Monday, May 24, 2010

Cooking with 4th Graders

It's been my privilege to be the Culinary Artist-in-Residence at a local elementary school for the past few weeks. It's the first time the school has tried a program like this.

Each week I would teach an hour of cooking to 4 fourth grade classes of about 20 students each. It was a little scary at first to think I'd be walking into a room full of 9- and 10-year olds who I had no time to get to know and handing them sharp knives and giving them control of hot pots.

Luckily, the first class was actually not cooking but putting in a kitchen garden at school. While most of the class was arranging arugula, spinach, kale and chard seedlings in a grid we'd plotted out, I enlisted the aid of two students to take surveys.

One survey was about their skills in the kitchen, how often they cooked with their families and how often the family sat down to eat together. The second survey was which vegetables they recognized and which they would actually eat.

I was pleasantly surprised by the survey results. Unlike Jamie Oliver's experience, all of the kids knew their vegetables and an amazing number said they actually loved some of the more "challenging" vegetables.

Ninety percent of the students said they knew how to handle peelers, graters and knives. There were of course a few kids who only sat down to eat with their families at holidays but for most cooking and eating together happened at least 3 times a week.

I still had trepidations about the first day of cooking in the classroom. In the five years of producing, shooting and behind the scenes guiding the recipes for Spatulatta I have never soloed in the kitchen with such and overwhelming child to adult ratio.

The first challenge was using the observations I'd made while putting in the garden to pick out the students who had the eye-hand coordination and concentration to get us through the first recipe - Italian Wedding Soup with homemade chicken fennel meatballs and arugula salad with dried cranberries and almonds.

One teacher commented that I had chosen well, picking the natural leader in the group to man the heating unit and putting the least coordinated boys making salads. This was all done on the fly while confronted by a sea of raised hands and a chorus of voices going "Me! Me!" I was going on instincts because there was no time to think.

I was so relieved when we got the first class got the soup and salad to the table. Although the arugula was a challenging flavor that some of the students had never had, they gave it a try because it was something they had planted in their garden.

We had one girl say that the whole grain bread tasted disgusting which prompted a discussion about how one should comment on cooking. I actually didn't start the discussion. One of the other students told her it wasn't nice to say the bread was disgusting because someone had baked that bread and it was disrespectful because of their hard work.

Wow! What a teaching moment. I jumped in and offered alternatives. You could say "it's not to my taste," or "It's not my favorite thing." Some of the other girls chimed in with other, kinder ways to express one's distaste. Later as the students were lining up to change classes I heard the girl telling her friends that she didn't find the bread to her taste.

The next week's menu was more to her taste. We made Fettuccini Alfredo with diced sweet red pepper and spinach from the garden.