As political tensions with Russia rise, faculty from University of Arizona’s Russian and Slavic studies department decided politics weren’t the only thing that would be heating up this semester. Stovetops and ovens warmed up as seven Russian students from Moscow University for the Humanities came to the UA for a week of learning leading up to an ‘Iron Chef’-style cook-off.
At the ‘Iron Chef’ event, held at the Tucson Village Farm, students from both Russia and the U.S. divided into teams to cook traditional Russian and Southwestern dishes. Tucson Village Farm is a location off campus where fresh fruits and vegetables are grown by UA students.
“Having the Russian students come was a great opportunity for us to have a cultural exchange and learn about regional cuisine,” said Elizabeth Sparks, the 4-H youth development assistant agent of the farms.
The Friendship Garden Project is based on growing healthy and sustainable food for cooking as well as for language and culture purposes. Russian students got to see local farms, gardens and grocery stores while in Tucson to experience how “Americans and Mexicans in the Southwest obtain and consume healthy food,” according to Sparks.
“The Friendship Garden Project that we have with Tucson Village Farm is unique, because Tucson is a UNESCO world heritage food site and Moscow has a long tradition of excellent cuisine,” said Colleen Lucey, assistant director in the department of Russian and Slavic studies.
UNESCO stands for The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and encourages “international peace and universal respect” by helping with collaborations between nations through several sorts of projects around the world, according to their website.
The project is the first in the country and Lucey believes it can be modeled and replicated at other universities.
The Tucson Village Farm has never done a foreign exchange cook-off, but Sparks was interested in the possibility of doing a similar program in the future.
“I think that food brings us all together and I think doing things where food is the centerpiece, especially in our region, is so unique,” Sparks said.
Over the week that the Russian students were in Tucson, they got to experience how to prepare and eat Southwestern dishes such as quesadillas, chili and tacos.
“I like Mexican food, it’s really delicious, its versatile and it’s so rich, even the simple quesadilla with cheese is amazing,” said Daria Suvorova, one of the Russian students. “It’s great to know how tasty food can be and how simple food can be at the same time.”
The Russian students even got to try cactus, which many of them had never even seen in real life before.
“I haven’t ever tried cactus, it was interesting and really surprising,” Suvorova said.
The Russian and American students got along well and shared cultures, despite the political conflicts going on, according to Lucey.
“I learned a lot of tips about how to cook Mexican food and also changed the experiences I learned cooking Russian dishes,” said Valeria Manichun, another student from Moscow University.
Not only does this Peer-to-Peer program share food cultures but also a healthy positive relationship with two countries at conflict politically, according to Lucey.
“I think it’s very important not to stop our communication and to meet each other and use social media, despite everything that happens in the world we should connect with each other,” Manichun said.
The Russian students and UA students said they felt communication is key and find that it is the best way to harness relationships between nations politically, socially and environmentally.
“It’s a great way to have conversations about topics and bridge the gap between what makes us different,” said Andrew Bedoy, a UA student minoring in Russian.
For Emily Allerton, a UA junior who is studying Russian and neuroscience, this program has helped students learn both food and cultural topics, like how the Russians freeze onions so they don’t cry when they cut them.
“Study-abroad programs help build respect and trust between different communities and help keep you from being isolated and stereotyping people,” Allerton said.
As part of the program, eight UA students from all backgrounds and fields of study, including Bedoy and Allerton, will go to Moscow in May to learn about the food culture there.
The UA students are touring Russian urban farms, candy factories, breweries and grocery stores. They will also be going to a ‘dacha,’ which is a cottage that many Russians grow fruits and vegetables in, as well as a ‘bazar,’ which is an open-air market that many food vendors sell at.
“Getting the opportunity to interact with a culture that I never experienced first-hand but learned about through books and things will be a really awesome opportunity,” Bedoy said.
The program was made possible by a Peer-to-Peer grant that the American Embassy in Moscow runs. The grant sends seven Russian students to UA for a week and eight UA students to Moscow University for the Humanities for a week.
“The grant funds contact between Russians and Americans on topics of mutual interests that fosters intellectual growth and common ground between countries outside of a political setting, it’s really about building community and cross-cultural exchange,” Lucey said.
A co-convened online class that both U.S. and Russian students can take together is covered by the grant. The class, Russian and Sonoran Food Ways, allows students to get to know each other online.
“Working together is really important for the University of Arizona as we grow as an international hub and as a university with an international profile,” Lucey said. “This is one very concrete way where students of different universities can make long lasting connections with one another.”
With rising tension in the political world between the U.S. and Russia, the academic world still works together in a humanitarian approach, according to Lucey. Part of that approach starts right here at the UA’s College of Humanities.
“In our department we were looking for ways to show the human side of Russia,” Naomi Caffee, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Russian and Slavic studies, said.
“The Russians that were at UA constantly said ‘we want to work with our American partners’ and ‘we don’t have any anti-American sentiment,’” Lucey said. “This kind of citizen diplomacy is what is going to keep our countries in dialogue and that is what’s really important.”
The Department of Russian and Slavic studies at the UA aims for students to explore the rich heritage of Russia and the post-Soviet world. The program positions students for careers through a variety of courses and opportunities like the Russian exchange.
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