Seventeen students stood around gleaming silver tables in the Culinary Literacy Center, a bright, spacious kitchen and classroom on the fourth floor of the Parkway Central Library, listening as Lindsay Southworth told them what was on the menu for the day.

"Who here has had pancakes before?" she asked.

Only a few hands went up.

The assembled students, immigrants from 12 countries, are participants in Edible Alphabet, a program that teaches English through cooking classes. Over the course of six lessons, each three hours long, these students will make their way through a full recipe book, improving their ability to communicate about food and gaining confidence to navigate a new city and culture.

"The curriculum uses the meal that we make together as the vehicle for learning English," said Liz Fitzgerald, the Culinary Literacy Center's director.

The program began three years ago as a one-off cooking class for a nonprofit that serves refugees. This fiscal year, the library will offer five iterations of the program at the Free Library's Parkway Central Library, and four at neighborhood branches.

Some of those courses will run for 16 weeks, allowing for more in-depth English practice. But language learning expands beyond mastering vocabulary words and tricky grammar. It's also about developing comfort navigating a new city and culture.

"Food is universal. It's a common language," Fitzgerald said. "It's navigating a grocery store; it's getting invited to someone's house for dinner; it's preparing breakfast."

Usually, the instructor is a graduate student getting certified in teaching English as a foreign language. On this day, Southworth — who worked as a middle school teacher for a decade before starting as Edible Alphabet's program manager just four weeks ago — is in charge. On a whiteboard behind her are the vocabulary words for the day: butter, skillet, spatula, maple syrup.

Long before the class gets cooking, they practice those words using a game. Breaking up into pairs, students practice introducing one another using their name, native country, and what they eat for breakfast.

(Left to Right) Mamadou Hady Barry from Guinea, Ivana Guidelli from Brazil, Jiyun Li from China, Gloria Conchola from Mexico, and Yu Qi from China work together to make pancakes, with the help of instructor Jameson O’Donnell, at the Culinary Literacy Center at the Central Library.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
(Left to Right) Mamadou Hady Barry from Guinea, Ivana Guidelli from Brazil, Jiyun Li from China, Gloria Conchola from Mexico, and Yu Qi from China work together to make pancakes, with the help of instructor Jameson O’Donnell, at the Culinary Literacy Center at the Central Library.

There's a lot to learn from this simple conversation, said Jameson O'Donnell, the teaching chef. The head chef at Cake in Cherry Hill, O'Donnell has been volunteering with Edible Alphabet from the beginning, and helped to develop the curriculum, a recipe book that each class follows week by week. The book encompasses a full day's worth of meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks.

This allows students to have deeper conversations about the role that food plays in their daily lives, he said. They can talk about their morning routines, or how they take their tea or coffee.

"Or hot water," O'Donnell said. "Some people drink hot water for breakfast, which I learned from this."

The recipes are all vegetarian, to avoid any cultural conflict with meat or pork, and for reasons of food safety. Most of the recipes are also fairly simple, so that students with limited English can still communicate as they work.

Early on, the recipes also strictly followed USDA health standards. But Fitzgerald said that the food was so bland that students rarely wanted to eat at the end of the lesson. That changed the day the class prepared chana masala, an Indian stewed chickpea dish. Suddenly, students were coming back for seconds.

"So we knew that we needed more flavor," she said.

The teachers realized that students from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Central Africa often are accustomed to more spicy and flavorful cuisines. But they also had to strike a balance for students from European backgrounds who may have less tolerance for spice. Now students will learn to make a carrot coriander soup, a kale smoothie, a Mediterannean salad called panzanella — and, of course, pancakes.

While the vocabulary lesson progresses, O'Donnell assembles the ingredients for the pancakes: flour, eggs, milk, maple syrup. Then, everyone divides up into teams with classmates who don't share their native language and tie up bright red aprons before turning to their recipes.

They use their new vocabulary words mixed with a lot of hand gestures to communicate. Some follow instructions more closely than others, separating the wet ingredients from the dry. Others forge ahead, whisking everything together before O'Donnell has a chance to dive in. One team eyeballs the flour, and accidentally doubles the milk. Another is trying to figure out whether they remembered to add the sugar.

But the point of the exercise isn't to produce perfect pancakes: It's to practice communication and problem-solving, O'Donnell said.

"I love that they get a lot from mixing up into nonnative language groups and cooking," Southworth said. "They're just communicating on the fly."

Gloria Conchola (left) from Mexico, and Yu Qi from China work together to make pancakes.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Gloria Conchola (left) from Mexico, and Yu Qi from China work together to make pancakes.

Although the class is aimed at advanced beginners or intermediate English speakers, the students represent a wide range of English levels. Mamadou Barry, 23, of Guinea, has been in the United States for just a year. He speaks five languages already, though, which bodes well for his ability to pick up a sixth.

Others have lived in the country for decades. Mila Borochin, 69, has been in the United States for 39 years, and in Philadelphia for the last six.

A native of the former Soviet Union — "it used to be Russia when I left; now it's Ukraine" — she was also the most excited to make pancakes, which she said she makes all the time.

"I'm cheating. I buy the ready-to-eat mix, and I made waffles, pancakes, blintzes, crepes," she said. "I try to stay away from pancakes, but I think they are my favorite."

This class is an opportunity for Borochin, whose husband recently passed away, to meet new people and be social now that she is retired.

"I can't stay at home all the time," she said. "I would like to meet people, learn something new, keep being friendly with other people."

On this day, class members come from Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guinea, Hong Kong, Mexico, Myanmar, and Spain. There's a lot for them to translate in any given activity. Most students were raised in the metric system, and suddenly need to think in pounds and cups, not kilograms and liters. And some concepts, like milk that comes from almonds instead of animals, were downright bewildering.

But some commonalities emerged, too.

Zineb Marouf arrived from Algeria just six months ago. Back home, she used to cook — her favorite dish was couscous — but she hasn't been cooking since moving here. She's never had pancakes before, she said.

But as her group ladles the mixture onto hot, greasy pans, she realizes the dish is familiar. It's just like beghrir, a spongy North African hotcake made with semolina.

Camila Rojas (left) from Chile, and Zineb Marouf (center) from Algeria work together during a program at the Free Library that teaches English to newcomers through cooking.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Camila Rojas (left) from Chile, and Zineb Marouf (center) from Algeria work together during a program at the Free Library that teaches English to newcomers through cooking.

The lesson ends with a shared meal, hotcakes slathered in maple syrup and drizzled with blueberries. They talk about the flavors and textures of the food, and what they learned that day. Experiential learning will stay with them longer than simply memorizing lists of words or verb conjugations,  Southworth said.

"We're thrown into a situation where we use [English], and we realize, 'OK, maybe maple syrup wasn't the most important vocab word I needed to learn today — maybe 'Don't burn the pancakes' is the most important," she said.

Kwong Man of Hong Kong hadn't made pancakes before. He thought it was easy — "just follow the instructions," he shrugged — but he liked the experience because he typically cooks traditional Chinese food, like vegetables with steamed fish. This lesson let him learn more about different cultures, he said.

"As a cook, it is very interesting to me and special to learn more than English," he said.