At the University of Kentucky, taco knowledge is power.
And why wouldn’t it be? In a time when tortillas are outselling bread and salsa is outselling ketchup in the US, the last thing anyone wants to be is ignorant about tacos—especially in the state of Kentucky. The state has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country.
This semester, the university is offering an undergraduate course called “Taco Literacy: Public Advocacy and Mexican Food in the US South.” Led by Steven Alvarez, an assistant professor in the university’s Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies department, the class aims to teach students about Mexican foodways in Kentucky and the broader South.
I spoke to Alvarez on the phone to find out what the class is all about, and what the homework for a course on Mexican food looks like. (Hint: Eating tacos and writing about it.)
MUNCHIES: Hi, Steven. What inspired you to create this class?
Steven Alvarez: Part of it was my involvement with the Southern Foodways Alliance. After going to one of their symposiums, it really hit me that food is important. The oral histories of food that I heard were amazing. The stories were really impactful but the food became secondary. It was more about the social connections that people were making with food.
You can go to the smallest towns in Appalachia and there will always be a Mexican restaurant. It is really interesting to see how Mexican food has evolved socially here. This class allows our students to explore the issues of immigration, inequality, workers, intercultural communication, and literacy through the prism of food.
There is a a lot of pressure for our students to go into majors like finance, economics, or medical school, because you can’t tell your parents, “I want to be a writer!” Often, a lot of our students tend to fall back on wanting to become teachers, too. This class offers students more flexibility when it comes to writing-based majors.
How has your class been received by the students so far?
Well, we got more students to sign up for it than we needed, and I’ve had a few more students add the class after starting. It is interesting to note also that even the most stubborn of students that say they hate writing love to write when it comes to writing about food.
What’s included on your syllabus?
You can find everything you would like to know at our website. We’re examining transnational community food literacies and how these connect the stories of people and food across borders. We explore the history of networks of Mexican and Mexican-American food in Kentucky by writing about recipes and rhetorics that deal with things such as authenticity, local variations and preparations, and how food literacies situate different spaces, identity, and forms of knowledge. This is in our class intro.
At the very end of the course, my students will be generators of knowledge, have a portfolio full of multimedia food journalism, and they will be over the fajita stage of Mexican food.
What course readings are required for your class?
Our first book is Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. Then we have the Tacopedia and Taco USA. Lastly, a book solely on tortillas called Tortillas: A Cultural History, because I try to break down to my students that a really good taco will always depend on the tortilla.
How was the first day of class?
I made my students write about their favorite Mexican dish. Their answers ranged from [to] fajitas and churros. I then asked my students to analyze the ingredients of the dish and see how they can make it at home.
What does the homework look like in your class?
I make them collect stories. I have students doing restaurant reviews and taco tours in the area that is now known as “Mexington,” a.k.a. the barrio of Lexington. I make my students post on Instagram and use hashtags as a form of archiving. I also make them watch MUNCHIES episodes. I make my students read their restaurant reviews out loud, too. I also made my students read Pete Well’s recent restaurant review of Señor Frog’s for The New York Times.
With all of these assignments, my students are practicing different storytelling techniques and forms of collecting data. At the very end of the course, my students will be generators of knowledge, have a portfolio full of multimedia food journalism, and they will be over the fajita stage of Mexican food.
What do you hope your students will get out of this class and how will the course material help them once they graduate?
The students that are taking my class right now range in what they expect to do. Some students want to go to law school after this; some students are looking into grad school for everything from English [to] Communication. Other students want to go into the nonprofit sector and do things like grant writing.
My hope, at the very least, is to have my students build more connections with the community and help with public writing—things like helping out small Mexican restaurants with menus and website design if they’d like. Stuff like that.
This course will make you savvy when it comes to rhetoric. Sure, there is no one way to become a writer, but I give my students tools to think of themselves as writers and build portfolios full of writing to use for the rest of their life.
Thanks for speaking with me.