For one summer season faculty course, meals offers a passport to Los Angeles > Information > USC Dornsife
A Maymester class uses food as a vehicle to understand the diversity, culture and history of one of the world’s culinary hotspots – even during the COVID-19 lockdown. [4¼ min read]
“And it turns out that food is a pretty good prism through which you can see humanity.” – Jonathan Gold
If you want to get to know Los Angeles, start with the food. Because eating is not just about eating. It’s about who we are and how we live.
From a pupuseria in Pacoima to a bistro in Beverly Hills, from a falafel shop in Tarzana to a Sichuan restaurant in San Gabriel, the variety of food in Los Angeles County reflects the diversity of people and cultures. Understanding food helps you understand not only people, but also where they live, where they come from, and how relentless self-invention in LA shapes their lives – for better and for worse.
This is the prerequisite for a Maymester course, entitled From Pueblo to Postmates: Food and Tuition in Los Angeles, taught by Michael Petitti, an Assistant Professor (Teaching) in the Honors Program for Thematic Options at USC Dornsife College for the Letters, the Arts and Sciences, is taught.
“I wanted to do a class … that looked at food but didn’t bypass issues like homelessness, food insecurity, poverty and class,” said Petitti. “This is not just a food tour of LA. It made the city and what it is in the 21st century. Every area and every type of kitchen has a different story. “
The class Petitti has taught each spring for the past three years begins with a general discussion about Los Angeles. Then he begins taking his students to specific neighborhoods – East LA, South LA, Koreatown, the San Gabriel Valley – to learn more about the food, the people, and the issues in each place.
Michael Petitti took the students on a virtual tour of LA’s culinary hotspots. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael Petitti.)
Students immerse themselves in literature, news, music, television programs, films, and podcasts to learn all about the culture-mad Quilt LA, which is complemented by guest lecturers. Of course, the excursions were especially welcomed by the students as they featured some of LA’s most inventive and delicious food.
During their foray into South LA, for example, the students learned how the three chefs from All Flavor, No Grease, Taco Mell and Bleu Kitchen, who call themselves Foodminati, used the power of Instagram – and their culinary visions – to be particularly calming his meal from a combination of trucks and a stationary restaurant. Last year they opened the Court Café on West Centinela Avenue, not far from the 405 freeway. With menu items such as oxtail chili mac, garlic noodles, lobster tail and waffles, nobody goes hungry.
Then came COVID-19.
With students studying online last spring semester, Petitti quickly had to focus on interacting with his students through Zoom rather than a lunch counter.
“I never thought of not teaching the course,” said Petitti. “But it’s such an active part of the course to go into town and eat.”
“The big downside was we couldn’t eat the food,” said Maddie House, junior specializing in health promotion and disease prevention at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.
But, unexpectedly, online learning had some advantages.
House said some of the guest lectures were better online. During a virtual tour of the Watts Towers, she was able to view archive photos that she would not have seen if she had visited the landmark in person.
“In general, I felt like I had a good feeling about LA,” said House.
Food trucks offer some of the most interesting menu options in LA (Image source: Yelp / Andrea A.)
“Eating was the most important part of the class and the least important part of the class,” said Patrick Fang, junior at USC Dornsife, double major in law, history, culture and psychology. “Since we didn’t have it as a central part of the class, we had to deal more with the readings and the speakers.”
The course was inspired by many of the great food writers, from MFK Fisher and Calvin Trillin to Anthony Bourdain and of course the late Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, the only food writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. Petitti had spoken to Gold about guest lectures shortly before the writer’s death in 2018 at the age of 57.
Now students are watching the 2015 documentary about him, City of Gold, which records how Gold used groceries as a passport for every corner of Los Angeles.
After learning so much about LA and its people, how gentrification affects them, how its neighborhoods have changed, and how eating can start conversations and bridge cultural differences – not to mention filling an empty stomach – it remains the question of where Petitti, Fang and Fang are on their way when they’re back on campus?
For Petitti, it’s Marisco’s Jalisco food trucks, particularly the one on Olympic Boulevard in East LA near the old Sears building. For Fang, it’s Revolutionario North African Tacos on West Jefferson Boulevard not far from the USC campus. The house will go to the Chichen Itza restaurant, which is also located near the campus. But it won’t end with these three food spots.
“I have a list of 22 restaurants that I want to try,” said Fang.
And that’s just to start with.
Comments are closed.