According to Stephen Sheehi, associate professor of Arab Studies at the University of South Carolina, the Arab world was responsible for cultivating emmer wheat and introducing enslaved Americans' ancestors to bananas and peanuts.
"In that respect, there's always been a tie," Sheehi says.
Exploring Arab contributions to Southern cookery is just one objective of Sheehi's new class, which he warns can't be reduced to a soundbite. The syllabus is also designed to introduce students to concepts of land management, local food and sustainability. Sheehi's students are planting an Arab garden on their campus in Columbia, S.C. and preparing to build a tandour oven, with the resulting bread and veggies pledged to a nearby chapter of Food Not Bombs.
"I'm trying to teach students what food looks like before it gets to their plates," Sheehi explains. "What does a bean look like before it's cooked into your burrito?"
The trick, Sheehi says, has been figuring out which foods are compatible with the class' subject matter and useful for area food pantries. He's settled on garlic and garbanzo beans, although he admits the garden's been a tougher project than he imagined. Most of the plants have been pummeled by late-winter freezes – and those were the seeds that survived Sheehi's first stab at farming.
"I dug all these trenches and made a garden as you would in Lebanon," he recalls. "The first rain came, and washed everything away. What the Arabs knew about land use, I didn't.""
By Hanna Raskin