Smoke is trailing into the sky above the garden at Davis Bilingual Magnet Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona. No, the fire alarms aren’t ringing.
The source of the fire is mesquite wood burning in an open stove, or hornillo, built on the last weekend work day at Davis. The hornillo sits next to the beehive-shaped adobe oven, built essentially from dried mud that is then covered in linseed oil to protect from the elements.
Julian Barceló, a 1st-grade teacher at Davis Elementary, is going about his normal Friday, cooking up nutritious dishes in the garden. Even though it is both a time and financial challenge, Barceló’s class manages to cook a new food each week. Early in the week, Barceló and interns compile a list of ingredients for the meal they will prepare on Friday. The resulting meal is made possible by the support of interns, mamás, papás and abuelos who donate food to the class.
Barceló was born in Huásabas, Sonora, where he grew up surrounded by agriculture. Visiting his hometown now, he notes that his neighbors no longer grow their own food. Many people in the community suffer from poor health: high cholesterol levels, diabetes, high triglycerides. To fight this battle here in Tucson, he focuses on feeding his students local and unprocessed foods. Last week the class made gorditas de nopales, corn tortillas stuffed with prickly pear pads.
“Taste buds get desensitized over time from eating processed foods,” says Barceló. It is difficult to go back to whole foods like wheat flour because the taste varies from more common white flour. However, the kids build off of positive peer pressure to try his new, or technically old, foods.
Today the hornillo is covered with a slightly-rounded metal griddle called a comal. Students line up with their flattened and misshapen tortillas, and Barceló carefully tosses them on the hot comal. After the tortillas are slightly cooked, he lays them over charcoals until they are perfectly golden brown. The comal must not be too hot or they burn and become rigid and stiff.
Barceló is animated and driven. He points to a bubble forming in one of the tortillas and notes its similarity to the bubble that forms on a croaking toad, or a sapito. We are reminded that the tortilla, much like bubbly pita bread, is an Arab tradition. A stew of lentils, green chiles, tomatoes, garlic, onions and cilantro pulled earlier from the Davis garden is poured over the tortillas.
To Barceló, cooking is a way to teach students valuable lessons, including how to write. He feels that through cooking pinto beans, students learn that great things come about by way of slow processes. Many steps need to be taken to reach a meaningful product.
With this in mind, the general approach to cooking and writing is nearly the same. First soak the beans, then chop the onion. First brainstorm an idea, then write an outline. “It is the best way for [students] to understand the process of writing,” says Barceló. “And then, it’s called writing with a purpose.”