Edible Alphabet: Bringing together a community through food

The Edible Alphabet program provides refugees who have recently arrived in Philadelphia with an opportunity to learn English through cooking classes at the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The teaching staff includes librarians, an ESL instructor, and a professional chef. Together they implement a curriculum centered on the preparation of a low-cost, healthful meal each week. The curriculum includes games and activities to help students learn American foodways and the language of cooking--food groups, types of foods, cooking techniques and utensils, measurements (e.g. cups, teaspoons, etc), and the fractional quantities of measurements. Each week is capped off with a shared meal, prepared by students from from many countries of origin, including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Congo, and Malaysia.

My early impressions of the class have thus far been positive. In the first class, I was impressed by how well many students already spoke proficient English. I was even more impressed, however, by the desire of students who spoke good English to help those students who were just learning the language. I witnessed this willingness to help most strongly in a pair of young sisters from Southeast Asia. They were not only proactive in learning themselves, but also in taking leadership roles in the class. They were among the first to volunteer in the games at the start of the class and they were always highly engaged with and friendly to the other students. They were excited to inform us that they recently secured jobs at a local department store, despite their limited time in the U.S.

In subsequent classes, despite our role as observers, we were drawn into the warm dynamic of the class and found it challenging to completely separate ourselves from the students. In fact, we interacted quite frequently with the students, often while they waited for instruction from the teachers or ate the food they had just cooked. We learned about the passion a man from Pakistan had for cooking. Roxanne conversed in French with a pastor from the Congo. I got distracted from taking notes by a six-year old Syrian boy who tried to teach me Arabic. And we always had students insisting that we try the dish they had just prepared. Overall, we were humbled by the generosity and kindness of the students.

Post by Alex Reisley
Photograph by Nema Etebar