Christopher Eldridge

Cultural Awareness through Cooking: Understanding Ethnocentricity

It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday and Sonia Diaz is standing over a hot oven at Tu Casa restaurant. An array of tortillas, cheeses, and meats lay before her, ready to become the ingredients in a stack of delicious papusas. As she delicately and intently prepares the feast, Ms. Linda, the restaurant’s owner, explains to a group the finer points of Salvadoran familial relationships. Later, as Sonia and her classmates gather around a table and nosh on the fruits of their labor, they’ll discuss the cultural similarities and differences between the United States and El Salvador.

It’s just another day in Christopher Eldridge’s Introduction to Sociology class.

A social studies teacher at Scarborough High School in Scarborough, Maine, Eldridge used a $5,000 Student Achievement Grant from the NEA Foundation to introduce “Cultural Awareness through Cooking,” a program that framed studies of different nations through visits to restaurants. Occurring throughout the spring of 2012, the project encouraged Eldridge’s 50 juniors and seniors to reduce personal ethnocentrism and foster cultural awareness and respect for diversity.

Breaking his class into 10 five-student groups, he arranged for each group to have two separate visits at 10 ethnic restaurants in Portland, ME. Groups visited restaurants serving Eritrean, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Salvadoran, Somali, and Thai cuisine. During their initial visits, students conversed with the restaurants’ owners and staff to discuss the cultural nuances between their native lands and the United States. Issues broached were both general and personal and included education, art, technology, commerce, religion, gender roles, civil rights practices, family dynamics, value contradictions, sports, and fashion. On their return visits, students were provided opportunities to make traditional meals in the style of their chosen countries.

“This project helped me personally understand sociology with a more hands-on experience,” noted junior Joseph LeBlond Jr. “It took all the things we learned and let us apply them in real life.”Eldridge elaborated, “At first people often react negatively to something different. That is the natural human reaction. The idea is through this experience we can work to understand a culture besides ours on its own terms and not judge it as better or worse than the way we do things.”

Before and after the project, students completed a five point inventory that included a “personal beliefs about diversity” scale, a cultural awareness inventory, a universality-diversity scale, an “openness to diversity and challenge” scale, and a self-awareness inventory. Pre- and post-project inventory comparisons reflected a greater openness to diversity and enhanced cultural awareness as a result of the project, which Eldridge saw as a natural growth. “I aimed to encourage self-reflection,” he added.

After their restaurant visits, each group of students was charged with creating a 20-30 minute documentary detailing their experiences and addressing the concept of ethnocentrism. The videos were screened for 32 classes at Scarborough High School, reaching nearly 600 students.

Beyond providing students a greater understanding of world cultures, the project also exposed them to the increasing diversity of the city of Portland and the changing cultural landscape in the state of Maine. By documenting and sharing these experiences, students were able to both engage in cross cultural experiences first-hand and share those experiences with a vast majority of their peers. Eldridge was encouraged by his administrators to share his students’ work with Scarborough High School’s entire social studies and language arts departments and will look to continue cross-curricular sharing in future years.

The project resulted in a shared positive experience that resonated with students and educators alike. The “Cultural Awareness through Cooking” project served as the curricular focus for the spring 2012 semester and will continue to remain an important part of Eldridge’s course, funding permitted. He plans to continue drawing on components of this project for future courses in units regarding ethnocentrism, culture, immigration, and research methods.

“Students’ primary multicultural experiences were the most successful aspect of the project,” he said. “In class discussions and written reflections they expressed insight into a number of specific experiences cooking and talking with immigrant restaurant workers. Their presentations to other classes were quite productive, and teachers of those classes gave me very positive feedback.”

Junior Jake LeClair was a bit more concise.

“This was one of the most fascinating and memorable experiences I have had in my high school classes.”

Now that’s truly food for thought.