In Liliana Jacobson-Peregrino’s family, Thanksgiving is not known for turkey and all the trimmings. It’s “enchi” time. The day after the holiday, which the family spends traveling to see relatives in Texas, everyone eats enchiladas, hence the family name for the annual tradition.
The 16-year-old, a student at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury, is in the midst of a food writing project in English teacher Ian Doreian’s 10th-grade class. The focus is a short culinary memoir, one that ties together the components of a particular food or dish significant to the student telling the story. On the subject of enchiladas on Thanksgiving Friday, Jacobson-Peregrino says, “You can always get them at restaurants, but it’s special when you make them with your family.”
The memoirs are an extension of another project in Doreian’s class, called “Culture Vulture.” Each term, he says, students engage in a cultural activity and then write about it in a first-person journal, a sample advertisement, or a third-person-style newspaper article. The activities range from a restaurant review to a museum visit to an author reading. “What I realized is, of course, everybody loves food. Everyone loves writing about their families. So this was the perfect matchup,” says Doreian, 33, a Roxbury resident.
The 91 students, split into three classes, begin the endeavor by filling out a brainstorming sheet in March, with questions and different prompts, such as favorite childhood snack or a first cooking experience, to get students thinking about a memoir topic and how food fits into the larger picture of their lives.
Students will continue to write and edit their memoirs until the end of this month, with the help of 826 Boston, a nonprofit that mentors children on their writing skills.
On a recent Tuesday, during the first of three editing sessions with 826 Boston, several tutors from the organization sit down with students in the school library. Each reads from his or her memoir and receives feedback from the tutor and the other students. Then they trade memoirs with a partner, and each fills out a peer review sheet, focusing on how well the student did at a “crisp description of food.”
Tim House, an 826 Boston executive board member and volunteer, advises a table of students to always keep in mind the person who will be reading the story. “Be careful that you’re focused on making the descriptions come through, rather than trying to make good descriptions,” says House.
At another table, Manisha Gaffoor, 16, is vacillating between two Hindu desserts, and Jessica Drench, 826 Boston program director, helps her decide to write about a mango dish she first tried when she was 7 years old in her family’s native Guyana. Gaffoor says she first thought the dish, which her aunt made, was curry because of its golden color, but it smelled sweet.
Drench pushes Gaffoor to think of a more sophisticated description of the dish, telling Gaffoor that “sweet” alone is too vague for someone to imagine how the dessert tastes. Gaffoor tells Drench that the dish has a sweet smell, like condensed milk. Drench suggests that Gaffoor meet with her aunt, who lives nearby, shop for the ingredients in the dish, observe her cooking, and taste it again to refresh her memory and make her memoir stronger.
After students turn in final copies of the memoirs, Doreian says that an editorial board of students will work with design interns at 826 Boston to put together a book to be released at the end of May. The goal of the project, says the teacher, is to make students feel like writers.
“In our class, they write, they read, but most of the time they don’t think of themselves as being authors,” he says. “We do the research papers, but this is a different type of thing, where, in many ways, they feel more ownership. I’m hoping that as they see themselves as being authors, they develop that ownership over their words and their sentences.”
Doreian says the writing process has inspired him to do some self-reflection. “Even as I’ve been helping them, I’m suddenly starting to think like a writer again,” he says. “I’m thinking that I need to talk about my grandmom’s sticky buns.”
Sarah Mupo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.