For the past three years, Dirke Hill has been introducing her students at the Middletown campus of Wilmington University to international food and cultures.
By Richard L. Gaw
Decade by decade, year by year -- even day by day -- the world gets smaller and smaller. For seven evenings every semester at the Middletown campus of Wilmington University, a group of students learn about the cultures in countries that had once thought to have been a universe away from the United States. And the food is really good, too.
Through the tantalizing allure of cuisine of many nations, the Food, Arts & International Customs class, a humanities elective at Wilmington University brings the world even closer to classes largely made up of business and nursing majors. In preparation for their careers -- some of which will require international travel -- the class provides an introduction to the traditional dishes of selected countries and the etiquette of dining in those cultures.
The takeaway of this class is in realizing just how big the world is, and just how many different lifestyles and customs there are," said Dirke Hill, who has taught the class for the last three years. "Often, our view on the world is a very narrow one. It's our commute to work, it's our family, and the place where we live. This class opens a student's eyes to the different ways of the world, whose cultures are different from theirs."
Class discussion typically ranges from food and customs, languages, populations, religions, music and current events, as well as a complete overview of native diets and health issues. In addition, guest speakers from different countries give class presentations; this semester, guests from South East Asia, France and Mexico are scheduled to speak. As a final assignment, students are asked to do research on one country and present their findings to the class, as well as bring along some food native to the country they are studying.
Two evenings of the seven-week class are spent eating, with visits to the Sushi Yama restaurant in Middletown, where the students will sample Japanese cuisine; and Ole Tapas in Newark, in order to enjoy food from the Mediterranean and Spanish cultures.
Hill knows a thing or two about international cuisine and cultures. She was born in New Zealand to two parents who were sailors who were attempting to circumvent the world in a sailboat, and after spending the first four years of her life Down Under, Dirke came with her family to the United States, settling in Annapolis, Md. As a youngster, she caught the competitive skating bug early, and by the time she was a teenager, her skills in figure skating had taken her to both national and international competition, culminating with her performance at the World Games in 2000. During that time, she came to Newark to train at the Fred Rust Arena.
By the time she had reached 19, however, Hill was exhausted from the grind of training and competition, and began to pursue her other passions, one of which was cooking.
"I'm fortunate to have a lot of great cooks in my family," Hill said. "My mother was influenced by her international travel, and my Aunt Allie is an international stewardess. I also began to watch The Food Network, and the idea of spending my life around food preparation seemed like something I wanted to do. The sparks began to fly and the pieces slowly came together."
After receving her degree from the University of Delaware in Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management, Hill's culinary career began at the Sugarfoot Catering Company in Wilmington, where she eventually became the company's catering manager. Through connections with Sugarfoot, she then took a position as a food stylist with The Food Network, where she created set designs and photo shoot preparations, using food.
The biggest enjoyment Hill receives from teaching the class is seeing the world open up before her students. "During introductions we talk about where we come from, and who are ancestors are," she said. "A lot of times, students don't know who their ancestors are, and many have not traveled outside of the United States, so I enjoy the fact that through this class, they're making their world a little larger."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.