A professor who is excited about the subject she teaches and who can passionately transfer that excitement to her students, transforms a class from robotic dictation of the syllabus to a treasured life experience.
Susan Semenak, WRT236: Food Writing in Montreal, is the embodiment of that professor. Her enthusiasm revolves around the city of Montreal and its food cultures.
“I really love to eat. And I really love to cook. And, I guess, for a really longtime, cooking for people has been my way of showing love, sharing, coming together,” Semenak said, “Food is kind of a portal into a whole culture. And I like food writing because it allows me to explore broader topics of sociology, geology, demographics, but always through an element that anybody can understand, because we all eat and cook.”
Semenak holds a bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with a minor in Political Science, from Concordia University. She used to be a news reporter for the Montreal Gazette, but now works for them as a lifestyle writer, writing mostly about food. A native Montrealer, Semenak clearly loves her city.
“I’m born here and I’ve lived here all my life, except for brief periods. It’s the love of my life, this city. I might move somewhere else, but I hope not to be gone from Montreal forever. No matter where I travel to, I’m happy to return.”
Jean-Talon Market is a prominent farmer’s market in Montreal and is also another subject of Semenak’s passion, a fortunate twist of fate that brought her to Champlain.
“I got a call from Gigi Danforth [two years ago], and I think she knew somebody I knew in the newsroom, and she was looking for someone to give a tour of Jean-Talon Market, as one of the classes,” Semenak said, “So, because that’s my favorite place in the world, I was happy to do it. And, I guess she liked my enthusiasm for the place, and it’s always fun to share your own loves with people, so she asked me if I was interested in teaching the class the next semester. So I’ve been teaching the whole class, and the Jean-Talon Market tour is part of my class now.”
Being in Semenak’s class is like going on an adventure, with food playing the part of tour guide. You learn about the history of immigration in the Quebec province and see what foods they brought with them. You share your story with other people by describing your favorite comfort food. You learn the background of Montreal’s modest Chinatown and sample the richness hidden in the humbleness of the area. Learning the history and true taste of spices leads to creating your own mix of spices, with the additional challenge of actually cooking with them. You learn how to use all your senses to experience food and how to use words to translate what you have encountered. You see how food goes beyond the marketplace and the dining table, to necessity, scarcity, and a way of life. There’s a lot to take in from Semenak’s class and she is ready to help with her wealth of knowledge and experience.
“I really, really like working with the students. I think what it is, is that, I’ve always worked as a writer, and when you’re a writer or a journalist, you share information in a certain way. I go out and get information and I sit at my computer and I write it and somebody in another room, in another place reads it,” Semenak explained, “But when you’re teaching, you’re sharing information in live time, in front of a classroom. I really like that. There’s an intimacy to it that’s really exciting.
It’s not just all fun and games, however, because a class is still a class and there’s always work to be done and objectives to accomplish.
“I kind of grapple with the balance in class, because it’s a class about food, about Montreal food, but also a class about food writing, so there’s the writing aspect,” Semenak said, “I understand that not everybody is a natural-born writer. So I’m always encouraging everyone to write and to write from an honest place. I want to teach people to write concisely and I want them to write the way they talk, so it’s conversational and interesting.”
Semenak seems to genuinely care about her students and has some nuggets of wisdom that she’d like to share.
“I would [recommend studying abroad]. Absolutely. Because I think that there’s something about traveling itself that opens the mind to new experiences, that it makes you see yourself in a different way. It teaches you skills, or it makes you see skills you had that you never thought you did. And then, living in a place, it just deepens that experience.”
“I’ve watched [students] kind of bloom and blossom and open up and gain confidence,” Semenak shared, “And that’s really neat.”