What can a school lunch teach you about immigration? A lot, according to Lower East Side middle school students! This past Friday, the Eighth Graders at the Manhattan Academy of Technology served a lunch that spanned the globe and connected them to their families’ stories of immigration. The lunch was hosted as part of the school’s Cultural Diversity Celebration, which I was lucky enough to attend on behalf of the Tenement Museum’s Education Department. An afternoon of cuisine, dance, and song, the celebration was the culminating event of a semester’s worth of learning that began with the students visiting the Tenement Museum for our Foods of the Lower East Side walking tour!
Teachers Chris Piccigallo and Al Guerriero designed a curriculum that places their students in the role of historians, inviting them to explore American History through the stories of their school’s Lower East Side community, past and present. In kicking off with the Museum’s walking tour, the LES-born teaching team hoped to inspire students to connect, through food, to their own family’s immigration story. On the tour, students tasted tostones (savory fried plantains), dumplings, pickles, and cheeses, while discussing the foods’ links to neighborhood immigrant communities. The students were encouraged to see these foods as more than just fuel, to see them as evolving artifacts that can teach about a culture. They carried this idea with them into their semester: delving into Lower East Side immigration history, the students completed an oral history interview with a family member, and ultimately contributed a dish from their family’s background to share with their classmates at this celebration.
Pernil, or roast pork, sat next to a tray of fragrant arroz con gandules, rice and green peas from Puerto Rico. Seven different types of dumplings represented different regions of China, including Shui jiao (pork and chive dumplings) from the North. The sweets table overflowed with options—Russian zefir spice cookies, Vietnamese seven-layer cake, Israeli hamentashen for Purim, Dominican tres leches cake, and a rainbow of Italian pastries. A cross-cultural connection was found in the small tarts labelled Nata, representing Portugal—they closely resembled Dan Tat, the egg custard tarts frequently found in Lower East Side Chinese bakeries.
In chatting to students and teachers, I learned about their experience completing the project. One student proclaimed it “cool” to learn about her classmates’ backgrounds; another mentioned that she had wanted to bring tamales, but “they take four hours to make, and my parents have to work.” When asked what her favorite part of the Museum’s walking tour was, one student replied “Dumplings!” And when I asked what she’d contributed to the meal today, she enthusiastically echoed her last response: “Dumplings!” Piccigallo told me he loves using food as a teaching tool, as “It gets families sharing stories and talking about things that they’ve maybe never talked about.” He noted, too, that using the neighborhood as the backdrop for students’ learning, they’re able to see their Lower East Side community in new ways.
The Museum is proud to support classroom learning like this, and we always strive to foster these connections between the Museum’s stories and students’ own lives. By giving students the opportunity to connect their own lives to the history of the Lower East Side, we hope they can imagine their family’s meals (and their family’s stories) teaching others about that history.