My great-grandmother’s lentil soup: March 2020

In Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate, food plays a central role. Each of its 12 chapters, which is dedicated to a different month of the year, opens with a Mexican recipe that the narrator has found in a notebook she inherited from an ancestor. Cooking is seen here as a form of poetry that plays not with the choice of words or their order, but with a variety of ingredients and their relative quantities, allowing us to convey our feelings of joy or sadness, love or anger, hope or despair, to the people who eat the dishes we prepare for them. Not metaphorically but literally, as if emotions could be communicated through food.
While this totally unscientific phenomenon of conveying feelings through food can only be found in ancient folk tales, romantic poems or in a novel pertaining to the movement of Latin American magic realism, like Esquivel’s, there is no denying that food has a historical, social and even emotional dimension, as it is part of the culture we pass on from one generation to the next. Food also plays an important role in the different ceremonies and celebrations that punctuate our lives. 

The sourcing of food, the preparation of particular dishes and the ways in which we consume them are deeply rooted in who we are. Beyond providing us with necessary sustenance, eating represents one of those human rituals that is universal and, at the same time, heavily influenced by a particular society’s natural environment, history, economic structures, ethical values, religion and traditions. 

If education is a voyage of exploration of human creativity in a range of areas, from mathematics and literature to philosophy, science, technology, art and music, food should also be an integral part of our school’s program as the key cultural expression that it is. In light of this, and given our partnership with Chartwells, our new food services provider, we have started considering our offerings and spaces for the next academic year. 

Menus will incorporate global and local cuisines and, under the expert direction of a new chef, who has a depth of experience leading the kitchens of a number of high-profile institutions and restaurants, our students in all four branches will benefit from new programming that will allow them to engage with food at a deeper cultural level. As a matter of fact, we conducted sessions to obtain feedback from them, and they were enthusiastic about the learning opportunities that will arise from the changes proposed. 

We also hope to transform some of the spaces in which our food is prepared and consumed. Kitchen facilities in Toronto will be expanded in order to better serve both campuses, and our current Terrasse, which was originally built 17 years ago, will be re-designed to promote a new relationship with food. Rather than a cafeteria where lunch is often no more than a transactional operation, we would like to ensure that the space acts as a dining hall combining the warmth of family dinners with the relative formality and sophistication associated with a highly academic institution like ours. These renovations are critical to meet the physical needs of our school, now at full capacity, as well as our ambitious strategic plan giving particular importance to the all-round development of students as individuals and citizens.

Such spaces will be ideal for a program that we have recently introduced at the Senior School, whereby an entire year comes together to have lunch at tables organized by mentorship group. While eating, the mentor encourages students to engage in discussions on a range of topics, from transnational issues like climate change to the importance of a particular new scientific discovery or the ethical basis for such and such a decision. No screens, no technology, just the persuasive power of the spoken word. This is also in line with the lunches I hold in my office with a different group of Level IV or V students every week. Indeed, conversations over food can lead to the development of critical thinking, the creation of emotional bonds and the honing of numerous skills and behaviours, including appropriate etiquette. 

Needless to say, we will place a particular emphasis on health, wellness and sustainability in our new programs and spaces. For example, disposable containers and plastic cutlery will be replaced with china and flatware, and we will install dimmable LED lighting, as part of our waste reduction and energy efficiency strategy. This is a moment of great excitement for our community, as the new kitchen and dining hall represent the first steps of our ambitious Master Plan. 

In the coming months you will be hearing more about this project, for which our recent philanthropy survey showed positive support, as our aim is to complete it with your help to coincide with the start of the school year so as to make the most of our new food services partnership. I look forward to welcoming you to our new dining hall with good food and a toast to our school’s future. 

To conclude, please allow me to tell you a related story about my great-grandmother, who loved lentil soup and for whom cooking was nothing short of an atavistic ritual. She kept her lentils in a glass container and, in order to instil patience into me, she would ask me to spread them on the kitchen table and go through them one by one to ensure that I could separate and discard the tiny stones that had been mixed in by mistake. It took me at least an hour to perform this delicate operation, but I always did it as conscientiously as I could, as I did not want to disappoint her or to risk breaking a tooth if one of the stones got into the soup. When I had finished, she would put the lentils in a large pan full of spring water, with other ingredients such as coarsely cut potatoes, a whole tomato, a few slices of her favourite Andalusian sausage, several unpeeled cloves of garlic, bay leaves, a smattering of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. 

I can still remember the bubbling sound of the broth boiling slowly on the stove. I can still remember its rich aroma, which transported me to the far-off lands where my great-grandmother had been born on a cold winter night in the late 19th century. Most importantly, I can still remember her love for me. 

Who knows? Maybe food is magical after all. 

Dr. Josep González
Head of School