Off the Farm and Cooking with Kids
Fourth and fifth graders love their cooking classes with Vera.
I have an endless love for the world of food and farming, and a strong impulse to share this world with others. It's how I got into farming, actually: my first job out of college was at The Edible Schoolyard, a school garden in Berkeley, CA, where I taught middle schoolers how to make compost and plant seeds. After learning to grow food in garden class, students went to kitchen class, where they learned to cook simple, delicious food using some of what they'd grown. It was a beautiful place to work and one that has inspired much of my life and work these past 10 years.
These days, I'm teaching cooking to children at Kitchen Patrol, a collaboration between me and chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern and The Durham. For the next few months, I'll step off the farm every Tuesday to teach cooking classes for 12 fourth and fifth graders.
Teaching kids to garden and cook feels like a total no-brainer to me. Feeding yourself is one of the most basic life skills, and through gardening and cooking, kids can learn hands-on math, history, chemistry, reading, and biology (not to mention the other essential life skills of teamwork and communication!). Time and time again, I've worked with students who struggle in a classroom environment. They have a hard time staying focused. They're tired of sitting inside, looking at a screen or taking tests, and they have a really hard time seeing how all this schoolwork is going to be useful in real life. They come out to a garden or into a kitchen and have real tools and real responsibilities, and suddenly, they're all in. They try foods and dishes they normally wouldn't eat because they made it themselves. Week after week, their confidence grows, and their senses are sharpened. I wish I'd had cooking classes as a kid, and I wish there were cooking classes in all schools!
Also, as the teacher, cooking with kids is just straight-up fun. Seeing food and cooking through the eyes of children is heartening and hilarious. The kids say it better than I can. Here are a few quotes from students:
This broccoli is bangin'.
Dang, it smells like heaven in here.
I'm so sad. I don't want it to end. This is the best salad I've ever had.
I don't know why I didn't trust cauliflower before 'cause this is awesome!
Can you hook me up with some more of those greens?
It's okay, we all make mistakes, and I'm learning.
This week was the first Kitchen Patrol class of the year. On Tuesday, the students showed up at Lantern, donned aprons, and got a lesson on the ins and outs of a busy restaurant kitchen. Next week, students will make a big salad with homemade dressing, toasted seeds, homemade croutons, and discuss the different edible parts of a plant, such as flowers, roots, and leaves. The week after, we'll work on knife skills while chopping ingredients for vegetable fried rice. Future classes include making butter, savory galettes, and Indian vegetable curry; guest chefs; and always a trip to a farm.
Each week, students work together to cook something from scratch, taste and adjust, taste again, clean up, and set the table. We wrap up class by sitting down to share what we've made. The semester works towards Family Dinner, when students prepare a full multicourse meal, light candles, and serve their families dinner. It's a very special evening, and the kids are so proud to show their families what they're able to make.
I'm always blown away by the children and their eagerness to create something delicious together. The fourth graders are so excited to learn how to chop with a real knife, and the returning fifth graders are so proud of the skills they have from the year before. Everyone works well together, is open to eating almost anything (including lots of Ten Mothers Farm vegetables), and is even eager to clean up. Honestly, it doesn't feel like teaching. We just bring together some good ingredients in a well-stocked kitchen with some open-minded young people, and we start cooking. The rest is magic.