FOOD THROUGH THE EYES OF CHILDREN
The Tenderloin champions both emerging and established literary voices in food writing, so we are thrilled to feature the work of a dedicated educationist who teases out these new voices in kids, Claudine Fernandez. For most Singaporeans, the island-state's multicultural culinary landscape is an ever-present and important part of one's cultural identity. In this post, Claudine shares with us the ways she encourages her young students to express their relationships with food through writing.
Char Kuay Teow, Mee Siam, Bak Kut Teh, Rojak. These are just some of the names of well-loved local delights in Singapore’s food paradise. One can never go hungry and is spoilt for choice with the myriad delectable delights (both local and international) available at almost any hour of the day. It is something on which we, Singaporeans, pride ourselves. In fact, I found myself telling a Japanese friend recently that in Singapore, one could taste the world’s cuisines.
This is why I knew that lessons that married food art and food writing would be very popular amongst Primary School children living in Singapore.
I included a chapter on food art and writing in my first children’s writing workbook and named it “Food, Glorious Food”. The purpose of the writing and artistic exercises in the chapter is to expose children to different types of writing, ranging from writing a recipe (procedural writing) to designing a menu for their very own restaurant. Instead of fixating on the eating, I wanted them to also explore and write about the process of creating their own dishes, experimenting with different ingredients, and the larger concept of opening their own restaurant.
As a warm-up activity, the children picked randomly from a bag containing the names of different kinds of food written on cards. They had to pick two cards and imagine the two foods having a conversation. The dialogue that ensued was often adorable and hilarious, as the children empathised with these foods to bring them to life. Yet, it wasn’t as easy thinking about what food would say, as it was to eat them. Patterns emerged from their written responses, as many asked questions about why people enjoyed eating these foods and what these foods were made of, as well as food being a stimulant of happy emotions.
We then delved into something more interactive and hands-on. They were going to create a dish for their loved ones, with a few different types of food (ranging from sweet treats like marshmallow and gummy bears to healthier snacks like fruits and nuts) provided to them. They were also shown photographs of several food art dishes. Without hesitation and with ease, they created their own original food art. Because they were creating the dishes for their loved ones, they were more deliberate in choosing the ingredients that their loved ones would like. After all, we often associate certain types of food with our close friends and family members. There was also the challenge of putting the ingredients together in a way that was artistic and presentable, since it was going to be given as a "gift". The children rose to the challenge and created dishes ranging from faces akin to emoticons, to a setting of a beach with palm trees. To make the exercise more meaningful, they were asked to write an accompanying note to their loved one, describing the dish and how they thoughtfully put it together, especially for him or her. In that way, even after the dish had been eaten, both the giver and the receiver would remember the experience.
Many of the children enjoyed experimenting with different food types. One child likened it to being like Charlie in his chocolate factory. They relished the freedom of choice that they were given to choose the food ingredients and also to name their own dishes and restaurant. Perhaps, the exercises gave them a sense of purpose and control with the preparation of food, something that many of them admitted they were not used to in their kitchens or homes.
One child wrote a review of her restaurant, in the form of a letter addressed to international food critic, Gordan Ramsay. While she acknowledged that Ramsay was “mean” to the contestants on his show, Masterchef, she was eager to write a letter to him, persuading him to patronise her imaginary, eponymous “Celebrity Chef Restaurant”, possibly because she knew that he was an authority on the quality of food, a testament to the pervasive influence of the media on children. Indeed, from this exercise, she learned how to highlight her restaurant's best dishes by using descriptions, such as “once you eat it, it will melt in your mouth” and “premium quality”. Aside from the quality and taste of the food, she also reflected the significance of ambience in the dining experience (“excellent service in our very cozy restaurant”).
Oftentimes when I design these learning activities for children, I reflect on whether or not they would appeal more to one gender or age group. However, these food-related activities were enjoyed by both the boys and the girls, regardless of their age. The creations of the children were gender-neutral. There were more discernible differences in the writing as the older children were able to describe their food in more sophisticated and elaborate terms. The older children also found the menu and restaurant activities more accessible, possibly because they had more dining experiences with their parents. They had a clearer picture of what they wanted their restaurant to look like or sell and could easily decide on reasonable prices for their food and drink.
When it was time for the children to create menus for their restaurants, I noticed a striking trend in the choice of appetizers, main courses, desserts and beverages on the menu. Without exception, all the children chose to “serve and sell” mostly Western items, like burgers, hotdogs, or salmon with asparagus and the names of these dishes were also Westernised. Thus far, none but one had chosen to include local Singaporean dishes! Perhaps, local food was easily available to them and they took it for granted, while they viewed Western cuisine as more of a luxury. Admittedly, in my own experience, I only began to appreciate the affordability, diversity, and variety of Singaporean cuisine when I lived abroad. Perhaps they also equated high quality food and drink with the West or had simply cultivated a palette for Western tastes. It could also be attributed to the unique flavours of local dishes, which can be challenging to describe in words.
I wonder if the menus would have turned out differently if I, their teacher, had stipulated that they had to include local dishes in their menus. However, would this restrict their choices and cause them to lose their sense of ownership over their work?
There was more variance when the children decided on the prices of the items on the menu. While some felt justified to set high prices for their food, one girl wanted to generously give away free chocolate fondue.
What was more important to me, as their teacher, was that they were actively thinking about the value of food and asking important questions about food.
In short, thinking about food gave them food for thought.