Sitting in front of a plate of salad, popcorn and cranberry juice, a rendition of green, red and white Italian flag, Thando Khumalo ’23 presented her creation to her peers via Zoom as part of the Italian department’s Italian flag food challenge. The meal, which won the challenge, was part of the “Tavola Italiana,” or Italian Table, an Italian-language dinner hosted by the Italian Department every Tuesday evening.
The table has been a staple of the Italian department for years, connecting students to each other and the language through an Italian cultural staple: food.
Khumalo’s participation in the Italian table began during her first year at Bowdoin prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when the language table was entirely in-person and met in a side room of Thorne Dining Hall. When the College moved online last March, the Italian Table moved with it.
The shift to an online format was spearheaded by recent Bowdoin graduate and Italian Teaching Fellow Acadia Mezzofanti ’20. Mezzofanti was confronted with the challenge of making the Zoom dinners as compelling as their in-person counterparts while also maintaining their conversational and light atmosphere.
“For Zoom, it has been a little bit of an effort,” said Mezzofanti in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It’s so easy if you’re already going to the dining hall to just take a few steps and go into the other room, but when you’re not having dinner, what would compel students to want to be there?”
The weekly table gatherings are primarily meant to improve students’ conversational skills. It operates at a higher-level of Italian, but students of any proficiency are encouraged to attend.
“I’d say that it’s helped my conversational Italian a lot,” said Khumalo in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
To encourage students studying Italian to come to the weekly language dinners, Mezzofanti has set up interactive baking challenges and events in tandem with the weekly dinners. Students share the Italian meals they’ve made to commemorate events in Italian history or dishes of cultural significance. A notable recent was a cake made by sophomores Lucas DiCerbo ’23 and Lorenzo Hess ’23 commemorating the death of Dante Alighieri, author of “The Divine Comedy,” and “Inferno.”
“I wasn’t really expecting much, especially of college students,” Mezzofanti said. “But [the students] surprised me.”
Baking and food challenges, like the one Khumalo and other students participate in on a nearly weekly basis, offer those studying Italian the ability to learn the language and connect with culture in a non-traditional way. Students have responded positively to the efforts made by the department.
“I think that [the cooking challenges] are fun,” said Khumalo. “They don’t stress me out at all and they’re optional so it’s just a fun little thing to do.”
In addition to the baking challenges, the department also does live cooking recipes during the dinners. Allison Cooper, assistant professor of romance languages and literatures and cinema studies and one of the organizers of the weekly dinners, wanted the students to learn the language
“Italy has a culture that really values coming together over food,” Cooper said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “The idea is to kind of carve out a time in the really frenetic pace of the pandemic … where it’s not about class or about anything other than just celebrating being together with a plate of something interesting to eat in front of you.”
The recipes that students can follow along with run the gamut of Italian cuisine, ranging from pasta dishes to fine desserts. Anywhere from three to eight students attend the meetings each week and participate in the baking challenges.
Above all, the Italian department said that it wants to create a friendly environment where students feel a strong sense of community and connection to the language. Cooper has gone so far as to let students pick up the desserts she’s made during the Zoom dinners from her front porch so students on campus feel more connected during the pandemic.
“I can make something and then show it at the Italian table and invite students to come by on the sidewalk in front of my house and have a piece to take with them,” said Cooper. “That just feels really good to me because it’s a small form of connection.”