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“Poem-Worthy Noodles” Connect Community to History and Each Other: Jennifer Lin-Liu, Author of On the Noodle Road ‘Visits’ Nueva
Jim Morrison, director of student outreach and special projects

After school on Thursday, October 21, about 40 students and teachers gathered on Zoom to enrich and extend their current interdisciplinary study of the Silk Road. They were participating in a noodle-making workshop by author and restauranteur Jennifer Lin-Liu that covered centuries of history and was generations of cross-continental journeys in the making. Lin-Liu, noted author (On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta) and founder of Black Sesame Kitchen in Beijing, spent time with our seventh- and eighth-grade community, making noodles and sharing her knowledge about the history of noodles. Organized by Jennifer Paull in conjunction with the seventh- and eighth-grade humanities teachers, this event is one of many the new Humanities Center will showcase in the years to come.

“I organized this project as a Humanities Center initiative, an example of the kinds of curricular support that the Humanities Center will do,” said Jen, who is the interim humanities director and Writing and Research Center director.

This Silk Road study is a cornerstone of the seventh- and eighth-grade experience that brings together history, art, religion, geography, food, and science. In their biology class, our eighth-grade students are learning about species that originated along the Silk Road. Computer science teacher Al Davies is working with his students to create maps that use overlays, which allow maps to show different points in time or and allow users to select between different data displayed in the map. Seventh-grade chemistry students will be studying the chemical makeup of important Silk Road trading commodities to understand how the chemical structures of those commodities are related to its unique value as a trade good. All eighth-grade students will be reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha this year. 

This approach, one that immerses students fully in the content across subject areas, resonates with the authentic and multidisciplinary way Jennifer Lin-Liu approached her research on the Silk Road and the history of noodles. Nueva faculty jumped at the opportunity to offer an event for students hosted by her.

“During the event, Jennifer discussed her motivation to answer the question, ‘Where do noodles come from?’ and how it became a personal quest,”  said eighth-grade writing teacher Jennifer Perry. “I found it so interesting and inspiring to learn about her research process, the extensive travel that she undertook to answer the question, and the joy that she derives from cooking and teaching others how to cook.”

Jennifer has studied and written extensively about the cultural significance of noodles and dumplings. In this interview in Bon Appetit, she theorized that dumplings, rather than noodles, are a convincing trace of the Mongolians, under Genghis Khan, moving from Asia to Europe. In this interview in the NY Times, she described the hand-pulled noodles across different regions and the importance of cooking with women at home during her journey. This 2013 interview with the Asia Society touches on many themes familiar to seventh -and eighth-grade students as they explore the Silk Road.

Over the summer, students read Kate Harris’s memoir Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road, in which that author documents her journey along the Silk Road—a trip born out of a desire to explore, navigate, and surrender to the awe of geography and history. Jennifer Perry and her colleagues hoped that students would be able to compare the observations and experiences of both authors during and after the workshop.

After learning about Jennifer Lin-Liu’s personal and academic journey documenting the global significance of noodles, Nuevans had an opportunity to make their own noodles from scratch in their home kitchens using traditional techniques.

 “It was very powerful to think about how, for thousands of years, people have made the same noodles,”said seventh-grader Pearl Y.-L. “People from all over the world have been kneading, rolling, and cutting noodles just the way we were., I learned that something as simple as mixing flour and water together to form noodles can connect people.”

During the workshop, eighth-grade dean and Silk Road impresario, Cynthia Kosut, shared the following poem, celebrating noodles:

He kneaded the dough to the right consistency
Then he would drop it into the water
In long strings
White like autumn silk.
In half a bowl of soup
We would gulp them down all at once.
After ten bowls in a row
A smile would come to the lips.

– Third century poet, Fu Xuan

“It was fun listening to Cynthia recite an ancient poem about noodles—turns out noodles were worthy of starring in a poem!” Pearl said. “The noodles were delicious, especially after I drenched them in olive oil and salt. And they were so long! One noodle that my dad made stretched out to at least three feet long!”

The special event also allowed students and teachers to authentically connect through an experience outside of the classroom. 

“It was also neat to see friends from all across the Bay Area—and even all the way across the globe in Beijing—learning to make noodles in their kitchens together. We would proudly share with each other our long and dangly noodles from our Zoom boxes,” Pearl said. “I felt as if we were kneading our dough together, in the same kitchen.”

Eighth-grader Rohan T. also found this to be a fun experience. 

“I found it cool how a food I have encountered a countless number of times has such an amazing and culturally vivid story behind them,” he said.

Reflecting on the experience, Jen Paull shared, “As the Humanities Center develops, we will continue to propose and provide these types of opportunities for students in all grades—relevant topics, often tied to the curriculum, often interdisciplinary, always aiming to support students’ curiosity about the human experience.”

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