Observation Unit Plan: Food, Culture, and Language



Great fun for Lovers of Food!

English 111x
Unit 1 Observation and Food! A Sequence.

Why food?
Food is a great way to introduce thinking and writing about culture and language to the class. It opens a natural dialogue between you and the students, and between the student’s themselves– they disclose their cultural backgrounds and hobbies, (do they hunt or fish? Do they garden?), and it is a topic they all know well enough to not feel intimidated writing from a place of authority. Food also allows the class to think and write about language, the metaphors we use, and how food often reflects our life style. For an example, the last class I taught was very familiar with the “Alaskan Grown’ logos that were printed on t-shirts and stickers. This sparked a lively discussion about how much “we are what we eat.’ Talking about Food taboos brings into the class the often arbitrary cultural guidelines we implicitly follow, or signifies to others the morals of the consumer (like with vegetarians, or those who only eat organic, or those who only eat the fish they catch).

While other themed units may take excursions to the museum or the coffee shop, this one asks students to the grocery store or farmers market. How do people shop at these locations? How are the products arranged? How do the employees dress and interact with the customers? Reading an excerpt from Michael Pollan’s  The Omnivore’s Dilema  will challenge students to think about the processes that go into placing food in the supermarket: how the products are displayed for consumers, and how many people are involved in the transactions between the growing the food and the dinner table. The goal in the selected reading is to enact the theory behind Bruce McComiskey, in his book  Teaching Composition as a
Social Process: Students who engage in detailed heuristic exploration of all three moments in the cycleof cultural production, contextual distribution, and critical consumption develop the sense that culture itself is a constantly changing process that cultures undergo, and social-process rhetorical inquiry brings these processes of rhetorical intervention consciously to bear on students’ own critical writing (24).

The food unit allows students a great way to practice rhetoric and the rhetorical situation. Students use the elements of rhetoric to argue their cases for why we should eat something or why we should avoid something else. Genre exploration is another benefit of the food unit, like the various online blogs or dad’s recipes. Finally, the food unit works well with other themed units you can find here on WriteAlaska: for example the  autoethnography unit! Ok, my introduction was a little long, but I hope it conveys the excitement I feel for bringing food into classroom conversation and writing. Below is an example sequence for building critical thinking about the topic into a final essay.

Week 1:
M– Course Introductions! Pockets activity (as featured on write.alaska.edu).
W– In-class writings about dinner at home, followed by discussions about the writing. The goal here is to incorporate more introductions and get the class comfortable with talking about writing.
F– Observation activity–Writing description: Observing food through Still Life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age of Painting (examples above), such as paintings from Abraham van Beijeren, Pieter Claesz. In-class writing on these paintings.
Week 2
M– Discuss the goals of the Observation Unit, Inductive Argument explained. Assignment:  Omnivore’s Dilemma  excerpts assigned to be discussed Friday.
W– Discussion over Essay 1 and Author’s Notes (The Prompt is located further below.) Also the importance of peer review explained.
F– Discussion over reading. Sections about food and language from Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue’ assigned.
Week 3
M– Discussion over reading. This discussion focuses on food, culture, and language. Taboos explored.
W– A lecture and discussion over rhetoric and the rhetorical situation, with fun diagrams! Read excerpts in class from “How to Teach a Child to Argue’ found:

F– Peer Review Day! Assign Maya Angelou’s poem.
Week 4
M– Listen to Maya Angelou’s poem in class followed by Maya Angelou group activity! (Example Below!)
W– Bridging Activity- watch  Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Description from Netflix:
Distracted by their complicated love lives and secret ambitions, three adult sisters reluctantly
humor their widower father (Sihung Lung) by enduring the elaborate, traditional Taiwanese
dinners he insists on having every Sunday. Ang Lee directs this charming tale that humorously
examines the clash between modernity and tradition within the contemporary Taiwanese family.
Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-lien Wu and Kuei-Mei Yang co-star.
F– Essays are Due! Bridging activity continued (that is, the rest of the movie is shown). Followed by–Discussion!

Maya Angelou’s “Health-Food Diner’

No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).

Not thick brown rice and rice pilaw
Or mushrooms creamed on toast,
Turnips mashed and parsnips hashed,
(I’m dreaming of a roast).

Health-food folks around the world
Are thinned by anxious zeal,
They look for help in seafood kelp
(I count on breaded veal).

No smoking signs, raw mustard greens,
Zucchini by the ton,
Uncooked kale and bodies frail
Are sure to make me run


Loins of pork and chicken thighs
And standing rib, so prime,
Pork chops brown and fresh ground round
(I crave them all the time).

Irish stews and boiled corned beef
and hot dogs by the scores,
or any place that saves a space
For smoking carnivores.

Listen to her read her poem at:  https://www.npr.org/2010/12/16/132080094/maya-angelous-cooking-advice-ignore-the-rules

Unit 1 Group Activity
Practicing Generating Possibility and the Rhetorical Situation
For this activity, we are pretending that Maya Angelou is coming to Fairbanks. To welcome her to our town, your group has been selected to arrange a menu for a dinner party. The guidelines for the event are as follows:

  1. Come up with a place that you would like the dinner party to be held. (At the University? At your house? Pioneer Park? Someplace else?)
  2. Each member of the group must come up with a dish. This can be the main course, or side dishes, or desert, etc. This dish must be something you are familiar with, maybe something regional or a family recipe–something unique from you that you could share with Dr. Angelou which she may not get anywhere else.
  3. Write up a two to three sentence summary of each dish. Make it sound delicious. We will be sharing these with the class, so make your classmates hungry! (Example: Dish–my Mom’s recipe for Homemade Mac and Cheese. This is made with elbow macaroni, a hint of mustard, real butter, and a mix of American and Cheddar Cheeses. I sprinkle bread crumbs and baked it to a golden perfection then serve it in a giant spoonful with the steam still rolling off of the noodles. The perfect comfort food for gatherings.)
  4. Write this menu on a separate sheet of paper with each group member’s name at the top to be handed in to me for participation points.  Make certain that this menu has an overall theme.  This means that although each group member will select their own dish, it should contribute, in some way, a the overall cohesive whole.
  5. On this separate sheet of paper, draw the rhetorical situation diagram and fill in the various spaces with how you constructed your menu: For example, who are the Authors, who are your Audience? What are the Topic, the Purpose, and the Context? How did thinking of the rhetorical situation affect your menu choices?
  6. We will share these and discuss them with the class! Be ready to defend your choices.

Menu excerpts from the Fall 2012 class, I transcribed from their papers and did not make edits:

Menu from Group 1:
Theme: The joys of bacon.
Appetizer: Bacon-wrapped water chestnuts- Juicy bacon in sweet water chestnuts soaked in a thick syrup of sweet brown sugar and a little kick of soy sauce. Drizzled over tasty treats and baked for a half-hour.
Main Course: Fried Salmon in a bacon-wrapped crust. Catch fresh salmon. Bread it with Bisquick and Krusteaz salmon breading. Fry and enjoy because it’s amazing.
Bacon-wrapped Steak n’ eggs: A bacon wrapped steak covered with some good Jack Daniel’s steak seasoning, cooked to a nice, juicy medium rare. Along with lightly peppered sunny-side eggs.
Dessert: Bacon Sundae: Three scoops of delicious French vanilla Iced Cream with four pieces of crispy, mouth-watering bacon lodged in the frozen confection. Also has a light caramel chocolate drizzle.

Group 2:
Theme: Eat Local.
Pre Main Dish- Smoked Salmon. Salmon marinated in a mixture of teriyaki sauce, brown sugar, a small amount of tabasco, salt, pepper, and garlic. It marinated for a day in the sweet tangy mixture. Smoked over maple wood to give it a deeper sweetness. Served with crackers of a soft and crumbly texture.
Main Dish- Tender Moose Roast marinated in wine and Worcestershire sauce baked with red potatoes doused in creamy butter and seasoned with Italian herbs.
Yum nums: Pawiola- a sweet vanilla meringue based dessert with a soft marshmallow like center and a crisp outer shell. Then topped with a rich whipped cream. Finally presented with kiwi and fresh Alaskan berries.
Desert: Akutaq- berries and Crisco all mashed up and beautiful.

Essay Prompt for the Observation Unit  
What can we discover about language, food, and culture in a market environment?
Your essay will be a culmination of class activities. Therefore, as you are writing think about descriptive language and the rhetorical situation. Your paper will not be a secret between you, the student, and me, the teacher, but you will write your paper to share with the class. Keep your audience in mind, as you will share your paper with three other people during our Peer Review Day.
Plan for Your Paper: Visit a market place; this can be the local Wal-Mart, Fred Meyer, farmers market, etc. Because this is the observation unit, I want you to observe this environment. Bring a note pad to make comments to refer back to later. How is the product arranged? How are the customers dressed? What interactions are taking place at your location? What is the atmosphere like? How do the employees dress and interact with the customers?

Once you are back at your computer, place your observations in a cohesive essay. What insights develop out of your scene? What was surprising? What would add to our class conversation about food, language, and culture? Try to engage the reader’s senses!
What I am Expecting from Your Essays: A well-polished paper with accompanying drafts and an author’s note. This essay must be in the following format: MLA style, 12 point Times New Roman font, one inch margins, double spaced with a snappy title. The requirement is 2-3 pages. That is  two full pages at least,  not one and a half, nor one and seven-eighths.

Finally, eat a decent meal!