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Jennifer Cognard-Black

On a gray and drizzly morning in mid-March, I was perched on an ugly desk in an even uglier classroom in a building nicknamed the “home of the goblins.” Looking at the circle of sleepy students fanned out around me, I was about to start what would become my last face-to-face class as a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam.

Either by choice or by fate, these students had signed up for an early-morning seminar on the American literatures of food as taught by me, a complete stranger—a seminar that counted for exactly none of their degree requirements. And I, in turn, was figuring out how to live and work in an ancient city, at a new university, amid a people whose first language I didn’t speak—that sounded to me as deep and unknowable as the North Sea.

Seeing my students’ weariness and sharing in their growing concern over a virus that had jumped from China to Italy before popping up in Amsterdam the week before, I suspected that what kept us going on that dreary, overcast day was our genuine pleasure in each other’s company—and the promise of good eats.

For, you see, my students were required to work in small groups to cook a recipe embedded in one of the books we were reading, and then, when their assigned text was up for discussion, they brought their dish to class—which the rest of us got to sample before considering how the food functioned as metaphor, symbol, or idea within the story.

That misty morning, we had yogurt and honey and cut apples to look forward to—as soon as I finished the housekeeping, that is. My chatter about the up-coming readings, their up-coming assignment, and our up-coming final class potluck was really just a transition: a means of centering them and me in the now of our togetherness.

After my little litany of to-dos, I stepped aside and took a seat within the circle myself, allowing Patrick, Ellen, and Joe to take my place at that hideous front desk. This, too, had become another ritual of transition: while the three presenters busied their hands in passing around their chosen dish to the rest of us—asking us to layer our own yogurt, honey, and fruit within little plastic wine glasses—I made sure everyone had a napkin and a spoon. Then the room started to hum.

Once everyone was served, I looked to the students, and they looked to me. A hesitation. A nod. And they dug in.

I no longer remember the rich details that Patrick, Ellen, and Joe provided on the etymologies of the words “yogurt” or “honey” or “apple,” or the history they gave us about the origins of these three ingredients, or their mythopoetic meanings. I don’t recall what insights they offered about why our final novel, Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, included a recipe for yogurt parfait as part of the book’s conclusion.

Instead, what I recall is this: how we spooned the parfait into our mouths, grateful for its soothing flavor on such a cheerless morning. How our shared meal both woke us up and brought us into each other’s imaginations—turning the unloveliness of our classroom and our fears over an uncertain future into the electric current of collective idea. And how I appreciated their generosity of spirit: their willingness to take a class for its own sake, and their courage in cooking and eating with each other.

For to eat is to make yourself vulnerable—to take something outside and make it inside: to make it a part of yourself.

After that class, I got a call from my spouse. Trump had announced his European travel ban, and my exchange program was over. That very day, we drove to France and back to extract our daughter from from her canceled semester studying in Tours. The next, I packed up everything we’d brought with us to live for six months in Europe. Two days later, we were on an eerily empty plane, and then we were back home in Maryland. Ever since, I haven’t left my house except for groceries, curbside takeout, or to go on a walk.

And yet my Amsterdam seminar with those generous students—they’re now a part of me. And when I’m faced with the ravages of the pandemic or the ugliness of politics or just a bleary, rainy day, I return to the recipes we tried, the food we shared, and the meaning we made.

I re-center myself in the imaginative now of our together-apartness—and I feel hope.

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