroom and Community. Teaching Sociology, 34, pp. 224-235.