Kim Foster is the author of The Yummy Mummy, (http://www.theyummymummy.blogspot.com/) a humor blog about cooking and eating with young kids. She is a writer, ghostwriter of several books, and currently finishing up a book proposal about her year of cooking with 20 four year olds in an East Harlem public school. She’ll be back in the classroom with another set of three and four year olds come September, thanks to Stop & Shop, who has generously pledged to under-write a substantial portion of the project for this coming academic year. Kim can be reached at Kim@FosterEntertainment.net and on Twitter as @TheYummyMummy
I’m going to come right out and say it – cooking with three, four and five year olds in an under-funded NYC public school is an endurance event. It should be its own category at the X Games.
It is nothing short of a marathon that ends with a sink full of impossibly dirty dishes, a floor strewn with debris, flecks of dough ground into the radiator vents and small children with pieces of zucchini tangled into their hair.
Don’t believe those pictures dotting the internet and cookbooks, of mild-mannered, rule-following children in perfectly white, un-stained chefs hats and aprons, carefully measuring out a cup of flour for their home-made banana nut muffins and never spilling a smidgeon of it onto the perfectly clean counter top.
I’m not afraid to tell you, it’s all propaganda.
I guess I can say this with some authority. I spent the last year going into my daughter, Lucy’s East Harlem Pre-K every week and cooking with her and her class. Before I came along, the pre-k class had a cooking program, spreading butter on crackers and then, later, spreading cream cheese onto crackers. They had plastic knives and the activity was designed to provide a snack and also encourage small motor skills. It was a good activity, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t actually cooking.
I e-mailed the teacher, Lisa. It was a longish e-mail, and I included so many details about myself you’d think I was applying to teach at culinary school. She invited me in as a one-time deal. We went through food issues, religious restrictions, allergies. We struck a deal. We set a date. I was making meatballs. She gave me a 45 minute session with them that included prep and cooking, followed by a tasting. I had at my disposal a hot plate, toaster oven, fridge and a griddle I was donating.
The first day cooking with the kids was a blur, a wild ride on a mammoth roller coaster that seemed to end as soon as it started. I remember three things clearly: 1) Three year olds up to their elbows in bowls of raw meat, 2) a boy who would not stop sticking his fingers up his nose, and 3) when I turned my back for two seconds – I mean, literally two seconds – a grated parmesan cheese fight broke out behind me. Before I could stop them, the back third of the classroom was covered in a thick blanket of parmesan.
I spent an hour after school picking cheese out of the radiator vents. Children had cheese in their hair. At this point, there was a good chance I was never going to be asked back into the classroom.
But Lisa did ask me back (bless her) and the kids and I cooked every week that school was open, September to June. We extended the cooking sessions to two 45 minute sessions a day, prep in the morning and cooking in the afternoon. We began with easy things, getting them used to chopping, cutting, boiling, sautéing. We made pumpkin soup in the Fall and apple fritters. We made Christmas cookie dough and decorated them, and guacamole and home-made tortilla chips. We made Chinese dumplings, the dough and all, and three fillings, tofu, shrimp and pork. Enchiladas, beef flautas, vegetable samosas, and pan-fried pizza with our own dough, almost everything from scratch.
Every time we cooked, they learned a new skill and took it with them for the next recipe. They had surprisingly good retention. They started with no cutting in September and then, in October I introduced serrated steak knives and by mid-year, they could finely dice carrots, big chunky root vegetables, onions and garlic without assistance. They made their first dough, pizza and then, every dough after that. By the time, we got to making fresh pasta and home-made bread, it was a cinch for them, something their hands and brains knew how to do automatically. They understood dough.
It wasn’t all success, however. We had our dismal failures, lots of them. When we made Fried Chocolate Kumquat Spring Rolls, the room’s freezer failed to freeze the chocolate ganache into a bar that could be rolled and deep fried. The kids ended up rolling melting, thick, oozing kumquat-laced chocolate into spring roll wrappers. They were covered head to toe in chocolate. The kids spent the cooking time licking themselves.
We were often too ambitious. The three different kinds of wonton fillings took so long to make they barely had time to sample one kind. There was lemon juice and salt that found their way into cuts and scrapes. There were burnt tortillas and flatbread that was hard on the outside and doughy and undercooked on the inside. There were cooking chores they found tedious and boring, like rolling dough into circles, and others they could have done for hours without stopping, like scooping out curds of ricotta from a pot of hot cream, milk and buttermilk. There was food they loved – latkes, matzoh ball soup – and food they barely ate – vegetable fried rice.
It was always a crap shoot and they were maddening in their unpredictability.
They could be amazingly productive and focused one day – as they are in these videos of the kids making fettuccine http://theyummymummy.blogspot.com/2010/05/book-and-four-year-olds-making.html – and the next day, they were unable to produce a single noodle, preferring instead to make the noodles, and then mash them up in their little fists, and run the mashed up dough through the machine again, and smash the noodles, and lay back their heads and laugh, as if it were the most comical thing they had ever done. Then, they started throwing it at each other. I spent an hour on my hands and knees scraping pasta dough off the floor with a razor.
Once, I made a kid cry after he threw a ball of home-made pasta dough through the air (picture a pint-sized Russian shot-putter) and onto the dirty public school floor. I was pissed and lost it for a second. I barked at him and his face crumpled, tears came. I was horrified. But we talked it out. We came out better on the other end.
And I got better at being a teacher. I learned an even deeper level of patience. I got very Zen about “meeting them where they are”. I mentally prepared for the sessions like an athlete before a game. I had little mantras I liked to recite about being patient, no matter what happened, and I had to train myself not to follow behind them making their food look more appetizing, spreading out that big clump of cilantro in the middle of the enchiladas, or making that dumpling look a little less like a testicle. I learned to sense a cheese fight coming on long before it happened. It became very clear to me that leaving an open bag of flour on the table would never end well. Lesson learned.
And I got to know the kids. I stopped being “Lucy’s mom” and became “Kim”. We knew each other, our limits, our gifts. We had been through the wars together. We had a real relationship, shorthand, inside jokes, the whole thing, and that felt pretty damn amazing.
By May, I knew they could make a lunch for their parents. We set the date for the last week in June. We made everything from scratch and we froze or dried whatever we made ahead of time. The kids made pasta dough from scratch, hand cranked the fettuccine noodles, and hung the noodles to dry on Lisa’s laundry rack. We had to put it up high on the desks to keep the mice from eating it.
The following week, we made marinara. A lot of it. The week after that, we made bread dough and I froze it. The day before the lunch, we cooked the dough into flatbreads in a cast iron skillet on the hot plate and the kids made fresh ricotta cheese. The day of the lunch Yahia, a boy who learned to speak English in class, brought to the table at the center of the classroom, a platter of home-made noodles topped with marinara and flecks of basil. Immanuel served the flatbreads, cut into messy triangles, and drizzled with butter, salt, shreds of basil and generous dollops of ricotta cheese.
The lunch was supposed to be for the parents, to give them each a little taste of what the kids made this year, a taste of what they could do, an opportunity to see them as extraordinary. But that wasn’t what happened. When the platters went out, the kids ran from every corner to the big table in the center of the room, pulling up chairs and chattering lively. A little girl named Anise grabbed a spoon and fork and started filling her plate with heaps of noodles. They all followed behind her. The kids had completely forgotten about their parents. Most of the parents never even got to taste their noodles.
I had packed several boxes of linguine in my bag, as a plan B in case it all went to hell, and the day turned into a spaghetti boil served with the kid’s marinara. Every piece of flatbread and dollop of cheese was devoured.
You‘re probably reading this and thinking that I did most of the cooking for the kids, that I let them stir the pot or let them watch me flip the latkes in the frying pan, but I didn’t. Truth is, I’m as blown away as anyone. These kids can’t tie their own shoes, but when given some direction and supplies, they can make dumplings, dough and all, from scratch. Most parents can’t do that.
And maybe that’s the lesson here – cooking with small kids isn’t about learning math by measuring cups of flour, or following a picture recipe, or being able to tell an olive from an avocado. It’s about the pure enjoyment of creating something together, the process of being a part of something that is occasionally ugly, filled with disappointments, frayed nerves and monotony, and sometimes outrageously funny, happy, surprising and satisfying.
It’s about a kid standing back with his arms folded across his chest and thinking, ” I did that…I did that…I really did that.” And listening to his family and teachers, the people who mean the most in his world, rave about how awesome he is and then, just getting to take that feeling to bed with him at night, letting it melt into his heart a little as he falls asleep.
I’m not telling you that you should start packing up your pots and pans and head to your kid’s school to cook with them this September. But if you do, it’ll be worth everything you have to do to make it happen.
And when you take your clothes off at night, and you look down and see that you have melted chocolate chips stuck to the inside of your bra, you’ll still think it’s worth it. I promise.