Pitt students study the language of food at picnic

The scent of cilantro, mint and garlic wafted through a 12th-floor kitchen in the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland. With grape leaves purchased from Stamoolis Brothers in the Strip District and a special spice mix bought in Baghdad, students learning Arabic and Turkish prepared a Middle Eastern picnic for their classmates. 

As part of a summer program at the University of Pittsburgh, more than 100 students are learning Slavic, Eastern European and Near Eastern languages. Each Friday, the group assembles for a meal hosted by a different language section, featuring traditional fare and live entertainment. 

At the third picnic of the summer this past Friday, June 27, the Arabic and Turkish students and instructors served fatoush (a tossed salad), bulgur (a traditional grain with spices and chickpeas), stuffed grape leaves, doner kebab and baklava. 

May George, the Arabic professor who hails from Baghdad, said the activity offered students a glimpse of the shared Middle Eastern heritage that the region‘‍s food represents. There is a stigma attached to eating out in the Arab world, and most families take pride in preparing three meals a day at home, she said, emphasizing the importance of cooking. 

Zac Tillman, 21, a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh and teaching assistant for the Arabic class, said the cooking program introduces students to an aspect of Arab culture without the risk or cost of studying abroad. Mr. Tillman spent a summer studying in Meknes, Morocco, on a State Department scholarship, where he came to love tagine and couscous.

He said understanding social norms, such as the behavior around meals, is a requirement for learning idiomatic speech. “You need to look at language from a cultural standpoint.” 

Sarah Tarnock, 25, who is studying Arabic, said it was “fun to cook something out of the ordinary,” though she was glad to be on salad duty and not responsible for something more complicated. She also appreciated the chance to get to know the Turkish students.

On the patio of Posvar Hall, students and instructors gathered at round tables to eat, happy for a break after a week of intensive language coursework. Sahra DeRoy, wearing red, snaked gracefully through the crowd, performing traditional and fusion belly dancing as Turkish music played in the background. 

The doner kebab, one of Turkey’‍s most popular dishes, came from the Kebab Factory in Oakland. Nur Lider, the Turkish professor who is originally from Ankara, said doner kebab stands are a fixture of her country’‍s landscape and a favorite lunchtime bite — their version of a hamburger. 

Michael O’Brien, 20, who is studying Russian, said the meal reminded him of time spent in Germany, where Turkish immigrants have made doner kebab a popular street food.

The weekly gatherings add a multicultural flavor to the summer experience, exposing participants to the foods and traditions of other regions, said Mark McGrosky, 45, who is studying Serbian. 

Ms. Lider said the picnics have proven how similar the cuisine is across regional borders, noting that the cabbage rolls served at the Hungarian, Lithuanian and Latvian picnic reminded her of stuffed grape leaves, which Turkey is famous for. 

“Through food students discover how much we share -- not only how different the food is, but how much we have in common,” she said.

Stephanie McFeeters: smcfeeters@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.

Stephanie McFeeters: smcfeeters@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. On Twitter: @mcfeeters.


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