This week was the last installment of my Healthy Cooking Class for the Urban Leaders Academy at PS 61 in Crown Heights. What a blast! As always when I teach, I think I ended up learning more than the students did.
We had five weeks together, and the group of 13-year-olds was divided up into two sections of fifteen kids. First we got the boys, then the girls. (When they weren't with me they were learning modern dance, and the dance teacher requested the gender division.) Interesting to see how different boys and girls are at that age! The girls could kind of run circles around the boys.
I am deeply grateful to all my friends who came out to help me teach: Guillermo, Leo, Alicia, Liz, Moina, and Stella. I was nervous about doing this, and I realized that the more helpers I could bring, the better. It made it possible to work on knife skills without worrying about severed extremities, and it also saved me throwing out my back from schlepping all the equipment.
The first few classes were a little rough, but it got better. I interviewed my family members who are excellent teachers and tried to take their advice:
"Don't let them push you around." (Cousin Nikki)
This was easier said than done. It helped that Guillermo was with me for the first two classes and commanded immediate respect. I got a little less doormat-ish as the class progressed.
"Share who you are with them." (Cousin Nikki)
Because Nikki said this, when we made guacamole, I told the girls that it was my father's recipe and that he'd died and that I always thought about him when I made it. The class got silent and it was a really cool moment. "Food can be emotional," I told them. "It can help you remember people long after they're gone."
"Show them you like hip hop." (Cousin Nikki)
Mixed results. When describing the stations of a classical French kitchen, I said the saucier needed to have mad skillz, and everybody laughed, clearly *at* me, not with me. What a dork. This Monday one of the girls said she was scared of the tarragon vinegar. I told her, "Don't be scurred!" This went over well and I felt somewhat redeemed.
"Bring lots of things to give out when they answer a question right or do a great job." (Sister-in-law Nicole)
Great idea! Clementines and ginger candies were my door prizes of choice.
The biggest challenge was figuring out what to cook given the fact that we had no heat sources or other equipment. I bought a Cuisinart griddle, which opens up to give you two flat tops, and it worked great. Liz helped on the final class by contributing her George Foreman. I also went around and collected blenders from all my neighbors for smoothie day.
CLASS 1: Whole Wheat Pancakes
CLASS 2: Smoothies
CLASS 3: Scallop Quesadillas with Salsa Verde and Guacamole
CLASS 4: Vietnamese Summer Rolls
CLASS 5: Shish-Kabobs with Tzatziki and Chimichurri
I had planned very accessible recipes for the first two classes, unfairly assuming the kids would be of the fast food generation who turn up their noses at vegetables, unusual flavors, and animal protein in its whole/raw form. I couldn't have been more wrong! They dug all the food, and actually requested that we make things with shrimp. It was so cool to introduce them to things they'd never had -- artichoke hearts, scallops, poblano peppers, Asian fish sauce, fresh cilantro, edamame -- and to watch them smell and taste and pronounce their judgments.
In retrospect, I think this was the biggest lesson I could offer them. As risks go, it's pretty safe to let yourself try new foods, and the payoff is immediate. It's an easy way to not be imprisoned by where you come from. To develop taste, and confidence in the validity of your own taste. To let yourself enjoy things. The tough part for me about being thirteen (it's even true of being thirty-six, sadly) is how mean people can be sometimes, and how it seems that being sarcastic and cool and keeping your guard up gets you farther. But not in the realm of eating, where it pays to be both sensitive and optimistic. The kitchen is the one place where contentment always wins.