Food Is Connected to Everything: A Syllabus for a Self-Guided Food Writing Course

In October-November 2019, I taught a four-week class called “Food Is Connected to Everything: Writing the Culinary Essay” at the UA Poetry Center. One of my goals in teaching this course was to create a free, online curriculum for other people interested in food writing, especially those of us who want to read work by writers coming from perspectives–queer, POC, working class, formerly-incarcerated, and many more–traditionally marginalized within the genre. What follows is a version of that original curriculum, with some changes: pieces only available in print have been swapped out for those available online, and I’ve added additional readings that I wanted to incorporate originally, but couldn’t squeeze into the class. The curriculum includes readings, as well as exercises inspired by the readings, which you can use to craft your own writing about cooking, culinary memories, plate politics, and foodways. ❤

Class 1: Culinary Memories

Readings:

“Orange Crush,” by Yiyun Li
“The Food of My Youth,” by Melissa Chadburn
“Skin” by Jessica Rae Bergamino

Writing Exercises:

  • Write about a childhood food memory, as Li and Chadburn do. (You can use a prompt Marc McLemore of AZPM once gave me–“Tell me about one food you loved as a child that you can’t get anymore”–to get started.)
  • Write a scene where you’re preparing a dish. Taking a cue from Bergamino, braid this scene with memories that are related to that dish and (if applicable) who taught you to make it.

Class 2: Essaying Foodways

Readings:

“I Had Never Eaten in Ghana Before. But My Ancestors Had.,” by Michael Twitty
“Salt of the Earth” by Ronni Lundy
“Sugartime,” by Ruby Tandoh
“Sentences That End with Food” by Joe Watson
“How–And Why–Did Fruitcake Become a Slur?” by Mayukh Sen

Writing Exercises:

  • Like Tandoh, a baker, does in “Sugartime” and Lundy does in “Salt of the Earth,” choose a single dish or ingredient that is important to your family (given, chosen, or otherwise), culture, or identity. Write a short essay about that dish or ingredient, weaving together your own memories and family history (as Lundy does) or research from other fields (as Tandoh does) with the history of that dish/ingredient.
  • Twitty’s “I Had Never Eaten in Ghana Before. But My Ancestors Had.” unpacks history and ancestry, but is set within a specific experience—a trip to Ghana, which included a day cooking at a chop bar. Write a scene recounting a food-related experience you’ve had, adding in political context and history.
  • Describe a unique, unexpected, or overlooked kitchen like the ones Watson writes about in “Sentences That End with Food.”

Class 3: Reportage and Reviews

Readings:

“Meeting Bill Fujimoto” by Sam Nakahira
“Crullers That Bloom in Spring,” by Jonathon Gold
“Displaced Hunger” by John Washington
“No I Won’t Cut You a Smaller Slice of Cake” by Virgie Tovar
“The Chili Queens of San Antonio” by the Kitchen Sisters

Writing Exercises:

  • Write an essayistic restaurant review, as Gold does in “Crullers That Bloom in Spring.”
  • Taking inspiration from Tovar and Washington, write a piece that uses food to advocate for something that’s important to you.
  • Write (or draw!) an article about someone that inspires you, as Nakahira does in “Meeting Bill Fujimoto.”

Class 4: Fiction & Poetry

Readings:

“Men Paid Me To Eat,” Natalie Lima
“Arabic Coffee” by Naomi Shihab Nye
“Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo
“Baked Goods” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Writing Exercises:

  • Write a story in which food plays an unexpected role, as it does in Lima’s “Men Paid Me To Eat.”
  • Write a love poem–whatever that means to you–that centers around food, much like “Baked Goods” and “Arabic Coffee” do. Don’t be afraid to add in unexpected twists, like the rats in “Baked Goods.”
  • Taking inspiration from Harjo, write a poem or prose piece about your kitchen table and everything that has happened around it.

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Photo by Anna Sullivan

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