When HeeBong Hyun was a child, her mother used to make a special meal on rainy days: kimchi pancake, a classic Korean dish typically made from a combination of wheat flour, egg, seasonings, and lots of kimchi. The taste of a hot pancake, eaten as soon as it came out of the pan, was a comforting contrast to the dreary outdoors. Today, it’s a comforting memory of her late mother.
This is the memory that came to mind when Hyun, general manager of the Sodexo dining team at San Francisco State University, came up with an idea to help connect university students with each other and with important meals. She was driving home, listening to a podcast called “This Movie Changed Me.” What if, she thought, our team could start a program called “This Dish Changed Me” to help students learn about and celebrate different food memories and traditions?
Hyun set to work. The dining team put together an online form and solicited food stories from students at the urban campus of about 24,000 undergraduates. Students were asked to tells stories about dishes that changed their lives.
They ended up with five student stories that highlighted a variety of dishes from different cultures and published each one on a poster alongside photos of the student and the dish that meant so much to them. The posters hung in a dedicated spot in the dining hall and stayed there for the remainder of the academic year.
A third-year student in international business told the story of her host mother’s meatloaf, a dish she tried for the first time when she was an exchange student in high school—a very different dish than the home cooking she was used to in her native Thailand.
A senior chemistry student waxed nostalgic about a grandfather’s fried rice, a vehicle for leftovers that became a childhood comfort food. Another senior remembered his mother’s green enchiladas, a staple in their Mexican-American household, especially on celebratory occasions.
A freshman psychology student talked about a bowl of Hawaiian comfort food: loco moco, rice topped with a hamburger patty, gravy and a fried egg with green onions as a garnish. And a senior astrophysics major spoke fondly of the steaks his dad made and about how proud he was to learn to cook them himself using his dad’s technique.
In honor of this last story, the dining team made steaks to promote the program, a one-day offering that tried to mimic the recipe as the student wrote it.
Students have been receptive to the program. Hyun notes that whenever she talks with students about the program or shares her own story with them, it prompts people to share their own. Everyone, she says, has a food story.
“I got really excited about this,” says Hyun, who has a background in healthcare. “I’m a dietitian and I thought a lot about therapeutic nutrition, about what food and nutrition mean to people.” She adds that the “unmeasurable” things are just as important. “The environment and the time [it takes to] prepare our foods and the ambience is as important as food itself. The holistic approach to what a meal can provide [is important], not only to a population in a hospital, but to any population you may serve. It could be K-12. It could be a university. It could be seniors. It could be end-of-life people—wherever you may serve.”
Asked how the program benefits the work they do, Hyun talks about the big picture. “We believe that serving food is more than just serving foods. It is, really, nurturing and providing a space where people can gather together, share, and build a community. And what better way to encourage that than to share stories about a dish that you really remember and that may have changed you?”
The dining team is planning to continue running the program during the current academic year, promoting a new batch of food stories every three to four months. Hyun says they promote the program through social media, advertise in the halls, and task interns with talking to individual students and student groups to encourage people to come forward with stories.
If an organization would like to do something similar, Hyun says they “first have to believe that the food is more than just food. And…that the place where you serve the food has to provide the warmth, the community, and the shared space. It’s really about how food is social and communal. And then it’s all about promoting and telling the story.”