Cooking Up English

On a Monday afternoon, five students from Mexico, Chile and South Korea gather at the University United Methodist Church (UUMC) on the UT campus, eager for their English lesson to begin. But this is no typical English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Instead of sitting at desks, they’re gathered around prep tables in the church’s kitchen. Notebooks aren’t required, but aprons are. Measuring spoons and recipes stand in for pencils and textbooks. The teachers, Gail Totten, a bilingual speech therapist, and Kelly Holt, an Austin Community College (ACC) English teacher, dive into the day’s lesson: spaghetti and meatballs with a side of idioms and action verbs.

This is Cooking Up English, the brainchild of East Austin neighbors Casey Smith and Christie Hepburn, who decided it would be cool to teach practical-application language skills via conversations over cutting boards and gas burners. The idea for the nonprofit came to Smith, a member of UUMC, when she contemplated ways to serve the community. Recalling a time when she was a stranger in a strange land, and what she did to overcome language and culture barriers, she decided she wanted to help others in the same situation.

“My husband and I were in Chile for five and a half months taking Spanish classes,” she says. “I needed additional help, so I bought a Chilean cookbook and started to translate.” The payoff was twofold—she got a decent grip on the language and, through her cooking, came to know an important part of the culture.

Noting an abundance of non-English speakers in Austin (200,000-plus according to the 2000 U.S. Census) and a dearth of ESL programs (just 14), Smith knew she’d found her niche. Hepburn loved the idea immediately, and set about the task of writing a curriculum that focused on American cuisine and rudimentary language skills.

“The curriculum is designed to be fun, instructive and informative. It’s casual, yet chock-full of vocabulary, culture and cooking lessons,” says Hepburn, whose first installment features American comfort food. A second session is planned on Southern cooking.

The volunteer teachers tweak lessons as they go. Handmade teaching aids include posters with the week’s recipe in large type and charts featuring oversize measuring cups posted around the kitchen for reference. In addition to the featured dishes, the students, who pay a small, sliding-scale fee to attend, are also building community—part of the larger goal of Cooking Up English. “It can be really isolating to not speak English,” notes Smith.

At the end of each class, participants and instructors gather to eat what’s been prepared, and to discuss confusing English food-related idioms, like “separate the wheat from the chaff” and “cool as a cucumber.” Students also receive homework to encourage them to test out their burgeoning skills. One week, for example, the assignment was to ask a butcher how many servings are in one pound of ground beef.

The comfort and safety of working together as a small group with a delicious outcome fosters fast progress and plenty of laughter. The smell of fresh basil fills the air as the students relax into their environment and test out words and recipes—enjoying nourishment on several levels at once.