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Updated: 9:16 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011 | Posted: 1:40 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011

Classes teach students the language while they learn to cook

Addie Broyles, Relish Austin



It's pretty lonely living in a foreign place surrounded by people who speak a language other than your own.

Casey Smith found this out three years ago when she spent five months living in Chile with her husband. Her Spanish skills were limited, so it was difficult to meet new people and complete simple tasks like order food at a restaurant. But she was eager to learn the language and traditions of this new country, so she assigned herself a task: Translate recipes from a Chilean cookbook and learn to cook them. She mastered Chilean specialties such as pan amasado while honing Spanish skills that she never would have learned in a traditional classroom.

The entrepreneur-turned-stay-at-home mom came back to Austin with an idea: Why not establish a nonprofit that uses cooking to teach English?

Cooking Up English hosted its first classes for more than 10 students from Taiwan, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, China, Chile and South Korea last fall in the kitchen of the University United Methodist Church, where Smith is a member. The students have a basic understanding of English, Smith says, but want experience learning practical vocabulary and usage.

In November, during the final class of a series about Southern food, four apron-clad students watched as instructor Gail Totten-Goodrich demonstrated how to roll out a refrigerated pie crust for a chocolate pie.

"Pie crusts are fiddly," she said as they crimped the edges of the crust. Quickly noting that she'd used a word that the students might not know, she defined "fiddly" and explained that she was "crimping" the pie edges.

"Words come up that you would never think to bring up in a classroom," says Gail Goodrich-Totten , a bilingual speech-language pathologist who spent many years teaching English as a Second Language classes in Panama and is one of several Cooking Up English volunteer instructors. Teachers explain words as they come up. What's the difference between drizzle and sprinkle or shred and squirt? What's a pinch versus a dash?

Cooking utensils and techniques are often left out of traditional language instruction classes like the ones Minji Kim and Sophia Yoo Park came to Austin to take. The South Koreans met in the Cooking Up English class, where they've learned the linguistic difference between a pan and pot and what it means to whisk and to stir.

Kim says she likes the classes not just because they are a more natural learning environment than the classroom. "Before, I didn't like to cook, but now I do," Kim says.

In addition to new vocabulary, asking students to explain a process or to describe differences in cooking techniques and customs requires them to use different verbs and verb tenses, Goodrich-Totten says. They also learn new units of measurement (in Korea, only cosmetics are measured in ounces, Kim explains) and techniques not used by cooks in their homeland, such as preheating a cast-iron skillet before pouring in cornbread batter.

At the beginning of the program, students get workbooks with each of the recipes they'll learn to make as well as a picture dictionary of key cooking and food terms.

The class also covers idioms, which are some of the hardest but most interesting elements of a new language. Cooking is full of them, not to mention the day-to-day idioms that involve food: "eyeballing it," "cool as a cucumber," "the big cheese," "rule of thumb," "the best thing since sliced bread," "chew the fat," "easy as pie," "icing on the cake."

Each week, in addition to cooking a recipe with the instructors, they have at-home assignments that take them out of the kitchen and into grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets, where they can practice their newly acquired skills and vocabulary.

One week, they might have to order a pound of ground beef from the butcher at the grocery store, and the next week they might be asked to find a new ingredient on a food blog.

Students come to the classes with a range of cooking expertise. "Some people are learning cooking as well as English," Goodrich-Totten says.

Lidia Flores , a retired nurse and seasoned cook from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, says this is the first time she'd had any of the dishes, and she especially liked the King Ranch casserole.

On the other end of the scale is Luis Méndez , a retired telephone worker from Guadalajara, Jalisco, who says he has learned as much about cooking as the English language in these classes. "My English is not perfect, but it's a good opportunity to learn many things about the tools of the kitchen."

In coming years, Smith hopes to expand the program to include Cooking Up French and Cooking Up Spanish to help English speakers learn languages and food customs from French- and Spanish-speaking countries. In the meantime, Smith is answering inquiries from people as far away as Denton who want to offer classes.

Smith says Cooking Up English is about teaching language and cooking skills, but it's also about helping people feel welcome and part of the community. "It's hard not knowing anybody when you move to a new place," she says. "We want people to feel connected and that they are involved in something."

At her first American Thanksgiving with friends last year, Yoo Pack served the King Ranch chicken casserole she'd learned to make in the class for her friends.

"They eat it like horse," she says.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Chocolate Pie

This recipe has been passed down to Casey Smith from her great-grandmother, Polly White, who lived in West Texas.

Store-bought pie crust

13/4 cup sugar, divided

1/3 cup flour

1/4 cup cocoa

4 eggs, yolks and white separated

2 cups milk

2 Tbsp. melted butter

1/2 tsp. cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Roll out store-bought pie dough and place in a pie pan. Crimp the edges, and bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes.

In a small saucepan, combine 11/2 cup sugar, flour and cocoa. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together yolks, milk and melted butter until well combined. Gradually add milk and egg yolk mixture to saucepan and beat until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture becomes thick, glossy and bubbly, about 10 minutes.

Spoon chocolate mixture into pie shell and set aside. To make meringue, use an electric blender to beat egg whites with cream of tartar in a mixing bowl until egg whites have turned foamy. Gradually add remaining 1/4 cup sugar a tablespoon at a time until stiff peaks form and sugar dissolves, about 2 to 4 minutes.

Spread meringue topping over chocolate filling, making sure to spread the meringue to the edge of the crust to "seal" the topping. Bake at 325 degrees for 25 minutes or until the tips of the peaks in the meringue have turned golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool completely. Serves 8-10.

- Polly White

Cooking Up English information

Classes: In the next few months, Cooking Up English is hosting four five-class series. Most classes, which are limited to about six students, take place in the evening, but there are afternoon classes offered in addition for two of the series (holiday and comfort foods). The fee for each series of classes is on a sliding scale, from $35 to $165. The schedule:

• Holiday foods (Jan. 31 to Feb. 28)

• Quick dishes (Feb. 2 to March 2)

• Comfort foods (March 21 to April 18)

• Breakfast (March 23 to April 20)

Fundraiser: On Feb. 10, Cooking Up English is hosting Eat Your Heart Out from 7 to 9 p.m. at Mercury Haall (615 Cardinal Lane) featuring food, cocktails, a silent auction and live music. Tickets ($30) can be purchased at www.cookingupenglish.org or at the door.

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