A Maymester class uses food as a means to understand the diversity, culture, and history of one of the world's culinary hotspots – even during the COVID-19 ban. (Read 4¼ min)
"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 by eating. 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 Beverley Hills, from a falafel shop in Tarzana to a Sichuan restaurant in San Gabriel, the selection of food in Los Angeles County reflects the wide variety of people and cultures. If you understand food, you can understand not only people, but also where they live, where they come from, and how the relentless reinvention of LA affects their lives – for better and for worse.
This is the prerequisite for a Maymester course titled From Pueblo to Postmates: Eating and Teaching in Los Angeles by Michael Petitti, an assistant professor (teaching) in the Honors program for themed options at USC Dornsife College for Letters, Arts and Sciences.
"I wanted to do a course … on food but not addressing issues like homelessness, food insecurity, poverty and class," said Petitti. "This is not just a food tour of LA. It did the city and what it is now in the 21st century. Every area and every type of cuisine has different stories."
The class that Petitti has taught every spring for the past three years begins with a general discussion about Los Angeles. Then he starts taking his students to certain neighborhoods – East LA, South LA, Koreatown, the San Gabriel Valley – to learn more about the food, the people, and the problems 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 culturally crazy quilt from LA. All of this is complemented by guest lecturers. Of course, the excursions were particularly welcomed by the students as they included some of LA's most imaginative and tasty foods.
During their foray into southern 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 soothing his food from a combination of trucks and a stationary restaurant. Last year they opened the Court Café on West Centinela Avenue, off Highway 405. With menu items like oxtail chilli mac, garlic noodles, lobster tail, and waffles, no one goes hungry.
Then came COVID-19.
As the students were studying online last spring semester, Petitti had to quickly focus on interacting with their students via zoom rather than a lunch counter.
"I never thought of not teaching the course," said Petitti. "But going into town and eating is such an active part of the course."
"The downside, the big one, was that he couldn't eat the food," said Maddie House, a junior health and disease prevention specialist at the USC's Keck School of Medicine.
But unexpectedly, online learning had some advantages.
House said some of the guest lectures were better online. On a virtual tour of the Watts Towers, she was able to see archive photos that she would not have seen if she had personally visited the landmark.
"In general, I felt like I had a good feeling about LA," House said.
Food Trucks offer some of the most interesting menu options in LA (Image source: Yelp / Andrea A.)
"Food was the most important part of the class and the least important part of the class," said Patrick Fang, junior at USC Dornsife, a double major in law, history, culture, and psychology. "Since we didn't have it as a central part of the class, we had to spend more time reading and speaking."
The course was hosted by many of M.F.K. Fisher and Calvin Trillin to Anthony Bourdain and of course LA Weekly's late Jonathan Gold and the Los Angeles Times, the only food writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. Petitti had spoken with Gold about guest lectures shortly before the writer's death in 2018 at the age of 57.
Now, students are watching the 2015 City of Gold documentary about him, which records how gold used food as a passport for every corner of Los Angeles.
After learning so much about LA and its people, how gentrification affects them, how their neighborhoods have changed, and how food can start conversations and bridge cultural differences – not to mention filling an empty stomach – remains the question of where are Petitti, Fang and Fang on the way when they are back on campus?
For Petitti, it's Marisco's Jalisco Food Trucks, especially 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 close to the campus. But it won't end with these three types of food.
"I have a list of 22 restaurants I want to try," said Fang.
And that's just for starters.