LOWELL — One day last fall, Umalkheeyr Cabdi Mahamed, 17, rose at 3 a.m. to make breakfast for her US history seminar at Lowell High School. The junior wanted to share canjeero iyo suugo, a spiced chicken stew with sweet thin pancakes, her mother’s favorite dish and a reminder of the home she left behind in Somaliland.
Umalkheeyr was cooking out of more than goodwill; her dish was being sampled for this year’s edition of “Tasting History,” the seminar’s cookbook. She and her classmates — English learners and almost all immigrants — ultimately contributed 59 family recipes and stories about their journeys to the cookbook.
Now in its fourth year, the “Tasting History” project has accomplished more than envisioned. In December, the 2020-2021 edition earned a Founders Award from The Readable Feast, an annual New England culinary book festival. That win led to a trial collaboration between the students and Lowell Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services. Once a month, one recipe has been served as a lunchtime entree option to a student body of 14,387. The students are now teaching the adults.
“I want people to know our culture because we have a lot of cultural diversity here in the United States. If you share your food, your culture, your experience, you’ll introduce them to your country,” says senior Samantha Segura Marroquin of Guatemala, 19, who last year submitted a Christmas tamale recipe. Adds senior Jamilly Marques, 18, who this year contributed a recipe for Brazilian-style hot dogs: “When [students] see your food, they see your country.”
The trial ― which ended last week— has been a success, and the collaboration will continue in the fall. Some dishes were so popular Michael Emmons, the food service’s executive chef, hopes to include them into a regular lunch rotation. Dishes like lok lak, a glossy peppered beef served with salad from Cambodia, and feijoada, an inky black bean and pork stew served with white rice from Brazil.
Lowell Public Schools is an ideal setting for this partnership. The student body is diverse: Hispanic (37.7 percent), Asian (27.5 percent), White (22.9 percent), Black (7.7 percent) and multi-race (4.1 percent). At least 50 languages are spoken in the high school. The four cookbooks reflect that range: 42 countries and one autonomous region are represented.
The cookbooks are the brainchild of Jessica Lander, 34, a creative English Language history and civics teacher who affectionately refers to her students as “kiddos.” Her work — which includes education policy discourse — has earned numerous professional accolades. She is also among five finalists for the 2023 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. (Lander periodically pens opinion pieces for The Boston Globe.)
Lander arrived at Lowell High School in 2015 and, two years later, came up with the cookbook project while leading her “U.S. History 2 Seminar.” The course covers the 1870s to the present, encompassing an era when 20 million immigrants arrived in the United States.
While teaching immigration history, Lander recognized her students are, themselves, experts on being immigrants. She developed the cookbook as a means “to honor their stories and show their stories are valuable, just as important” as those in US history books. “I wanted to use food as a story of migration,” she says.
Sometimes students have had to call relatives in their native countries for help with recipes. They learn to explain cooking techniques as well as ingredients others might find unfamiliar. Family tales introduce each dish. Edits go 15-20 rounds. Dishes are prepared at home and shared with the class.
Lander serves as photographer and editor. Publishing fees are raised by book sales; each is $30. “Just as we study the stories of newcomers a hundred years ago, it is essential that we study the stories of today’s newcomers,” Lander writes in the introduction of the latest book. “These young people are a vital part of America’s future.”
When Alysia Spooner-Gomez, the district’s food service director, learned about the win last winter, she urged Emmons to tap into the cookbook because, she says, “it would be a waste to do nothing.” (The Lowell Sun reported in January the school committee asked food services to develop a feedback program because students and families have complained about school meals over the years.)
Emmons, known as “Chef Mike” to students and faculty, joined the district last fall after a stint as a sous chef for Google in California. He was eager to pay homage to the students’ recipes. “We wanted to be culturally responsive and take a step into another world,” he says.
Once a recipe is selected, Emmons adapts it for scale and financial practicality. Then he takes it to Lander’s class for taste tests. The students are quick to tell Emmons if his early versions fail their expectations. “Letting the kids have a voice in the meal is the most rewarding part of this project,” he says.
Spooner-Gomez prepares in-house marketing with fliers about the student and their dish then shares background on the meals with faculty. Lunch, like breakfast, is free of charge in Lowell’s public schools through a federal program for low-income districts.
Lander’s students are awed by the results. “I’m so excited that a lot of people like it,” says junior Nempisey Pout, 18, who submitted a lok lak recipe. “The important thing is that I share my culture and Khmer food with students from other countries.”
Next spring, “Tasting History” cookbooks will be part of a new third-grade social studies class called “Lowell, Then and Now.” Lander says the class will include videos of some high school students talking about their recipes and migration journeys.
The students’ own stories — through food — are now part of local history.