Just as our nation is experiencing a major fat attack millions of viewers are tuned into television shows focused on food. There may lurk some irony in this phenomenon. Think about it. There is actually a show called “Man Versus Food,” wherein a rather rotund individual seeks to eat all that he can at a variety of sites around the nation. This show plays even as the Centers for Disease Control issues a clarion call about the obesity epidemic and movies like Forks Over Knives present the scientific evidence that our diets are killing us. Alas, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) has, in all probability, fewer fans than Adam Richman, the host of “Man Versus Food.” Not much is politically correct about food shows.
Teachers can turn the food craze into effective lesson plans with homework assignments that students will not object to doing. Students can learn something, exercise writing skills, and possibly develop some interests in terms of career while they are being entertained by shows such as “Iron Chef,” “Chopped,” “No Reservations,” “Restaurant Impossible,” or “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
I tried such an assignment on both a freshman and a senior class last year. The kid’s opinions about which shows are best are firm; their loyalties are deeply established and they have no problem following the story lines and the characterizations of various personalities. They are alert to the nature of the competition and grow adept at predicting which judge will appreciate a particular chef and which of the meals prepared will earn praise. They learn about spices, herbs, and how to select a particular ingredient for a particular recipe or how to substitute one for another when the occasion calls for some creativity.
Young people watching these food shows quickly become food critics themselves, even without the opportunity to taste the exotic meals prepared. They even become alert to the metaphorical value of what these shows call “presentation.” I’ve had kids talk about poor handwriting in terms of weak presentation and job interviews in terms of presenting the self as a worthy candidate for employment. Hmmmmmm. What could this mean?
It means teachers can use cooking shows as teaching tools in their ELA lesson plans. I created a worksheet that I distributed to my students asking them to identify elements similar to those found in literature, such as conflict, complication and resolution, and to evaluate the show for its pacing, drama, suspense, emotional appeal and themes. Extra credit, I said, when I first began to use the worksheet. Fairly soon, virtually all kids were writing essays, critiques and even formatting their own shows with their age-based themes. A few kids created a show based on veganism in which they suggested using live animals to increase the element of compassion that is so important to people who refuse to participate in the killing of animals for food. The assignment was no longer for extra credit, but a serious part of my effort to meet standards and exercise writing skills.
Some kids actually prepared their own shows. One was on the making of fry bread. The students were reading Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and they decided to produce a fry bread competition. Everyone loved it, even though some of the results were better used as Frisbees than food. The judges played their parts beautifully and the critiques written by the audience, their fellow classmates, were brilliant. With the right lesson plan, education, quite often, can be entertaining.