Drexel Students and Neighborhood Residents Work Side-by-Side to Keep Local Culinary Traditions Alive
July 30, 2014
Grandma’s fruit cake. Dad’s chili. Mom’s pumpkin pie. Everyone has that favorite family food, the one that holidays and family gatherings wouldn’t be the same without.
A new class, called “Local Culinary Traditions,” in Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management aims to keep those family food traditions – and the stories behind them – alive.
Funded by a $50,000 grant from GlaxoSmithKline, the class is intended to document culinary traditions in the West Philadelphia community and to teach people how to make those homemade dishes healthier.
The summer class, which was opened up to members of the local community free-of-charge, meets every Tuesday from 4 – 8 p.m. from June 24 - Sept. 2 in the test kitchen of Drexel’s Paul Peck Problem-Solving and Research Center (33rd and Arch Streets).
During the first class session, the students made pierogies, a Polish-American family tradition of Chef James Feustel, a professor and director of the Department of Culinary Arts and Food Science, who teaches the class. The students were then asked to bring in a family recipe of their own to prepare for and share with the class.
“It’s a grown-up version of show-and-tell,” said Feustel.
“I think this class is especially important because of the way Drexel is situated in the neighborhood,” he said. “Students come to Drexel from across the country and around the world, and are located here in West Philadelphia for four years. They come with a diverse range of food traditions, and the neighborhood has its own rich traditions. This class is a way to cross-pollinate in a way, to share with and learn from each other.”
The students are also learning how to contemporize their family recipes with fresh ingredients, such as produce from the Drexel’s gardens, and healthy cooking techniques.
The updated recipes will be shared with the local community at three buffet-style dinners throughout the summer. The students will create the menu and prepare the meals, which will be held at Drexel’s Dana and David Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships (35th and Spring Garden Streets).
The Dornsife Center, which opened in June, was designed to support the needs of the communities that surround Drexel. The Center hosts community dinners the first Tuesday of every month, but the food is usually catered.
“The Dornsife Center aims to be a place to break down barriers between the Drexel, Powelton Village and Mantua communities and regularly sharing meals together seemed like a great place to start,” said Jennifer Britton, associate director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and launch director for the Dornsife Center.
The first of the three dinners with the help of the culinary course took place on July 1, with more than 80 people in attendance. “The event, by any measure, was a success,” said Feustel.
The next community dinner will take place at the Dornisfe Center on Tuesday, August 5. The menu will include a South American-inspired chicken stew, Swedish meatballs, Amish Slaw with cabbage from the Dornsife Center’s garden and fresh-baked focaccia.
The final dinner that the class will be involved in will be Tuesday, Sept. 2 at 6 p.m. The dinners are free and open to the public.
Mantua resident Josephine “Joe” Samuel, who heard about the course through the Dornsife Center, has worked with food all of her life. She learned to cook from her mother and sister, and continues to put those skills to use at the local daycare and her church, but has never taken a culinary class.
Samuel’s contribution to the class was her family fried chicken recipe. Under Feustal’s instruction, she is learning to make it healthier.
“This is the bomb,” Samuel said of the chicken she was seasoning. “I’ve learned that you don’t have to eat fried chicken every day. If you bread it and season it right, it can still taste good baked.”
Samuel said her church friends, family members and neighbors will be coming to the community dinner on August 5 to sample her reworked recipes. “The word is out!” she said.
Drexel student Matt Sandrowski, a senior hospitality management major, brought in his mother’s carrot cake recipe. He’s been playing around with making it more health-conscious by using Greek yogurt instead of cream cheese, honey instead of sugar and applesauce instead of oil.
“Everyone asks for this cake around the holidays,” said Sandrowski. “I actually like the healthier version better – the original was too sweet.”
Neighborhood resident Tykeem Bond brought in his grandmother’s sweet potato pie recipe.
“My grandma always makes this pie for Thanksgiving, Christmas, family reunions,” Bond said. “She taught me how to make it. I make it good, but not as good as hers.”
Now Bond is trying to lighten up the recipe by cutting down on the sugar and oil.
“It’s important to keep the tradition going,” he said. “It’s something that can be passed down from generation to generation.”
Francisco Rojas, an international student from Venezuela, brought in a family recipe all the way from Latin America – a chicken stew in red broth that was such a hit with the other students that they decided to serve it at the community dinner on August 5.
The recipes will also live on through a cookbook created by honors student Alexis Carlsson, an international area studies and public health major, who is collecting and compiling the recipes and the stories behind them. Teaching assistant Ana Caballero has also been documenting the class’ activities on Tumblr.
The Center for Hospitality and Sport Management will collaborate with the Dornsife Center again this fall with a course on improvisational cooking.
“Health and wellness is a priority for us at the Dornsife Center, with offerings like health screenings, dance and movement classes and nutrition and health care information sessions,” said Britton. “This culinary course has sparked a great deal of interest in future food-related programming.”