Apologies and Some Holiday Baking

So, sometimes I decide to teach full-time, apply to PhD programs, and train for a marathon, all at the same time. And, at those times, I forget to be a good blogger. Now, I’ve survived my first marathon, finished applying to graduate programs, and…well, I still teach. But that’s less of an excuse.

As my first foray back into writing, I thought I should reflect on one of the more interesting food-related experiences I had over the holidays. On one of my weekends on duty at the school before our winter break, my teacher friend and I hosted a group of students to bake and decorate sugar cookies. You need to understand a bit more about my student demographic to know how momentous this was. Many, if not most, of my students are Chinese, and baking, indeed, even owning an oven, is not nearly as common in China as it is in the United States. Many had never made cookies before (although I use the term “made cookies” loosely. We used the sugar cookie dough from a tube).

My students are a wonderful and powerful reminder of how our perceptions of food are colored by our cultural background. That weekend, it was not only close to Christmas, it was also one of our bakers’ birthday, so she had requested that we bake “the cake with the fun in it” for her. Funfetti cake, we assumed. After baking the cake and letting it cool on the counter, we gave the girls a simple buttercream frosting and some decorating icing. The girls proceeded to frost the top of the bottom layer and then place the other layer on top.

When they reached for the decorating icing, we asked, “Girls, don’t you want to frost the whole thing…? And then decorate it?”

“No!” they replied, shocked. “Then it would be too sweet,” replied the girls who had just consumed their weight in sugar cookies.

The end result was this:

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A stranger looking cake I’ve never seen. But my students were thrilled with their baking success. My friend and I clearly had a specific set of rules for how cakes should be put together and decorated, developed over years of American, middle-class birthday parties. Our students, clearly, did not. A valuable reminder for me that, despite the fact that this cake looks a little like the head of a Peanuts character, there is no “right” and “wrong” in food.

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