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New class has students cooking up literature

Michelle Tse, Sammy Woldeab, Chef Joshna Maharaj, Jeremy Friendmann and Natalie Garriga. (Photo by Diana Tyszko)

Fourth-year English University of Toronto students are taking their appetite for literature to a whole new level with a course called Cook the Books. They are studying literature that observes and celebrates food and then cooking dishes inspired by their readings in the Hart House kitchen.

Professor Andrea Most paired up with Joshna Maharaj, a local chef, to design the curriculum for the year. Most will run the English literature side, while Maharaj will take charge in the kitchen. The goal is to examine food in literature in three ways: esthetic (it tastes good, beautiful), ethics (is ethically okay) and health (is good or bad for you). The readings will reflect those themes, asking questions about body image, what constitutes health or taste, how food has changed through literature over time and more.

As for time in the kitchen, each week a group will come up with a dish that tastes good, consider the sourcing of the ingredients and whether it's a health or ethical concern. "We need the experience to really come to life for the students and not just be the book says this or you're going to cook this or you're going to eat this. There's going to be a lot of thought about the context in which people are eating," said Maharaj.

One week focused on hunger, so the group experimented with cooking knowing ingredients were in scarce supply. An upcoming week will feature Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, during which the class will learn about factory-made food and related ethical concerns, as well as the concepts of luck and access.

Natalie Garriga was part of a group to cook a dish based on Babette's Feast in early October. "I love the course. I was excited when I found out they offered it here because it's not a course that's usually offered at university. The cooking is really fun. I'’s hands-on and interactive, and I feel like you can get to know the professor and students a lot better," she said as she was in the kitchen preparing a feast of bread, soup, pancakes and stew.

Most and Maharaj also hope that the students will come away from the class with basic skills such as preparing and serving food, as well as learning the intimacy of shared food by sitting around tables together. "They're often eating in class, but they're not supposed to be!" laughed Most. "Now they'll be facing each other and talking to each other. This is going to be different."

"I can't wait to see what unfolds," said Maharaj. "I think that learning how to cook is much more inspiring and exciting when you get some of the big ideas about food with it. The literature does such a beautiful job of positioning food and food ideas in a context that lets you get really caught up if you open yourself up to it. I hope at some point in the semester, something magical happens for every one of those students."