This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“It’s good, but there’s some stuff I wouldn’t put in, like the halva.”
Saddiq Robinson was at Reading Terminal Market, tasting ice cream that he and 10 of his schoolmates from Boys’ Latin Charter School had just helped make. He had never before tried halva – a sweet, sesame-flavored Middle Eastern paste that was one of the ingredients. In fact, he had never even heard of it.
Nor, for that matter, had he ever made ice cream before.
The field trip was the culminating event of a creative writing course at Boys’ Latin that builds storytelling around food.
“Food allows us to cross geographic and cultural boundaries in Philadelphia,” said Ian Doreian, teacher of the elective course and assistant principal at Boys’ Latin. “Reading Terminal Market is only about 30 minutes by trolley, but to these students, it feels like miles away culturally.”
The purpose of the course, Doreian said, is to provide the students more ways to tell their own stories. “Food is a great frame for self-reflection, self-discovery, and thinking about family,” he noted. “We want to help them learn the history and connect to new foods.”
More than half of the students had never been to Reading Market Terminal before, and very few of them had ever eaten ice cream with toppings like halva, funnel cake, or banana chips.
Doreian hoped that this trip would help his students reflect on the familial connection that exists in the market and the culture and stories that are woven into each individual merchant’s business.
Cynthia Hart Griffith, the administrator of the Reading Terminal Market Merchants Association (RTMMA), said that the 70 vendors located there are all family-owned businesses, including Bassetts Ice Cream, which is the oldest ice cream company in the United States and the longest continuously operating shop in the market.
Myles Jones (left) on the Boys’ Latin field trip to the Reading Terminal.
Griffith noted that the RTMMA is collaborating with the Reading Terminal Market Corp., the landlord and corporate entity that runs the market, on its educational programming and other projects. They had run a summer camp for kids and were looking for another way to connect with school groups, and it was a lucky convergence that Boys’ Latin was looking to make this visit as part of its creative writing course.
Megan Haupt, the founder of Hungry Education, had been contracted to design a food curriculum for the market to use in its outreach efforts. Her lessons emphasize topics such as the history of food, food equity and hunger, and the science of food. She chose four foods to illustrate different issues: bananas (economics of food production), pickles (fermentation, the microbiome, the science of food), global foods (history, geography, science), and ice cream.
Besides being a good vehicle to discuss both food production (industrial vs. agrarian) and food science (methods of freezing), the importance of ice cream is its connection to Philadelphia history. It is also a great vehicle to talk about family and culture.
Haupt told the students about Augustus Jackson, a wealthy African American man who lived in the early 1800s and was a pioneer in the development of ice cream. His story is not often told, she said, adding that students should think about “why certain voices not being heard.”
Alex Strange of Bassetts Ice Cream
Then Alex Strange came to tell his story. He is a sixth-generation member of the founding family of Bassetts, which started making ice cream in 1861.
He pointed out which parts of the original counter still exist today and talked about the explanatory panel that laid out how Bassetts Ice Cream evolved as a store with changing fashion and serving styles. Strange then spoke about the flavors and recipes, and how his family developed them through experimentation.
His great-grandfather, he said, “would travel around the market gathering ingredients.” He kept doing it until he decided he had perfected the mix of flavors, and the recipes have not changed since.
He explained how Bassetts uses extra cream instead of egg yolks. Its butterfat content is 16.5 percent, well over the 10 percent Food and Drug Administration standard for a product to call itself “ice cream.”
As with any business, Strange said, there was a lot of trial and error. Because the family is from South Jersey, the company’s founders thought “green tomato” might work as a flavor for its new confection.
It was not a hit.
But this is another example of how “storytelling is imperative to our own brand,” Strange told the students.
As the students whisked together cream, sugar, and half-and-half and discussed appropriate ratios for funnel cake and banana chips as toppings, they reflected on how their favorite assignments allowed them to think about their own experiences.
Sophomore Isaiah Hancock spoke about how he liked writing about how his family observes Thanksgiving. Robinson agreed, opening up about how he felt when trying new things in a restaurant. The class, he said, changed his perspective on food.
“Usually, I don’t really think about food, but now I do. I don’t usually think about where it came from, but now I look at the ingredients and I do.”
Writing prompts during the semester for the elective course ran the gamut from “Dining while black” (the lunch counter sit-ins, the Philadelphia Starbucks incident) to food in movies like American Gangster (One famous line: “Latte, that’s a fancy way of saying coffee with milk”), to relating their own experiences of “al fresco” dining, or eating outside.
“Food can bring in culture, anything. Food is what we live off of,” said junior Myles Jones.
The class, added Hancock, “pushed us outside our comfort zones.”
These kinds of observations and insights were exactly what Doreian said he was after.
“Amen,” he said. “That’s it. If they see themselves as having stories worthy of telling and cultures worth celebrating, that’s the goal.”
Makoto Manheim, a rising junior at Haverford College, is a summer intern at The Notebook.