Class dismissed – but first let’s have lunch

By Costa Maragos Posted: December 7, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Lunch time at the Ngoc Van Restaurant. Students (l-r) Rimo Creer (Chicken hai nam w/shredded), Jael Bartnik, (Vegetarian sub), Hanna Hudson Plante (Vermicelli chicken with bbq chicken and spring rolls) and Kathleen Irwin, Associate Dean in the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance (Wonton soup).
Lunch time at the Ngoc Van Restaurant. Students (l-r) Rimo Creer (Chicken hai nam w/shredded), Jael Bartnik, (Vegetarian sub), Hanna Hudson Plante (Vermicelli chicken with bbq chicken and spring rolls) and Kathleen Irwin, Associate Dean in the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance (Wonton soup). Photo courtesy of Costa Maragos - External Relations

There’s nothing quite like enjoying the last day of class digging into one of
Regina’s finest bbq pork steamed buns.

That was the scene at Regina’s Ngoc Van Restaurant, where Kathleen Irwin’s class – the Politics of Food and Performance – gathered one last time before semester’s end. They found a round table in the corner of the restaurant and talked about food.

“Everything that we eat is performed and ritualistic. Food has deep roots in all cultures,” says Irwin, Associate Dean in the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance, who ordered number 34 on the menu, the wonton soup. “The fact we have so many cultures blending together in Canada has many political implications. How did people come here? Why did they come here? What’s become of them since they came here? And what food did they bring with them to remind them of home?”

Vietnamese Restaurant
This steamed bun served at a local Vietnamese restaurant has a story behind it. Photo courtesy of Costa Maragos
The course examines historic and current uses of food as an effective element of spectacle in performance, film, and art. It also discusses how food is grown or raised, disseminated, commodified and served, and who gets to eat it. Food is deeply political.

Bringing food to class was part of the deal but that’s not as easy as it might sound. Each student prepared a meal over the course of the semester – cabbage rolls, chili sausages, chicken wings - and discussed the meaning of each dish.

The class requires students to become conversant about the history of food art; read and respond to a play through the lens of food; read and discuss a range of food-related articles; compose and present a food performance, and write a paper on food politics and performance.

That brings us to the final class, featuring a brief story from each student about their introduction to Vietnamese food in Regina.

Ngoc Van was the restaurant choice given its personal connection with two of the students.

Hanna Hudson Plante has been coming to the restaurant with her family for almost as long as she can remember.

“My family has been coming here for years, since around 1996,” says Hudson Plante, as she was enjoying menu item number 96 - vermicelli with bbq chicken hai nam with spring rolls.

Hudson Plante recalls spending two months in Vietnam having consumed her share of fresh rolls and noodle bowls. She pined for the food back home.
“I always thought it was kind of weird that being in Vietnam and I wanted Canadian Vietnamese food,” smiles Hudson Plante. “And when I got home one of the first places we came to was Ngoc Van.”
 
For student Rimo Creer, he fondly recalls his first visit to Ngoc Van, hours after arriving in Regina from the Philippines.

“We arrived in Canada April 25, 2008. The day after that, I ordered the exact same thing as what I’m having here today,” says Creer.

That would be menu item number 73, the chicken hai nam with shredded pork with baked egg on rice.

“And I needed a sauce, so I grabbed the hoison sauce. I didn’t even know what it was back then and I just pasted it on and I thought ‘oh my God that’s heaven.’ I’ve been going to Vietnamese restaurants ever since,” says Creer.

As the students recounted their Vietnamese food experiences, one of the restaurant owners, Yvonne Ha, shared her story about her family’s recipe for banh bao (steamed bun), perfected by her grandfather.

After he suffered a stroke, he was no longer able to make the buns, so he guided his daughter and other family members.

They worked hard to recreate the buns and after many trials and errors got it just right.

“My grandpa passed away two years ago at the age of 82. I know when my family makes steamed buns, we are thinking of him and remembering the times we shared together. The buns are a popular item on our menu,” says Ha.

Food for thought and a reminder of how simply talking about food can be a source of inspiration.   

“I wanted students to look at food and performance and ask what food does on multiple levels,” says Irwin. “On top of that, I try to question the structures of academia in which the professor typically lectures at the front of the class.  When people share a meal around a table, conversation starts. Currently, when time spent in conversation is at such a premium, this activity underscores the fundamental social aspect of food.”