Meal prep underway during one of the Edible Alphabet classes at the Culinary Literacy Center. Courtesy of the Nationalities Service Center

Public programs like Edible Alphabet at the Free Library of Philadelphia use cooking classes to teach new skills and celebrate heritage.

Last February, twelve women walked into the kitchen on the fourth floor of the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. They came from many countries; all were survivors of torture. That day, they were attending a cooking class.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Elizabeth Fitzgerald, administrator at the Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Center. She’d been contacted by the Nationalities Service Center, a local organization that helps recent immigrants and refugees settle in after arriving in Philadelphia. The organization asked her to help organize a cooking class for their women’s group.

“All I could think was, I don’t know what their English language abilities are, and we’re going to be talking about how to julienne vegetables,” Fitzgerald tells CityLab.

Her concerns were unfounded. “By and large, they really knew their way around the kitchen,” she says. She watched them perform cuts she couldn’t do; by the end of it, they were sharing photos of their children and grandchildren.

Amazing ESL class this morning with wonderful women from around the world.

A photo posted by Free Library of Food (@freelibrarycook) on

Around that time, the Free Library had been approached by a funder interested in supporting English as a Second Language programs for new Americans. They’d been collaborating on ideas, Fitzgerald says. The class with the refugee women gave her a new one. “My expectations for what that kind of program could look like had completely shifted,” Fitzgerald says.

In conjunction with the Nationalities Service Center, the Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Center set up an ongoing six-part series, officially launched last July, which blends ESL programming with lessons in how to navigate cooking and grocery shopping in America. Since its inception, the program has welcomed 22 participants from 12 countries, who between them spoke 10 different languages.

Called Edible Alphabet, the program is by no means a basics course. “The people who take these classes are not coming in without a baseline knowledge of cooking,” Fitzgerald says. But many have arrived from countries where there is no equivalent of the American grocery store; there’s no place to buy asparagus, for instance, year-round. Measurements also pose a challenge; the United States is the only country in the world that doesn’t use the metric system.

Edible Alphabet, NPR reports, provides a common ground for different cultures to learn from each other. While measurements and ingredients may differ, the warmth associated with cooking remain the same across borders.

A troubling history

Such skills-based assimilation programs, says the Columbia Teacher’s College professor Hope Leichter, encapsulate how community efforts to educate new arrivals to America have evolved since the early 20th century.

The “Americanization movement” of 1915 was born out of a widespread panic at both the rate and variety of immigration to the United States. By 1910, 40 percent of the population of New York City had arrived there from somewhere outside of America. Community institutions like the Y.M.C.A. and the Teacher’s College, Leichter says, responded with programs indoctrinating immigrants to a particular type of American homogeneity achieved by disavowing their cultures of origin.

A headline from The New York Times Magazine, October 24, 1915. The article quotes Frank Trumbull, chairman of the board of the National Americanization Committee, who calls for “a chastened realization that a nation built up of many peoples will not of itself fall together into a unified nation...” (The New York Times)

Of the Y.M.C.A. at the time, the University of Saskatchewan professor Robert A. Carlson writes:

[It] assisted in this effort to assimilate or homogenize the immigrant into American society by providing classes in English and citizenship…The Association’s 1912 handbook emphasized fear and social control, warning that “America seems to be the melting pot for all the nations of the world, but unless it really succeeds in melting, fusing, and creating a more or less harmonized constituency—a Christian American nation—the chaotic mixture may destroy the melting pot.”

At the time, community centers operated from the top down; students were expected to leave their programs having shed their cultural specificity and become “American.”

Balancing education and multiculturalism

Now, community-centered institutions are increasingly taking the approach of meeting new immigrants halfway. The New York City Fire Department Foundation has recently begun offering first responders classes in Mandarin, NPR reports. With people from China predicted to become New York’s largest immigrant group in the next few years, the language classes are meant to “show the communities that we embrace them as citizens of this city, that we are in acceptance of their culture and the transition they’re going through,” Steven Lee, a NYPD lieutenant, told NPR.

It’s the same attitude that drives the Free Library’s programming. Edible Alphabet, Leichter says, works by cultivating the students’ pre-existing expertise while simultaneously transmitting skills—like the English language—that may be helpful for adjusting to life in America. “People from that many different backgrounds have so many resources to teach each other about their own traditions,” Leichter says.

The International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program (pictured above) takes a similar approach. Through a network of community farms across the country, New Roots offers work and training to recently arrived refugees. Urban Omnibus writes that the New Roots farm in the Bronx provides “a locale for English as a Second Language classes based on bonds beyond language forged through labor and food.” Yet the farm has benefitted the local Bronx community, too. The knowledge—about food, about farming, about cooking—circulating through the farm as the refugees work alongside local gardeners from places like Puerto Rico, China, and the West Indies, has opened everyone’s eyes.

“I didn’t know people ate sweet potato leaves prior to working on the farm,” Kathleen McTeague, the New Roots program manager, told Urban Omnibus. “Of course, once I heard about it, it showed up everywhere.”  

As more people continue to arrive in America from all parts of the globe, the community response must necessarily remain flexible and open. Fitzgerald says that the Culinary Literacy Center secured funding for another three years of the Edible Alphabet program; given the adjustments already implemented in its first year, the classes will likely continue to respond to and change along with its participants.

Devising programs to assist recent immigrants in the transition to life in America remains, Leichter says, a complicated issue. Yet it’s possible to strike a balance between teaching new skills and respecting people’s culture. Quoting a former student of hers, Dr. Melva Burke, Leichter says: “we have to find a situation where the need to know meets the need to tell.”

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