Cooking in a Pandemic: Updating a Tradition
Showing their resiliency and creativity, medicine students enrolled in a cooking elective at Northeast Ohio Medical University found new ways to celebrate the healing power of food, even during a global pandemic.
It has become a tradition for Elisabeth Young, M.D. (’85), the dean of the College of Medicine, to teach a “Food and Life” elective for fourth-year College of Medicine students.
In the final week, the students normally would have prepared a dish on their own with the main ingredient being a “mystery ingredient” they chose randomly the week before. The plan was to then have a potluck to eat the dishes and discuss what they learned, how they improvised, and the last reading assignment of Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food.
With the COVID-19 pandemic ruling out any gatherings, the students found a new plan, explained Dr. Young: Each student made their dish and sent a picture of the completed dish and their recipe with their notes showing where they improvised, along with a reflection on the class, the book, and what they learned.
Reflective writing is a skill taught to NEOMED students in a variety of ways, including a four-year Human Values in Medicine curriculum.
Here’s the reflection from student Roman Finocchiaro, who calls food “my gateway to shared experiences.” Finocchiaro notes, “What began as a random grouping of 14 students and 2 faculty members quickly transformed into a 16-person family with inside jokes and shared laughs.”
His thoughts follow.
Reflection on Food and Life, by Roman Finocchiaro
Thinking back to when I first opened the email informing me that I had received my #1 choice 4-hour elective, “Food and Life”, I was ready. Ready in a sense not tied to clinical curriculum or hospital rotations. I was ready for a change. A change that would not only embrace me with cultural variation focused on food, but with a group focused on sharing social experiences and stories. I always used food as a way to engage in social exchange. Telling stories from the day with family and friends, venting about the daily frustrations, even sharing cooking tips and lessons as we all worked to prepare the dish at hand. Food was never my vehicle to achieve health and wellness, it was my gateway to shared experiences. I call myself lucky in being able to have found such an elective, one where the students and instructors work toward a set goal: to have fun and bond socially all while still following a recipe and producing a finished dish. Some people would call this bliss.
I took time to reflect on what lessons I learned from this course. I found it too cliché to state the lessons I learned all somehow related to the types of dishes cooked. While this was true, I learned many new dishes and tips on cooking them, this was not the type of reflection I set out to find. I wanted to focus more on what mind and body lessons I may have taken from the course. One of the first lessons I’ve taken away is that when you put a group of people together in a room and give each a set task that hopefully achieves a more uniform goal at the end, friendships will immediately blossom. I was never a stranger to anyone in the room during our group sessions but there were a few students that I had either never talked to or had talked to previously during M2/M3 year. Everyone opened up almost immediately after the first group session. People began telling personal stories and family memories. People began to offer help when making the dishes and gave advice when they saw another classmate struggling.
I realized that what began as a random grouping of 14 students and 2 faculty members quickly transformed into a 16-person family with inside jokes and shared laughs. May I also say the final food products came out beautiful as well. There were many talented chefs in the kitchen.
Another lesson that I learned came to mind toward the end of the elective. While disappointed that COVID got in the way of us all sharing a potluck and ending our reflections together, I still felt the connection. We didn’t lose that bond we worked so hard to obtain. We pushed onward. The dishes would be prepared as usual, the recipes noted, the advice and cooking tips shared via email. Nothing seemed to be lost. As I read through the email correspondences, I stopped to think. I had learned something. I learned that perseverance can act as more than just a word to describe a great work ethic, it can serve as a way to keep morale high and friendships strong. It was the perseverance of the NEOMED faculty that allowed the electives to continue, the perseverance of the IT department to ensure smooth operations of electronic chatter, and the perseverance of the students, while staying strong during quarantine, to continue their responsibilities and promises. Administration kept us informed and we, as the students, worked to ensure our lives and futures as medical professionals remained. It may be hard to sometimes look out upon society and think “I am needed” especially in light of the recent COVID pandemic. But at heart, we are doctors and we will find a way to be there.