Cal Humanities

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more when it is in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

Collage of six book covers.

Literature & Medicine: Potlucks and Pondering with Healthcare Workers in Fresno

Last month, Literature and Medicine (Lit & Med) staff lead Lucena Lau Valle caught up with program facilitator, Professor Carolyn Cusick at the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in Fresno, California—among several VA and Kaiser Permanente sites participating in this humanities-based professional development program for health care workers. 

Lori’s carrot cakes, made for a 2023 Fresno Lit & Med discussion session.

Carolyn had memories of “gorgeous carrot cakes” made by site liaison Lori Williams, shared at the program’s 2023-2024 season, where the group explored an array of readings touching on the topic of nature through a variety of lenses.  

Looking back to what was an inspiring season of reading, conversation, and learning, Carolyn and Lori were in turn inspired to finally compile some photos along with the 2023-2024 season’s syllabus site to share about the “amazing” potlucks they have been organizing for their monthly book sessions. 

Now that the Fresno Lit & Med site has returned to in-person gatherings, the group has also relished the possibility for reintroducing the shared meal, which has been a central part of the program, into the group’s monthly meetings. As part of this shift, Lucena learned that the Fresno site will try to find creative ways to respond to the themes or even make special meals featured in the texts explored by the group. For example, site liaison Lori Williams created several dishes that incorporated seasonal fruit and vegetables coming from Lori’s garden in Fresno, located in a region that is part of California’s vast agricultural heartland. 

Below are some of Carolyn’s food memories from the Fresno Lit & Med site gatherings: 

2023 Fresno VA Literature and Medicine was all about nature. We read a variety of genres–fiction, memoir, poetry, and non-fiction– to consider nature, human nature and human relations to nature. We read stories of our past, present, and future connections to nature, pondered how we develop as selves in line with or against nature, and imagined its healing powers. When we got permission to have food again, after years of virtual sessions and COVID-related protocol for in person gatherings [sites took the necessary precautions when returning to in-person sessions], Lori, the VA Liaison, was inspired by the theme to pair each month’s food with the assigned book. She made beautiful food, often including ingredients from her own garden, and I added some things too but often was more in charge of drinks and paper goods and taking photos. Here’s a history with pictures:

Book Cover for World of Wonders, with title text surrounded by colorful flowers and animals

May 10: World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil; a new interpretation of nature writing, part essay, part poetry, part memoir

Lori made gorgeous salads that included some fruits mentioned in the book–oranges I believe. We forgot to take pictures this month.

Spread on a table with a fruit dish in the center surrounded by pre-packed backs of trail mix and a book, Walking Toward Place.

June 14: Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails; selected poems and essays on nature and nature therapy

Carolyn made trail mix to go with the excerpts about veterans healing by hiking trails. Lori made cheesecakes inspired by a short story titled “The End of Strawberries, the Beginning of Peaches (though cherries were in season whereas strawberries were not).”  

Fig toasts on paper plates

July 12: The Overstory by Richard Powers, a novel  

This novel was so full of food! So many trees, fruit, and nut bearing trees. Lori made a salad inspired by Johnny Appleseed and Carolyn made fig toasts.    

Strangers to Ourselves book cover

August 9: Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories that Make Us by Rachel Aviv; part memoir, part journalism  

I seem to have no pictures from August 9. I vaguely remember having chips and cookies. The book begins with a narrative about anorexia. We had all decided that we should not be nervous about foods in a month that has us talking about mental health and eating disorders, so we indulged a little.  

Fry bread in a foil carrier on a table, The Seedkeeper book resting on the wall behind it

September 13: The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson, a novel   

Lori made fry bread!!* And a full spread of homemade fry bread tacos.  

*Frybread is a dish of the Indigenous people of North America that is a flat dough bread, fried or deep-fried in oil, shortening, or lard. 

Mini carrot cakes with cream cheese frosting and a cherry, and container of seeded crackers

October 11: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, a novel   

There is very little food in this book since it is about “artificial friends,” but there is a little bit, and there is the sun. So, Carolyn made sunflower seed brittle. And Lori made individual carrot cakes.  

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