People from Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Haiti, Spain, Chile, Cuba and Colombia gathered Friday in the basement of the Lillian Marrero Library to make chana masala, a South Asian dish.
One thing they had in common: All are trying to learn or improve their English.
Edible Alphabet, an innovative Free Library of Philadelphia program that combines English learning and cooking, is currently at the Marrero branch in Fairhill, but it will soon come to the Lawncrest Library for a six-week period.
The weekly three-hour class brings English learners of different backgrounds together to make a recipe. Participants practice their vocabulary, reading and conversation skills while preparing a meal, which they then eat together.
It’s co-taught by a chef instructor and an English teacher, who work together to help students improve their language and culinary abilities.
Lindsay Southworth, Edible Alphabet’s program manager, said the goal of the unique program is to help participants learn English, build community in Philadelphia and connect them to other services at the library.
“Everyone has a history and culture connected to food and, often, positive experiences connected to food,” Southworth said. “We’ve found that it’s been a great vehicle for facilitating language learning and connection and community building in the library.”
The library’s Culinary Literacy Center started the program in 2015. Since then, it’s been successful, Southworth said, because preparing food and eating together makes people comfortable.
“Cooking puts people at ease,” she added. “The focus of their attention becomes the task that they’re completing and not the nitty-gritty of English or the stress of learning a new language or being in a new culture.”
Friday’s class started with English teacher Heather Houde asking participants what they had for breakfast. Then, they read a passage about the dish they made the week before, Bibimbap, and answered discussion questions.
Later, the class went over words for kitchen tools and discussed different cooking verbs, like dice and puree.
“The teacher is bilingual, and she knows Spanish; so if I don’t know something in English, she helps me and I practice,” said Dianelys De Jesus, who is from Puerto Rico. “We learn how to cook healthy food and new recipes.”
David, who did not want his last name used, moved to Philadelphia from Spain two months ago and loves to cook. He said the class is a good, intuitive way to learn a new language.
“My English is very bad. I want to improve my English,” he added. “For me, it’s perfect.”
Houde, who also teaches traditional English courses at Congreso, a Kensington nonprofit, said conventional classes can be stressful.
Edible Alphabet offers a more casual way to learn English, and participants who may be experts in the kitchen but English beginners can enter the class with a “certain confidence,” Houde added.
“I think it’s very accessible for people of all different education levels and backgrounds,” she said.
The class at the Marrero Library was made up mostly of Spanish speakers, but Southworth expects the Lawncrest sessions will draw people from a wider variety of tongues, which she said enriches the program.
“They have no option if they’re going to get this recipe done but to figure out how to communicate about it in English because that’s the shared language between everyone,” Southworth said.
Edible Alphabet is offered at the Parkway Central Library, which has a large kitchen, and Independence Library in addition to the Marrero and Lawncrest branches.
For the Lawncrest sessions, library employees will bring crates of cooking equipment, including electric skillets, to create a mobile kitchen.
The branch first hosted the program in the fall, and Southworth said she has been blanketing Northeast Philadelphia, hoping to attract more participants to this round of classes.
“There’s a lot of English language learners in the Northeast and not that many English classes,” she said.
Edible Alphabet will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Mondays starting Feb. 24 at Lawncrest Library, 6098 Rising Sun Ave. Participants are encouraged to attend all sessions, but missing one is not a big deal, Southworth said.
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.