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U. course builds community, understanding through the culture of food

SALT LAKE CITY — This isn't a class for people who want to stay in their comfort zone.

Just ask Jaechul Jung. After sampling grits with shrimp and collard greens seasoned with bacon and onions, the University of Utah student from South Korea declared Southern cooking a hit.

"It was first time in my life" to try grits and collard greens, he said.

"It was exotic to me. I never try it before. It is really good. Me and my friends from South Korea don't like the real spicy food. This was smooth."

For chef J. Looney and Rachel Jones, assistant professor in the U.'s College of Health, the cooking demonstration and sampling was another opportunity to build bridges in the Cultural Aspects of Food class they teach together. The class is such a hit among students, there is a three-year waiting list for admission.

While the class is all about the food, with Looney teaching students to prepare authentic cuisine from places ranging from Ethiopia, Italy and Thailand, the students themselves provide some of the lasting lessons, Jones said.

For instance, students from the Middle East were appalled to learn about hunger and food insecurity in the United States.

"Culturally, it shameful not to share their food with other people," Jones said. "They kept asking me, 'Why don't people share their food with them?'"

While students learn about nutrition, the history behind certain styles of cuisine and the politics of the food supply, they are largely learning about other people.

For one assignment this term, students had to interview a person who had been in the United States less than a year. One student interviewed an African refugee who works as a custodian on the university campus. As the interview progressed, the man lifted his pant leg to reveal a gnarled limb, remnants of a lion attack.

Kirstie Kandaris, a junior biology major, told the class about her interview with a fellow U. student who was born in a refugee camp in India after her family escaped Tibet. The young woman works at the Tibetan restaurant her family runs in Salt Lake City but she has designs on a career in medicine. She is attending the U. on a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation scholarship.

Kandaris, who is Greek but also of Spanish and Italian descent, said she initially wanted to take the class to fulfill an international studies requirement. "I've been trying to get into this class for almost four semesters. It's pretty cool."

But she also wanted to take the class because of her own appreciation of food and its role in breaking down barriers. "My family, we weren't the Wonder Bread family," she said.

For much of her childhood, she introduced friends to her family's diverse Mediterranean menu, particularly spanakopita. Friends who wouldn't dream of eating spinach or onions on their own would devour the Greek phyllo dough pie stuffed with spinach, onions, cheese and herbs. "There's something magical about spanakopita," she said.

McClain Whitney, who is seeking a degree in athletic training, said his knowledge of diverse foods has helped him better relate to athletes he helps treat. "Any connection with people I work with is helpful to build rapport."

Looney, who has worked as a chef at the Metropolitan, Ogden's Prairie Schooner Steakhouse & Restaurant and pulls occasional shifts on The Chow Truck, said it is gratifying to help students expand their palates.

"By expanding our food view, we're expanding our worldview," he said.

Jones, a registered dietitian who also has a master's degree in public health, said students also benefit from interactions with a diverse student body.

In one class, a Native American student was seated next to a white student. From the first day, Jones could tell that the white student was agitated. It wasn't until the class ended that Jones received a thank-you note that explained the student's behavior. His father had been murdered by a Native American man.

"He spent his whole life hating anything that had to do with Native Americans," she said.

But in Jones' class, he got to know his classmate as an individual.

"They became friends," Jones said, adding that it's far from an isolated occurrence.

"It's powerful to see someone from an Arab country sitting next to someone from Israel. These kids are learning to get along in the world."

No doubt, Looney's deft touch with food is a definite draw. His shrimp, grits and collard greens were unaccustomed dishes to the vast majority of students. The meal, prepared with enthusiasm and generous dollops of bacon grease, won rave reviews.

But the greater goal of the class is building community, Jones said.

"Our purpose is to open up a dialogue about how similar we are as human beings."