CentreTerm course explores religious identity through culinary traditions

Posted by Centre News in CentreTerm, Religion 04 Feb 2016

REL 305 Creating Religious Identity through Food CentreTerm 2016Students in Assistant Professor of Religion Lee Jefferson’s class “Creating Religious Identity through Food” recently got a taste of cross-cultural culinary traditions served in a way only CentreTerm courses can. By exploring the ways in which food can cross borders when adopted by multiple Western religions, the class offered the opportunity for students to sample the subject in intensive ways, including cooking competitions and trips to various religious sites.

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Professor Lee Jefferson (l) and students discuss a dish.

Jefferson, who says he has “always been interested in food and dietary regulations within religious traditions and how groups self-identify using food practices,” says he was initially inspired to teach the course after reading the cookbook Jerusalem. 

“The authors grew up in Jerusalem; one is an Israeli Jew, and the other a Palestinian Muslim,” Jefferson says. “Their story and their recipes reveal how complex Israeli cuisine really is and also how food can not only create borders but can transcend borders between religions.”

Along with inspiring the course and its content, the cookbook also sparked an interest in creating a cooking component of the classwork. Students competed several times each week in “Quickfire” cooking competitions—an idea, Jefferson admits, he has “totally stolen from Top Chef.”

“The class was divided into cooking groups, and I chose a recipe from the Jerusalem cookbook to prepare in a timed, head-to-head competition,” he says. “Teams that answered correct questions based on the readings received an advantage in the cooking competitions.”

Jillian Frost ’16, who describes herself as an avid cook outside of the classroom, enjoyed this portion of the course.

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“The cooking challenges gave us the opportunity to explore, in a hands-on way, the topics and themes we discussed in class,” she explains. “What’s even more exciting, the team who won each round got to challenge Dr. Jefferson in a final cook-off.”

Among several culinary dishes, the class prepared fattoush (an Arab salad) and latkes (potato pancakes), as well as use sumac and za’atar spices commonly found in Middle Eastern cooking.

Jefferson believes that this activity imparted practical knowledge about cooking, while also shedding light on the intricacies of preparing foreign foods according to specific recipes.

“Students cooked specific recipes from Israel that transcend labels like ‘Israeli’ or ‘Arab/Palestinian,’ so they prepared food they may never have made or eaten before,” he says. “While the cooking provided practical knowledge, it also contributed to the main goal of the course: to illuminate how food creates and moves across borders amongst these traditions.”

Along with book discussions and cooking competitions, students also took several field trips to various sites in the Commonwealth. They traveled to a Jewish congregation and attended a service, visited a halal butcher and learned about sustainable farming methods at FoodChain in Lexington.

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Adeel Ahmed ’18 says that these trips, along with the rest of the course, showed him that “even though Judaism, Christianity and Islam are their own distinct identities, they often cross over into each other in terms of food.”

“I particularly enjoyed our tour of Marksbury Farm because my class got to see firsthand the inner workings of an all-natural, cage-free slaughterhouse, while learning all about local food production,” he explains.

By the end of the term, Jefferson says he felt his students left with a broader understanding of the Western religions that goes beyond the scope of regular coursework.

“I hope they took away a deeper understanding of how these traditions gradually created borders between them, that it was a long process, not an immediate one,” he concludes, “as well as how food contributes to maintaining those borders, creating identity and how, in our contemporary era, it has the power to move across borders, too.”

by Hayley Hoffman ‘16
February 4, 2016

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