Students Getting a “Taste for Culture” in Spain

By Tom McLaughlin

Rutgers University–Camden students gathered in February for a delicious lesson exploring religious and ethnic diversity and inclusion through food at Philadelphia’s Zahav, widely regarded as one of the best Israeli restaurants in America.

But the Rutgers–Camden students – comprised of four male and eight female students of Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu descent – were just whetting their appetites.

The trip to Zahav was the first taste of a Learning Abroad course called “A Taste for Culture,” which will continue March 14 to 23 in Spain, and is designed to foster racial, ethnic, and religious understanding, one bite at a time.

“As a larger force field than class or nation, food shapes ethnic, cultural, and religious identity, reinforcing social distinctions, cultural affinities, and patterns of inclusion and exclusion,” says Ana Laguna, an associate professor of Spanish at Rutgers–Camden, who created and is leading the course.

Laguna explains that Spain is a vivid example of how the fight for food has fueled revolutions, reflected economical shifts, and caused political change in every community on the planet. The Rutgers–Camden researcher notes that, for more than seven centuries, the country’s extraordinary diversity made it one of the most powerful nations in the world.

“Spain’s superpower, before 1492, was its multicultural society, composed by the three main religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, which were able to coexist – eat, pray, love – in peace for the first time in history,” she says. “We will learn how to trace and taste this hybrid culinary tradition that resulted from this continued interaction and produced this enduring cultural capital.”

Joanis Lopez, a double major in childhood studies and psychology, says that she looked forward to visiting Spain, where she has always dreamed of going, as a way to “do something unforgettable” and challenge herself to delve deeper into a culture beyond her own.

“I felt this would be a very rewarding way to continue to expand my knowledge, grow as an individual, and even have fun while learning,” says Lopez, a Camden resident and graduate of the LEAP Academy University Charter School. “My love for both food and the Spanish language were even more reasons to explore the possibilities available through this course.”

Lopez notes that Laguna has already taught students a great deal about how food can shed light on individuals’ values, their social relationships, and even conflicts between peoples, throughout history.

For example, says the Rutgers–Camden student, in 16th-century Spain, when there was a lot of social mobility and revolt, the type and amount of meat one ate affirmed their status in society.

“If people could eat the best cuts of meat, it reflected an identity dependent on the sort of social capital that was food,” says Lopez. “I have learned that what and why we eat certain food is beyond biological necessity. It is the cultural, social, and even spiritual experiences that influence not only the foods people consume, but how they identify themselves through actual dishes and even portion sizes.”

Food, she continues, speaks to the history of a group of people and the place where they live, and this understanding has left her craving more.

“As I learn more about the many revelations that food can bring, I don’t just want to experience flavor,” says Lopez. “I am inclined to seek out new cuisine and delve into the importance of its taste in history.”

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