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On the menu today in the kitchen class is vegetable curry, and by the time the next group of sixth graders streams into the room, the necessary ingredients are already laid out for them. All the best of the season, arranged on a platter as though for a still life, almost too beautiful to imagine eating: dainty fingerling potatoes, broccoli rabe with little yellow flowers, a half onion, a carrot with the top yet untrimmed, some turnips and cilantro.
The fully-equipped kitchen is large and airy, and it seems likely that any professional chef would feel perfectly at home here. There's a sort of electricity in the air as the kids crowd around each table to hear their instructions, before splitting off to attend to their chosen tasks.
Esther Cook, the founding kitchen teacher, heads up the center table — her assistant leads another table, and the classroom teacher takes charge of the third. Cook — who, indeed, is a cook — has been with the Edible Schoolyard since 1997, when the kitchen program first started. She'd been a professional chef before that, but decided that what she really wanted to do was work with kids — "really getting to open them up to the power of food and the possibilities that can happen in the kitchen when you're collaborating," she explains.
After Cook gives the students some background about what a curry is exactly, she carefully explains how each task needs to be done, and the students go around and each sign up for something. And then they're off — this one chopping the carrot, a pair measuring out and toasting up some spices. Amazingly, with these twelve-year-olds, almost everything is done from scratch, no shortcuts, and with hardly any micromanaging (the knives are sharp) — just the teacher's watchful eye and a word of advice every now and again.
What's miraculous, also, is how calm and civilized it all is. Everything is, "Would you please?" and "Thank you," and kids who finish their assigned task quietly ask for something new to do or — without prompting — get a head start on washing the dirty dishes. Before long, the curry is on the stove, and the room is starting to smell good, and kids are lining up to have a taste to see if the seasoning needs to be adjusted. A few of the students start setting the table, with a real tablecloth and a place setting for each person in their group.
When the food is ready and all the students have sat down, Cook raises her water glass and says, "I'm going to propose a toast to our beautiful and delicious curry!" Everyone digs in. And, as Cook explains, for some of them this is the only time during the entire week that they'll sit down and have a meal together with other people.
Even though it's vegetable curry, and these twelve-year-olds are probably no less prone to be picky eaters than any others, they're all eating — with gusto, even — because the curry has the carrot that they chopped, and the egg that they gathered, and the spices that they mixed. And it's a good thing that they're eating the curry, too, because it is delicious and full of nuance, and if Caitlin Flanagan went out to a nice Thai restaurant and was served this curry, it's doubtful that she would know the difference.
As the kids get ready to head out, Cook sums up the day's lesson: "We came. We prepped. We cooked. We ate. It was fantastic."
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