On teaching food writing to incarcerated teens:
Topics that work well to break the ice in the traditional high school creative writing class don’t always work with incarcerated students. A person they remember from the past might bring up trauma. A happy memory might be hard to find or make them sad. Regrets, not worth bringing up. A time you were afraid, nope. A recipe seemed like a good topic until a student writing about making his favorite food at home got so homesick he told me he was never coming back to my class. Food, favorite foods, least favorite foods, favorite meals, fast food, all off the table. A whole category of guaranteed student engagement shut down.
And about breaking that ice, the thin gloss that separates people who don’t really know each other, there are moments in the detention center classroom where it’s best not to break it. Those days a new student comes into detention, adjusting to their difficult new (or re-renewed) reality, may not be the best days to ask them to share anything with anyone else in the room. Those days are best for holding space instead.
Many of my go-to teen journal topics are don’ts.
But today, with the help of Ann Hodgman’s essay from the Norton Sampler, “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch,” food writing became possible for my students. In the essay, Hodgman, a food writer herself, decided to find out for herself what dog food tastes like. Her experiment, both funny and full of examples of strong descriptive writing, helped me to find a way to make writing about food less fraught for my students.
I realized if they, like Hodgman, were able to do a taste-test of foods with which they weren’t very familiar, they might be able to practice description unburdened by painful memories. No dog food, of course, but something they had never tasted before would work. Something that had no memories attached.
For my group, I decided snack foods from another country would be best, so I filled a bag at the local Asian grocery store. I looked for snacks with little or no English on the packaging.
And it worked. We read Hodgman’s essay, talked in detail about her techniques, about how she focuses on texture, smell, and taste in detail, how she described the packaging design, and how her descriptions of the food’s appearance make the reader see it too.
We talked about eating mindfully, about paying attention to each bite, the way food transforms in your mouth.
They chose the foods they wanted to taste and set them out in quadrants on an unfolded napkin. Then, in one of those moments when teenage boys break every stereotype of how teenage boys act, especially teenage boys in jail, they ate. They chewed slow, eyebrows furrowed in thought. They shut their eyes and nodded. They laughed and they wrote, using similes, offering details, involving all their senses.
When I joked that I wanted to take pictures of their faces so they could see what they looked like, one said, “You can’t do that, but I’ll volunteer my hands to be in a picture with some of these foods.”
By the end of class, they had begun to write descriptive flash essays about tasting new foods for the first time. Each had a new favorite they looked forward to trying someday when they are once again allowed the privilege of choosing their own food at the grocery store.
They asked if we could do it again. If perhaps, next time, we could get a pizza from each place in town and write reviews. Together we decided, that maybe, with the approval of the facility, we might one day start a food blog together, written anonymously, of course, where we could post their thoughts on restaurant meals I could bring into class.
No one felt sad. No one felt homesick. No one never wanted to come to my class again. Today in the glass fishbowl of my classroom, with the Juvenile Justice Officers outside the door just in case, food untethered from memory became as powerful as homemade cookies.
Teacher-readers: This lesson would work well in a traditional creative writing or English classroom as well. It unlocks descriptive writing. Think carefully about the logistics and finances of distributing snacks to so many students though. Five classes of thirty could break your budget.