Cooking Up English

By Melanie Warnick
Photography by Benjamin Sklar

Tackling your first recipe can feel a bit like deciphering a foreign language. For the students in Casey Smith's Cooking Up English class, it actually is. They're all learning English as a second language, and in the Austin, Texas, church kitchen where they gathered recently, they're intent on uncovering the secrets of American-style meatloaf as a key to unlocking their new language.

Casey, 32, starts by drilling them on the names of ingredients and utensils. "What are these?" she asks.

"Measuring spoons?" ventures Ryota Saito, a Japanese chemistry researcher at the University of Texas.

"Right," says Casey. "And what's this?" She holds up a red bottle.

"Ketchup!" chime the students.

At Cooking Up English, food is the catalyst for learning new vocabulary. But it also encourages conversation. As the students, mostly young professionals from Vietnam, Japan, Hungary and Korea, mix ketchup and ground mustard into a sauce, they chatter in English: "Please pass a measuring cup." "May I borrow the sage from you?" They also laugh a lot.

It's exactly the kind of connection that Casey hoped for when she launched the nonprofit a year ago. "Part of the reason Cooking Up English works is that we create our own little community in class, so students don't feel isolated from the rest of Austin," she says. "They feel like they belong here."

Casey learned firsthand what it's like to flounder in a foreign country when she and her husband spent five months in Santiago, Chile. "When I wasn't able to converse the way I do in the U.S., it was isolating, discouraging and lonely," she says. It wasn't until she painstakingly translated recipes from a Chilean cookbook that a window opened on the language and people who speak it. When she told a local, in halting Spanish, that she had baked pan amasado, a Chilean yeast bread, "his face lit up. It was common ground for us to communicate."

Once home, Casey brainstormed ways to offer a similar experience to Austin residents who are not native speakers of English. She hit on Cooking Up English as a way to give learners something to talk about. A neighbor who taught English as a Second Language helped her devise a curriculum focused on classic American recipes. In the fall of 2010 the program launched its first three classes with 22 students.

Since then, Casey and a handful of volunteers have taught people from 15 countries, including Mexico, Brazil, Russia, China and Iraq, how to cook and discuss food.

For Kata Prem-Biro, a Hungarian human resources specialist, making new friends is one of the best things about Cooking Up English. Her husband, Zoli Prem, adds, "I spent two months in a language school, but I've learned more important and useful things in this class."

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