Students gain appreciation for Spanish peninsular culture and history through food in one UM-Dearborn course

December 3, 2018

SPN 321 creates a tasty dish that mixes education, collaboration and appreciation.

Students from the Spanish Food and Cuisine course in a film setup.
Students in this semester’s Spanish Food and Cuisine course, including Rosa Gonzalez (above), researched a Spanish-speaking region and a recipe from that region before filming a cooking show-style presentation on both

Speaking over the blender, Spanish Professor Jorge González del Pozo said gazpacho was created to both nourish and cool Spanish field workers who toiled in the summer heat.

Students watched as he blended the tomatoes, garlic and cucumbers until everything was taken over by the tomatoes’ red hue. He drizzled olive oil into the soup mixture and stirred until it had a smooth, creamy consistency. The smell of garlic and fresh veggies floated in the air. And, after the gazpacho chilled, each student had a bowl.

It looked like a Food Network cooking show. But to students in the SPN 321: Spanish Food and Cuisine course, it was just week six.

“Jorge takes the learning experience to another level. And the way he teaches, what we learn just sticks,” said Jamie Tocco, a junior majoring in international studies. “I haven’t been to Spain, but I’d really like to go one day. Since many of us aren’t in the position to travel, Jorge brings Spain to us through his teaching.”

Created by González del Pozo, the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters course provides students with an overview of Spanish peninsular culture, civilization and history through the analysis of foods, products, dishes and social events around its eating habits.

“Spanish food culture represents an important culinary pillar for many current gastronomical conceptions. Spain has a vast and solid culinary tradition, a diverse and well-positioned present balancing old habits and avant-garde trends, and also a bright future ahead,” said González del Pozo, who is also the Language, Culture and Communication chairman and director of International Studies & Global Cultures. “This course gives students an opportunity to learn and experience Spanish food and cuisine, improve their linguistic competence and become more culturally aware.”

In class, students sampled foods like escalivada, a Spanish roasted vegetable dish, and paella, a Valencian rice dish, and watched films like Cocinando un Tributo and Campo a través.

González del Pozo said cooking demonstrations and food sampling are a must in a cuisine-focused course. But the films are essential, too, because they give cultural insight.

For example, Cocinando un Tributo — a 2015 film about a famous restaurant taking their kitchen crew on a road trip to learn more about Spanish local cuisine — showed that Colombian food has African influence, which is connected to the large population of African descent in the country; Peruvian food is influenced by the Japanese, who moved there centuries ago.

“The hybrid composition and multicultural condition of Spanish cuisine has been influenced and it is influential to other cultures,” he said. “It is very important to recognize this.”

To have students best understand Spanish food and its origins, the course’s final project was a research paper about a region, a local recipe and a filmed presentation on both — produced by journalism and screen studies students — in the CASL JASS Studio. Collaboration with JASS faculty Jim Gilmore and Jennifer Proctor, JASS students and senior television engineer Greg Taylor made the final presentation possible, González del Pozo said.

JASS Studio

While JASS students filmed, Rosa Gonzalez gave a cooking show-style presentation, tipping a large red pot so the studio audience — and the viewers watching the CASL televisions in the atrium — could see the finished product.

Gonzalez focused on the Dehesas for her research paper, a cultural landscape of southern and central Spain that is uniquely thriving with a man-made ecosystem that now sustains itself. On the land, pigs are raised. So her recipe was guiso de cerdo, a pork-based stew.

“It is very good. It has potatoes, pork, garlic, tomatoes, vegetables and seasoning,” she said. “But I need to be honest. When I first made it, I had a special ingredient: advice from the best cook I know — my mom.”

After students finished filming, they — both the JASS students and the SPN 321 class — gathered to share a potluck meal. They sampled each other’s food and discussed their dishes.

“Spanish food is a celebration of the senses,” González del Pozo said. “And this is really what it is all about — gathering together to enjoy the food and each other’s company.”