Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cooking and Process

by: Allison Liefer

Common Threads teaches cooking skills, and our curriculum is filled with healthy ethnically diverse recipes that professional chefs have tested and approved. But at the end of class every week, it’s more important to me, personally, that our students were involved in the process of cooking. Of course, they should have a healthy meal to eat together at the end of class! But sometimes, as happened to one of our fine chef instructors, the kids’ empanada dough just doesn’t come together, and the chef has to improvise, happily instructing the kids to wet their fingertips and smash their balls of corn flour together to make – ta da – sopes!

So Common Threads’ program is a cooking class, but it’s also an after-school activity that lets children practice teamwork, creativity, follow-through, autonomy, and taking responsibility.

Who remembers learning to cook? Who remembers following instructions and getting to maneuver fascinating machinery? When I was a kid, my mom had an old fashioned hand-cranked cracker grinder; I got to grind crackers for the crumbs that she used to batter our pork tenderloin. No longer does my mother pan-fry pork chops in oil on the stove; health-consciousness has taken hold and she’s making recipes from the back of the spice catalog, using seasonings to flavor her food, not fat. But back then, we ate fried pork tenderloin. So, after I ground the butter crackers, I would get to take a turn banging the loins with our meat tenderizer, a small spiked mallet. It seemed very heavy; it made high-heel marks in the meat. Then we dredged the loins in egg, then crumbs, and then I stood back as she slapped the meat onto the hot frying pan and it spat! By the way, the meat was often overcooked, and I must have known even as a 9 year-old that my stomach prefers veggies & tofu. But the end result didn’t matter. What I enjoyed more than eating dinner was that kitchen time with my mom, helping grind and pound and dredge, and hearing the splattering fat in the hot pan.

The activity of helping cook is a lesson in order, in process, in full engagement, and in the impact of your actions. So many contemporary school teachers feel they must “teach to the tests” to make sure their state-mandated test results are high enough to ensure, in many cases, the continued existence of the school itself. And Common Threads’ curriculum does fulfill state Board of Education curriculum standards! But I am also glad we can offer kids a creative learning experience one day a week after school. Just listen to a few things our students have to say when asked to reflect upon their experiences in the kitchen:

“I want to learn from a good cook and how to make chicken stur frie (sic) and how to chop and dice vegetables without messing up and I want to learn more than what I know.”
- Camron, age 10

“I want to learn to make food to help my grandma.”
- Felix, age 8

"I was having a bad day today but am now having a good one because I am here!"
- Aliysha, age 11

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