When a Korean-born friend of Annette Stephenson asked for a lesson in making tiramisu, Stephenson figured she'd show her how to beat eggs and soak ladyfingers. But Stephenson quickly realized she couldn't explain Italian pastry without first teaching her friend a slew of new English words, leading Stephenson to wonder if the kitchen might be an ideal setting for language learning.
A certified TESOL instructor, Stephenson last year launched "Let's Talk Cooking" from her Kenmore home. Although the business is growing slowly, similar programs have succeeded in other cities, including Vancouver and Austin, Tex.
At the volunteer-run Cooking Up English in Austin, small groups of students - many of them affiliated with the University of Texas - gather in church kitchens for weekly workshops showcasing foods they might not have encountered in their native countries. Popular programs include "Comfort Foods" and "American Breakfast."
Director Casey Smith says participants are frequently dismayed by the saltiness of American food, such as the chicken and dumplings and King Ranch casseroles presented in a course on Southern cooking.
"Our Asian students, in particular, consider our food very salty," Smith says.
The only dish which students have flatly rejected is cornbread, she adds.
"The texture is unique," she says. "Nobody liked it. We told them to put honey on it, put butter on it. Everything's better with butter."
Smith says students are more likely to remember words they learn in context than read in textbooks. "Because you're physically chopping an apple or browning meat, you remember it because you're doing it," she says. Although many cooking terms aren't applicable beyond the kitchen, Smith says instructors strive to use phrases that students might encounter elsewhere. Rather than refer to "one-fourth of a cup," for example, teachers say "a quarter cup."
"You might hear 'I need a quarter tank for my car'," Smith says. "We go over common phrases."
Still, Stephenson concedes that kitchen-based language coaching is unlikely to appeal to students who don't already enjoy cooking.
"It's only going to be beneficial if they like cooking," she says. "Otherwise, the only reason they need to know the word 'tiramisu' is if they're at a restaurant."