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St John leading a class in his home. Photo by John Imbergamo

Food Nerds, These Culinary Classes Are for You

Journalist Bill St. John offers seminars on everything from veganism to the history of French cooking at his Denver home—plus guided local market walks.

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If you want to learn how to make pasta from scratch, roll fresh sushi at home, or improve your knife skills, there are plenty of hands-on cooking classes at schools all over Denver. These classes are great, giving attendees the chance to learn new techniques in a fun and casual way. But what you won’t necessarily find there are in-depth explorations of world cuisines or broader historical context.

Enter Bill St. John’s culinary classes. A former journalist for the Rocky Mountain News and current cooking columnist for the Denver Post, St. John offers a roster of food-centric courses that go far deeper than your date-night cooking-for-two class. And if you’re a food nerd like me, you’ll be thrilled to discover seminars on everything from the legacy of Caterina de Medici to the history of salt to a Colorado food history retrospective.

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With two masters’ degrees and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in his resume and a background teaching religion, theology, economics, ethics, and food journalism, St. John is uniquely qualified to lead such thought-provoking discussions. Most of the classes—apart from the market walks, of course—are held at his cozy Speer neighborhood home; the experience is part college-level lecture, part casual social gathering.

This past spring, I attended a St. John class on Charlemagne. I didn’t recall much about the famous emperor, but St. John sent attendees preliminary reading materials so none would show up without a clue. After an enlightening, engaging lecture from St. John on why Charlemagne is considered the father of modern Europe, our group feasted on the historically accurate recreation of typical fare of Charlemagne’s era: a rustic purée of cauliflower, parsnips, and butter; a one-pot stew of mutton, pork, cabbage, and other vegetables served atop a piece of brown bread; and pears simmered in grape juice (which should have been red wine but St. John abstains from alcohol). I came away from the experience with new friends, far more background knowledge on early Europe, and a full belly.

Bill St. John Classes
A Charlemagne-themed dinner of mutton-pork stew and cauliflower-parsnip pureé, alongside some of the educational materials St. John distributes in his unique culinary classes.

St. John toyed with the idea of opening a cooking school at one point, but decided that his niche lies with “theoretical and historical background teaching,” rather than hands-on instruction. As such, most of his classes commence with a lecture and conclude with a theme-appropriate meal prepared by St. John himself.

New to St. John’s schedule this year: guided market walks. If you’ve ever been intimidated by navigating the aisles of Indian, Mexican, or Korean grocery stores, these walks—which St. John caps at six participants—are for you.

A few sessions from St. John’s fall schedule are listed below. To find the full schedule and reserve your spot, email Bill St. John at bill@billstjohn.com. 

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Market Walks

Wednesday, September 19
Lowe’s Aurora (Mexican)
6:30 to 8 p.m.; $25

Wednesday, October 17
Bombay Bazaar Aurora (Indian)
6:30 to 8 p.m.; $25

Wednesday, October 24
Market Walk: Lowe’s North Denver (Mexican)
6:30 to 8 p.m.; $25

Classes & Seminars

Saturday, September 15
A (Very) Short History of Spanish Cooking
11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; $50
A quick walk with Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, and (most important) the Arab Moors, all of whom made important marks on Spanish food. Also, a look at—and some tasting of—foods unique or exclusive to Spanish cooking, such as saffron, jamón, and its particular olives and olive oil. Finally, some lessons on distinctive Spanish cooking techniques: the cocido, for example, and paella. Lunch: Some eats off la parilla.

Tuesday, October 2
Salt
7 to 8:30 p.m.; $50
The only rock that we eat, salt is indispensable to our cooking, not to say our very life-keeping. Though all salt is sea salt, it appears in our kitchens and on our tables in many forms, colors, and textures. We’ll taste some of these to discover their differences, as well as learn about salt’s fascinating history as part of ours. Our words “salary” and “salad” come from “salt.” Dinner: Worth your salt.

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Saturday, October 20
A Lunch in Rome
11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; $50
I’m intrigued by the cooking of Italy’s capital, from its ancient history (the establishment of commerce; the development of flavorings), through its indispensable Jewish-Roman era (cooking in oil; attention to vegetables), to the modern and present-day (unique pasta preparations; uses of cuts of meat). We’ll have a long “lunch in Rome,” a combination of eating some of those same food preparations and talking about their history.

Talks

Straight talk to get us thinking. I’ve found research on these to be pretty intriguing and hope you do too. Each evening, one set fee and one set menu: red beans, andouille, and rice. Y’all.

Thursday, September 20
The Colombian Exchange
7 to 8:30 p.m.; $25
After Columbus—not before—Europe got these: potato, pumpkin, tomato, avocado, red & green peppers, vanilla, and the pineapple. There weren’t no tomatoes in Sicily ‘til the 1600s. And we got these: spinach, lemon, orange, watermelon, sugar cane, and a lot more. No orange juice in Florida ‘til, well, around Anita Bryant’s birth. Two major regions of world plant domestication—one, Meso- and South America, and, two, the Levant and the Mediterranean—didn’t know about each other’s foods until just a few hundred years ago.

Thursday, October 18
Beans Have Brains
7 to 8:30 p.m.; $25
Plants comprise 99 percent of the planet’s biomass, so maybe we ought to get to know them better. By and large, they may be set in place, but their roots sense gravity, water, light, pressure, toxins (and many various minerals and microbes) and interact with all of these. Roots can tell whether nearby roots are self or other and, if other, kin or stranger. “There are seeds that rely on fire. There are seeds that tangle up in the hair of an animal and get carried for miles.… Darwin was amazed that a seed grew after it had been 21 hours in the stomach of an owl.” (Jane Goodall) How did they figure that out?

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