Free classes at Lillian Marrero Library pair cooking with English learning

Ana María picks potatoes as part of Lillian Marrero Library’s Friends of the Garden Club on August 8, 2019. The club was formed by participants in the library’s Edible Alphabet class so they could continue practicing English between class sessions. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

“Don’t speak English” were the first words Ana María learned to say in English when she moved to Boston from Puerto Rico in 1978 at 14 years old. María still remembers one of her cousin’s friends asking her to play basketball with him, but she couldn’t understand what he was saying. 

“I asked, ‘What?’ and they would signal shooting the ball into the hoop,” María said. “That’s how I learned little by little. They would speak to me slowly and would show me signals, and I learned. I began letting go of that insecurity, and I put it to the side.”

Today, María continues to pursue hands-on experiences like playing basketball to become more confident with her English. One of her latest English-learning pursuits is attending Edible Alphabet classes at Lillian Marrero Library. Edible Alphabet is a free library program for adults that combines cooking with English language learning. 

The class, which is run by the Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Center, began in 2015. Since then, the cooking program has served over 600 students from 50 different countries. Classes are offered at Parkway Central Library, where the Culinary Literacy Center is located, as well as Lillian Marrero and two other Philadelphia library branches.  

“We’re advancing literacy for Philadelphians through food and cooking,” said Lindsay Southworth, the program manager for English Language Learning at the Culinary Literacy Center. “I also think food serves as a connecting force for a lot of people in the neighborhood because of some of the issues like food insecurity that a lot of people deal with.” 

At Central Library, the classes are held in the on-site kitchen. At the other locations like Lillian Marrero, the course takes place in the basement and uses cooking equipment provided on a portable cart.

From left to right: Ana María, Rosa Cruz, Carmen Cancel, and Alida Aponte pose with Aponte’s two daughters at Lillian Marrero’s garden during a meeting of the Friends of the Garden Club on August 8. The club was formed between the library’s Edible Alphabet class sessions, so the participants could continue practicing their English. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Each class is driven by learning about the culture behind different foods and cooking one dish. According to Edible Alphabet instructor Heather Houde, they try to cook dishes from many different cultures. Past meals have included bibimbap, jollof rice, and tacos. They also use various exercises to incorporate community building and language learning among students. 

“When they come in, we always start with community building exercises — that’s one of the primary goals of the class,” said Houde. “So we’ll do different things like name games, or just getting to know you exercises so that people can become friendly with one another.” 

After an icebreaker, the class moves forward with making a meal. Afterward, the instructor and chef present the ingredients and break students into small groups. According to Houde, she and the chef facilitate small talk among the students while they cook. 

“Oftentimes people will be sharing about how they might do it differently,” Houde said. “We try to ask them questions like, ‘How would you do this?’ or ‘What spices would you add?'”

Once everyone’s meals are finished, the class eats together. According to Houde, she tries to use some of the same words each week to help students get used to new vocabulary. 

Each Edible Alphabet session lasts three hours and usually has about 12 to 15 students in attendance. The next class at Lillian Marrero begins on September 13 and will meet every Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. 

To hold students over between the most recent class and the upcoming one, some of the participants opted to continue meeting at the library to tend to the library’s garden and keep practicing English. As a result, they formed an unofficial club called Friends of the Garden.  

Aside from classes and activities like Friends of the Garden at the library, the students also take field trips to places like Reading Terminal Market. Recently, some of the students presented at the Good Food For All conference hosted at the Parkway Central Library branch. 

One of the students who presented there was 54-year-old Rosa Cruz. She remembers being nervous about speaking English in front of so many people. But given her practice with the Edible Alphabet group, she was prepared for the challenge. 

“When it was my turn, I had to read a paragraph that I had memorized in English,” said Cruz. “Thank God I was able to do it. We were apparently some of the best that did it.”

“I felt proud because I was learning another language,” she said. 

For more information about the Edible Alphabet class at Lillian Marrero, visit the Free Library website, call 215-686-5323, or send an email to kitchen@freelibrary.org.


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Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte

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