Ugly Foods and Education

As part of my work for different higher education institutions, I have been training future teachers and helping them in their certification processes as bilingual or English as second language teachers. Each semester, after making the required presentations and reviewing the expectations for the course, I always start every class by talking about the importance of two aspects that I consider fundamental: culture and language. I explain to my students that we need to know, understand, and appreciate our students’ cultural and linguistic diversity and their various backgrounds to be truly effective teachers. However, one has to have a broader definition of culture and language to do this. Therefore, when working with our students (even more if we work with English learners), we must consider the culture and language aspects that define them as individuals.

Additionally, we also need to understand that their life experiences also define their identities, and those experiences, at the same time, are part of their culture and language. Their experiences in different contexts (as members of a minority group, immigrants, children, and many other instances) play an essential role in determining who they are and their perception of the world around them. Particularly when facing the new and often intimidating reality of a classroom where a new and unknown language is spoken. As teachers, we must be empathetic and willing to understand, learn, and honor the set of collective experiences that shape the culture and language of each of our students. Not being able to develop that empathy and respect for what is different and the otherness in our society makes us create barriers that hinder coexistence and learning.

A few years ago, while watching the Netflix series called Ugly Delicious, it reminded me of an experience with a fellow teacher when I was the new bilingual teacher at an elementary school in Texas. It happened one day when I sat down to eat my lunch in the teachers’ lounge. I opened my food container to start enjoying an arepa (made of ground maize dough) stuffed with aged cheese from Venezuela with a nopales (cactus) salad as a side, which my newly Mexican wife had cooked and taught me how to enjoy. At that moment, one of the several teachers sitting around me frowned and covered her nose (perhaps because of the strange consistency of the nopales salad and the strong smell of the aged cheese). Then with a not-so-friendly face, she asked what I was eating. In a very proud manner, I explained to her my Mexican-Venezuelan dish. I also added the description of the red liquid that accompanied my lunch (Agua de Jamaica – Hibiscus tea). It was then when she told me, “I don’t understand how could you eat so much food from sub-cultures!”

In the days that followed, while I was now eating a “less smelly and better looking” menu in the solitude of my classroom, I pondered about the power of words. I thought about how impactful our gestures and comments can be when referring to elements of culture or language that are foreign to us but so appreciated by the other. Then, I remembered when I was a child in Venezuela and how other children made fun of kids from Portuguese parents because they were bakers (although they were not, that was the stereotype). Or the Chinese for eating “Aloz Chino” (flied lice) and how impossible it was for parents of Asian children to pronounce certain words. Although I knew it was not correct, I remembered that I went along with my friends as a kid that wanted to fit in. But, until that moment in the teachers’ lounge of that school in Texas, no one had done it to me, and never before had someone referred to my arepa in a derogatory way. Until that moment, I had not had that experience. Having experienced this situation and other similar circumstances as a foreigner and as a member of a minority group, I immediately connected with what was being discussed while watching the Ugly Delicious series. It invited me to continue watching the series and learn more about other cultures.

Ugly Delicious is a Netflix series presented by David Chang (creator and owner of the famous Momofuku restaurants). This show examines the history of foods that many of us love, such as pizza, tacos, fried chicken, or fried rice. At the same time, it shows the negative impact that stereotypes related to these foods have between cultures. For example, in the episode “Fried Rice,” we can see how writers Serena Dai and Jennifer 8. Lee discuss the relationship between the idea that the Chinese are “dirty and disgusting” and how Chinese food has historically been degraded. In that episode, we are told that when Asian groups immigrated to the United States in the 19th century, newspapers set about spreading the idea that the Chinese ate strange foods. For example, at that time, the New York Times published an article asking if the Chinese ate rats, to which Lee says, “This idea of these people eating strange things was used to drive a wedge between us and foreignness.” In that same episode of Ugly Delicious, many other essential ideas are presented that I usually discuss in my classes. Still, in this series, they are shown in a practical way and from the point of view of an element as relevant in our cultures as food. In addition, in this series and others available on Netflix, we can see how elements such as cultural perception, acculturation, and assimilation processes, and how stereotypes and racism come into play. That is why now, as part of my classes, I have created activities that require students to watch specific episodes of these series work in groups to discuss, analyze and extrapolate what we have learned from them to our works as Bilingual or ESL teachers.

But it is not just about knowing the culture and language of students from other countries. It is about understanding the experiences of each of our students and their different origins and ethnic groups. For example, in another episode of Ugly Delicious, a universally appreciated comfort food such as fried chicken is brought into the discussion. Unfortunately, in the United States, it’s also a dish linked to racist stereotypes that go back to the days of slavery. An uncomfortable subject and one in which Chang and his guests, including writer Lolis Eric Elie and Professor Psyche Williams-Forson, discuss the origins of the fried chicken stereotype. This stereotype has persisted for more than 100 years and has affected African Americans’ relationship with fried chicken. Chang mentions a black friend who refused to eat fried chicken in front of the cameras. Chang also meets with Edouardo Jordan, a black chef in Seattle who stayed away from fried chicken for years due to its racial implications. This stereotype was something that I learned within a few years of starting living in the United States and also the stereotype created around the watermelon. And learning is precisely the main idea of this article because it is about knowing and learning as much as possible about the other. That teacher who made me feel so bad with her comment about my food was simply the victim of her lack of knowledge and ability to empathize with others and their experiences as members of an ethnic or social group.

And that is why I think we can find the solution (as for many other problems around the world) in education. But it begins by educating ourselves and giving ourselves the task of knowing the other, their culture, their language, their historical experiences, and being able to develop the necessary empathy to understand and adapt. Hence the educational value of Netflix series such as Ugly Delicious and others that I have been using in my classes to help my students learn about other cultures. Just as I recommend these series to my students, I recommend them to my friends and family. That is why I want to share them with you here.

I hope you enjoy them and learn from them as much as I have!

Ugly Delicious | Official Trailer | Netflix

High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America | Official Trailer

Street Food: Latin America | Official Trailer | Netflix

Street Food: Asia | Official Trailer | Netflix

Las Crónicas del Taco | Tráiler Oficial | Netflix

The Taco Chronicles Season 2 | Official Trailer | Netflix

Salt Fat Acid Heat | Official Trailer | Netflix

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