When I first started teaching Spanish independently twenty-odd years ago in community classes and in private companies, I threw in tea (té), coffee (café) and desserts (postres) as an added incentive to draw people out to class on chilly winter nights or to encourage them to stick around the office after work while their colleagues were heading home for dinner. It caught on, giving me an edge over the more institutional programs out there. I still have memories of myself in various corporate parking lots, to-and-froing from car to lobby with teaching supplies — and pie (pay) — and cake (pastel) — and cheesecake (pay de queso). And too, I have memories of students conjugating verbs in between sugary bites of this-that-and-the-other (lo que sea). It was glorious at first, until the fatigue of my first pregnancy hit, then the sleepless nights of parenting and I realized I was too tired to dream up desserts and good lessons. So the mixer and the spatulas, the whisks and the cake pans were laid to rest and Spanish Classes with Dessert became simply Spanish Classes. If this were all a cartoon, my dictionaries would have winked and ruffled their pages smugly as the cookbooks began to sulk in the corner. And with baby #1 hooked to my hip, I would have told said dictionaries not to get ahead of themselves because, while they may not be sharing classrooms or boardrooms with raspberry coulis and cookie crumbs nightly, ‘mark my words’, there would be food in amongst the worksheets again.
And of course, there was. When Francisco and I still had only the one child who we could leave with her abuelita on occasion, we would go out to Latin American restaurants in Toronto with my students. Once we had three children and I gave up teaching in companies, I began to cook at home, one big Mexican dinner for all beginning students when they studied food near the end of the course — something I continue to do to this day. Other classes would end their programs with pot-luck suppers, suppers during which dictionaries and workbooks would take a back seat. With my classes being very small, if I happen to make something exceptional for the family once in a blue moon, I will share it with my students and teach the recipe in Spanish. Over the years, when Francisco has worked in Kensington Market in Toronto, he has been known to bring churros or pupusas in for the students to taste. This week, the last week for classes before Christmas, the students are going home with Mexican hot-chocolate kits, Mexican hot chocolate being something I prepared for them a couple of classes ago.
The inclusion of food and drink in my Spanish classes by no means diminishes my dedication to teaching the language. It is meant to be the icing on the cake and other than the Mexican dinner which takes much thought and preparation, it happens spontaneously, almost by osmosis. What’s another plateful of galletas de chocolate (chocolate cookies) if I’m already making them for my family? It also keeps me evolving in my adopted Mexican culture and with my second language. So at the age of 46 with 30 years in a Mexican family, this year I made pan de muerto and chicken tinga for the first time!
In hindsight, it is a no-brainer where this instinct to blend food and language practice come from. This past October when my daughter and I were visiting her abuelos, she was in the garden with her abuelo and he was showing her the chile peppers he was growing and those he was drying out; the Spanish practice revolved around food — the growing of it, the picking of it, the preserving of it. Wandering into the kitchen, I saw the table where, a quarter of a century earlier, I had spent countless hours practicing the concepts I’d been learning at university, practicing in between mouthfuls of tortillas and sips of cinnamon tea. I remembered my mother-in-law giving me instructions to cut this or chop that before a family party, placing a lettuce in my hand and saying lechuga or serving me cake, asking, — ¿Quieres pastel, Rosa? — with it already in front of me. Cake? Pastel. No need for a dictionary when it’s halfway to your mouth. The taste buds learn quicker than the brain.
Knowing I’d want to write an entry on food, I asked my in-laws for their permission to include a photo of their kitchen, this place where I had learned so much of my Spanish and they said, ‘Claro que sí, Rosa. Claro que sí.’ I wanted to tell them ‘why’ but, always British at heart, I didn’t because I knew if I did, it would come with a tear. But here is why. As I stood in that kitchen, I was thinking that back-in-the-day, I believed I was practicing my Spanish in that kitchen for university. A little wiser for the wear this past October, I saw that was not so. I had been practicing my Spanish at university for the relationships, the conversation, the camaraderie and the memories which take place in the kitchen.