Centre students are exploring religious identity through food with Nelson D. and McDowell Rodes Associate Professor of Religion Lee Jefferson during CentreTerm 2020.
“The goal is to examine how different religions cultivate identity through certain foods and dishes, claims ‘ownership’ to certain foods, and how some food traverses those boundaries,” Jefferson said. “We pay particular attention to Judaism, Islam and Christianity but also discuss some Eastern religious traditions. The class is not lecture-based, we have a lot of field trips and the class is divided into groups that cook during the class period. They also have a final cooking project.”
Students are using “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” by Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi as a text for the course, which was where the inspiration for the class came from after Jefferson received it as a gift several years ago.
“The authors are chefs; one is an Israeli Jew and the other is a Palestinian Muslim, both living in London,” he explained. “But they use Jerusalem as a test case of how food reinforces boundaries but also goes across boundaries with foods like hummus or falafel, both prepared by Muslims and Jews. I also wanted a practical aspect to the course, where students were not just listening and talking but also active in the process of creating, such as cooking. We do our best with the equipment we have, but it’s been fun.”
To help make the cooking process entertaining, Jefferson said he has the students participate in head-to-head battles, like quickfire challenges from the reality show Top Chef.
While students get to enjoy these hands-on activities in the classroom, Jefferson said the “big experiences” are the field trips.
“We did an overnight trip in Paducah, Kentucky, to visit Chef Sara Bradley,” he said. “Chef Bradley was a finalist on Top Chef Kentucky, and she runs a restaurant called Freight House. She also is a practicing Jew, and her cooking is influenced by her Jewish heritage. She did a tasting menu for us of different foods, like falafel and matzo ball soup indicative to Judaism, and then we went to her congregation, Temple Israel, for Shabbat.”
Jefferson also took his students through Nashville, where they had a program and meal at Adele’s Nashville.
“One wrinkle to this class is to talk about cultural appropriation of food and how that cultivates identity,” he added. “In the South, foods like fried chicken, and in Nashville, ‘hot chicken,’ were African-American inspired foods that have been appropriated. We had a good discussion with Chef Bron Lindsey at Adele’s about this subject and others.”
Students had the opportunity to go to Fasig-Tipston horse farm, the largest horse auction house in the world, and enjoy an Epiphany feast prepared by Chef Ouita Michel of the Holly Hill Inn.
Jefferson explained how Chef Michel has been cooking this feast for 15 years, and she talked the class through the medieval Christian recipes that she uses, such as grape-juice marinated chicken, honey almonds and carrot pudding.
He’s also discussed the issue of food sustainability, and the class visited Marksbury Farm and a local pizza and bread maker called MozzaPi in Louisville that sources, mills and bakes all of their own breads using Kentucky grain.
“This course has been a wonderful adventure, and it has exposed the participants to really inspiring people in the industry like Ouita Michel, Sara Bradley and others,” Jefferson said. “It also includes local voices from Danville and Central Kentucky like Rochelle Bayless, owner of Grace Café, and Richard McAllister of Marksbury Farm, who are part of our community and very involved in discussions of food sustainability and how food creates identity.
“We really have had the opportunity to do a deep dive into readings and discussion, do something fun and practical like cooking, and have the ability to travel and talk to amazing people in Kentucky and the region,” he concluded.
by Kerry Steinhofer
January 20, 2020