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English learning students bring their international 'Fork Tales' to life on the MCC stage

English learning students bring their international 'Fork Tales' to life on the MCC stage

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MUSCATINE — Almost everyone has a “weird food story”, and for some MCC students, these stories are how all of their different cultures connect.

On Wednesday, several English language learners took the Strahan Hall theater stage at Muscatine Community College to share not only their stories, but also their culture’s unique food dishes and experiences.

Their performance, “Fufu and Other International Cuisines”, contained 14 different stories and was put together by Mary Swander. Swander is a former Iowa Poet Laureate and creator of other storytelling performances such as “Map to my Kingdom”, “Vang” and several others. “Fufu and Other International Cuisines” is part of a larger project called “Farm to Fork Tales."

“I go to communities, schools or towns or whatever it may be, and I get people to tell part of their own food and farming stories,” Swander said. For this performance, it was focused strictly on food and culinary stories from around the world. “It’s their own words, and they’re telling their own stories. They’re not professional actors, but they’re giving it their best. They’re also doing all this in a second language.”

“Really, (the students) are telling stories about when they first came to the United States or talking about their culture and learning language,” said Rachel Riley Smock, one of the teachers for this class, “Obviously it brings great passion and great memories because when we think of food, we think of our family and smells and flavors – and so the students came up with some fantastic stories.”

One of the students, Marilisa Trimboli from Brazil, had not one but three memorable stories to tell. These included the first time she and her husband received deer meat, which was very unfamiliar to them, the time her daughter unknowingly ate a lamb she knew personally, and the time she introduced her fellow English language classmate to her country’s national dish, feijoada (black beans).

“To me, it’s amazing,” Trimboli said, “We have people from around 13 countries in our class… and what Mary is doing with this performance is showing how different our histories are, but at the same time food can still bring people together. I really enjoy hearing the histories and hearing about things I’ve never ate before.”

Another student, Alexandre Tchiladalo Behezi, came from Toga in West Africa to learn English “I am the only one in my family to come here. I am here to study English, and I am very happy,” said Behezi.

For his piece, Behezi shared his love of fufu, a West African dish made cassava, yams or plantains and cocoyams that’s pounded into a dough-like consistency and dipped into soup or sauce. “If you are eating fufu, and someone says something, you will not know that he is talking because you are eating fufu.” 

While she did not experience this food herself, student Elizabeth Dominguec, who was raised in Mexico, was more than happy to share her friend’s experience of hunting and eating armadillo. “I came to class and they just asked me if I could play a part since (my friend) was not here, and I said okay,” Dominguec said, “I’ve never ate armadillo before but the lady I’m reading for did. She said it’s good but I’ve never tried it, and I don’t think I ever will.” Still, she added that she really liked doing this performance, despite sometimes feeling nervous on stage.

“What was brilliant about this experience is that our quieter students were blossoming and speaking up, becoming very chatty as they shared, allowing them to practice their skills and confidence,” Smock said, “It’s been very wonderful to see.” With how much fun she and her students have had, she hopes that Swander will return to MCC, and that this performance is only the beginning of their collaborations with her.

The group will also be performing this Fork Tales piece again in February at Grinnell College, something Swander is very excited about. “(This group) is really good sports. They didn’t know what was hitting them, when I walked in the door,” she joked. Still, both she and her performers seem to agree that it has been a great experience. “Just to hear their food stories is from around the world is one thing, but then they also bring their own personalities to it. I just love this group, they’re really great.”

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