The semester draws to a close, and alas, so does our cooking elective. It's been a real joy to work with this group of 9th and 10th graders -- and also a serious challenge. There was so much that we couldn't do within the constraints of a half-hour class and no real kitchen. People would ask what I did with them, and I would wryly reply that we "made a lot of salads", among other things. Which is true. But they've developed a taste for homemade salad dressing, at least -- as well as broadening a few horizons.
Too often, our classes were based on my bringing them fruits and vegetables to taste and discuss, rather than doing any real cooking. Or I'd bring in baked goods I'd made at home, and in lieu of actually cooking the treats with them, I'd simply give them samples, share the recipe, and we'd talk about food and nutrition. They loved this, but I felt unsure as to how much they'd really learned over the course of the semester. So I asked them.
"What did you learn in cooking this semester?" I said. "We learned that organic food is much better for you than non-organic," said Amber. "Why?" I asked. "Because it doesn't have pesticides and chemicals that go into your body and cause you diseases and problems later down the road in your life," Alyssa said.
"Don't make things from boxes and mixes and frozen food and cans," Deisy said. "Homemade food is much better for you, cheaper, and tastes WAY better." "Yeah, food 'from scratch'," said Manny. "That's the good stuff, the real stuff."
"We learned that eating too much junk and fast food is really bad for your body and your health," Mirlenys said. "You should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and not too many sweets and things with lots of fat."
"Eat seasonal!" Eddie said. "What does that mean?" I asked them. "Ummm...it means, like, no strawberries right now," Jocelyn said. "Right," I said. "What else?" "You should try to eat what grows at that time of year, and maybe close by to you, not from far far away," Ashley answered.
"Oh yeah, and colors," Amber said. "What about them?" I asked. "You can sometimes tell what vitamins you're getting by the colors of the food you eat." "Give me an example," I said. "Squash or carrots, yellow and orange vegetables, are good sources of vitamin A."
I was pretty satisfied with this pop quiz. But even better was what happened next. We decided on a celebratory ending for our penultimate class, and went out to lunch together at a Japanese restaurant -- their choice. I was quite proud that no-one wanted to go to McDonald's or other more familiar options, but that they all wanted to "try something new." Some of them were familiar with sushi -- and Manny suggested that we "go to one of those places where the chefs do tricks." Since hibachi cooking no longer enjoys the vogue it once had in NYC, our only option for that was Benihana, which fortunately offers lunch specials. Otherwise it would have been too costly.
Our kids are brave tasters. I ordered sushi for the table. Playing it safe, I went for California Rolls, but Samantha, a sushi veteran, ordered Spicy Tuna Rolls, which she passed around. Everyone ate some -- and, for the most part, liked them too. They were suprised by the kick of wasabi, and wrinkled their noses at the pickled ginger. They liked the ginger dressing on their salads, however, and enjoyed trying the various dipping sauces made with miso and other unfamiliar ingredients. I ordered them some tempura too, which was rapidly gobbled up by all.
They loved the theatrical aspect of Benihana -- which are the same things that make me, of course, scoff and dismiss it as a tourist joint. But it's actually perfect for adolescents -- and epecially for a cooking class, since they could watch the food being prepared. We all sat around a big communal table, passing food around, sharing everything. They adored it when the "chef" for our table tossed shrimp tails into his big red toque with the tip of his chopping knife. They clapped when he made a smoking "volcano" out of onion rings, and laughed when he shaped the fried rice into a beating heart right on the grill.
They liked their grilled hibachi entrees and their yakisoba, which was compared favorably to lo mein, as well. There were no complaints about the food -- and it was truly a joy to take this group out to lunch. Teachers spend so much of their time in school feeling despondent about students' bad manners and insulting behavior. My cooking group really knows how to clean up their act, however. Not only were they well-behaved and easy to be with in public, they were also clearly relaxed and having a good time.
They wanted to chat about one of their current favorite topics: my strange desire to have an un-wedding. "I don't know about this cupcake idea of yours," Ashley said. They had asked about my "wedding cake" -- they are all, of course, quite desperate to be invited to the "wedding", not quite getting that I'm going to be married privately and have a couple of low-key parties for family and friends. The idea of no poufy white dress, no ceremony, etc., dies much harder for them than it does for G and myself, fortunately. I had shared with them that G and I were probably going to have the somewhat hackneyed but extremely economical tower of cupcakes at our family party, rather than a traditional wedding cake. They had never heard of such a thing. "No knife?" Manny said, pouting. "No ceremonial cutting of the cake, and keeping the special knife?" "Don't worry," I said. "We can cut a cupcake, and feed that to each other." "Mmmm," said Ashley, disapprovingly. "I think you deserve all the good traditional stuff." What I actually want doesn't seem to be an issue.
So I will miss them -- and I daresay, they'll miss me too. But not too much. One of the joys of working in a small school is that I see kids, all the kids, every day in our common space/lunchroom and in the halls. "Miss!" Eddie will cry, running after me as I'm on my way to a meeting. "I made the cookies -- the ones you made for us last week." "How did they turn out?" I'll ask. "Mmmm," he'll say. "Not so good. I didn't have any chocolate chips in the house, and I baked them kind of a long time." But someday his cookies and everything else will turn out well, because he's giving it a shot. He's trying, experimenting, seeing what works, what you can leave out, what you can't, how long your particular oven takes for a certain recipe. "Miss Julie!" Alyssa calls. "I"m gonna make the pumpkin bread recipe you gave us next week, for a family party." "Good!" I say. "Let me know how the family likes it."
"If you don't do cooking, what are you going to teach next semester?" Samantha asks. "The principal has asked me to do a blogging elective," I reply. "Do you want to take it?" A large number of them nod "yes." "Yeah," says Manny. "Especially if you keep bringing us the treats you make at home."