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Cooking, culture and quinoa: Taking a class with the MU Culinary Association

By Emma Kinghorn, Staff Writer

I look down at the table in front of me. Black plastic to-go food containers litter our cooking space, labeled with names that seem slightly exotic such as cumin and quinoa.

"It's only my second class," my cooking partner, Lyndsay, tells me. "They always fill up so quickly."

President of the Miami University Culinary Association, Madeline DiFilippo, said the goals of the club are "widening students' cultural horizons of food" and "helping build a community among Miami students through an appreciation of cooking."

The MUCA holds six free classes a semester with different cultural or food group themes (think cheese party, or even Indian night). The executive board generates themes or ideas for their classes, and then the recipes are picked out by the leading chefs.

As Miami chef Frank Page starts up the class, Lyndsay and I look at each other and smile nervously.

"I always meet the nicest people here," she says.

Page walks us through our ingredients, what we'll be creating and why he was excited about Peruvian cuisine; he attended a conference that focused on the culinary history of the region and is eager to share the knowledge and recipes with his students. The MUCA tries to celebrate other cultures by embracing their culinary traditions.

"It would be a disservice to the members if we only focused on European food," said MUCA treasurer, Micah Morris. "We would be missing out on what the rest of the world has to offer."

While we are not frying up guinea pig or anything too exotic, we are cooking up a selection of beef with quinoa, cole-slaw and sweet potato fries that ends up being quite delicious.

The idea of cooking without a recipe in front of you may frighten some, but Page makes it very painless, directing us step by step.

"Add the oil."

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"Turn the heat up."

"Cover completely."

We're only standing in a large conference room with a handful of long, white tables, but I inhale wafts of cooking food and hear the hiss and sizzles of ingredients hitting the iron frying pan. Looking around I see some cooking partners getting to meet new people and others sharing jokes with old friends.

As we move through the cooking process, Lyndsay and I become a team, working in tandem to mix all of our ingredients, spice the food to our liking and keep everything fresh. But as we start to cook our quinoa we run into a few problems.

Waiting with a foil-covered pan to cook our quinoa, we play a waiting game, checking every 30 seconds or so to see how much liquid is left. After waiting several minutes with no noticeable progress, we start to worry, and Lyndsay turns the heat up.

Chef Page said at the beginning the process should only take a few minutes.

Do we have too much oil? We don't know. So we turn up the heat.

I look around and see other groups pulling off their foil and moving on with their recipe and look back at our still soupy-looking quinoa. I turn up our heat even more.

We ask chef Page if we are ready to pull it off like the other group. He peers into our pot and teases, "Oh, you're just so close."

These little fry pan ovens are doing so much work. I stand there slightly impressed that one small pan can accomplish so much for us -- cooking beef, mixing sauces and spices, even frying up our vegetables.

Lyndsay bends down to turn up the heat, yet again, and looks back up at me.

"I think our gas is out."

I bend over and finally see the culprit of our uncooked quinoa problem.

After putting everything together on one plate, we all sit down together. I meet people I otherwise would never have met, and I learn that many of them have taken classes before. Many say that it's just a relaxing way to step out of the academic environment, while others, like Lyndsay, come for the people.

"You have to eat dinner anyways, so why not learn to cook with people while you're doing it?" said DiFilippo.