Common Threads volunteer: Week 3 in the kitchen

The “L” tracks nearby
Each summer camp session at Common Threads is three weeks long. I volunteered the first two weeks and then I took a vacation so I missed the third and final week of that camp session. So when I showed up today, it was to a completely new group of kids, a new chef, and more volunteers than before. From what I had observed before, I had been the only volunteer during my particular afternoon for the first session. Today I noticed two other volunteers.
Another new chef introduced herself and informed me that this second group of campers had participated in cooking camp last summer. She commented that they were “pros” and would be more able to be self-directed with their work in the kitchen.
I was paired with the other volunteer and we were assigned to run a station ourselves. It was nice to work with another volunteer and we complemented each other nicely. She was far more organized than me as she had received formal chef training, whereas I have had more experience with school kids.
The kids assigned to us were focused and eager. Two girls started chopping zucchini and I told them both that I thought they looked like professional chefs in their precision and dedication to task. The other two kids were measuring spices. The chef had told us that the spice level in the earlier group had been a little too hot. She suggested halving one of the spices. I asked the kids a very hard questions, “What’s half of 1/2 teaspoon?” I know that kids their age (Fourth and fifth grades) learn fractions, but they seemed to be a bit rusty on identification of fractions. I couldn’t find a pen (I’m bringing my own next time) so that I could draw out the fractions and they could see them visually. I used my hands to describe various fractions in an impromptu math lesson.
The recipe for today’s session was the same as the first week I participated, the falafel, Kushari and the Dukkah encrusted salmon. I was on the Kushari team again, but we were also going to be making the salmon and the Amba so that was a nice change.

The chef was correct about the kids: they had participated in camp before and were indeed “pros.” There was not as much jumping around and getting excited as the previous group. They were poised at the cutting boards to the point that if they had been older, anyone would have thought it was culinary school. These kids were chopping machines — they had serious knife skillz!
The onions were strong and when the kids were chopping them, many had to step away from the table and wipe their eyes. Even the kid next to the girl chopping onions had to step away. Potent!

The recipes for dishes like Kushari are long. As I said earlier, the toughest part is the prep and chopping. When you are working with four or five kids, the prep is quick. At home a recipe like this would take me much longer to do mostly because the prep alone would take me at minimum a half hour if I was minding my toddler simultaneously. I like Common Threads’ approach because it teaches kids basic cooking skills that can be applied to any recipe. If I were running this program, I might try to water it down by attempting less complex recipes. What I like is that the kids learn not to be afraid of long ingredient lists and multiple spices. Often at home when I am looking through a cookbook for a dish, I’ll skip recipes with “too many” ingredients. I believe that the kids at camp learn not to be intimidated. Leaving the program I think they feel a lot of confidence about themselves and their abilities in the kitchen.

Two hours in the kitchen sounds very long for kids this age. It flies by as the camper learns new skills, has fun, works at the stove, and then eats. There is time to socialize with the other campers. Once I saw two girls spontaneously start doing a hand clapping game. Many of the kids are meeting new people and making new friends. They come from different schools and include people of all different ethnicities including African-American, Asian, Latino, and Caucasian, mirroring the diversity in their communities on the south side of Chicago. I love how the creed (what they read before they eat) ties into their experiences with the food and also with other campers.

Having a competent chef volunteer as a partner made my job easy. The kids worked together to finish the Kushari and the salmon. I carried around the recipe and provided guidance when necessary. I didn’t work at the stove this time, but instead helped with the clean up. The kids have jobs in the kitchen aside from ingredient prep, stirring, baking and cooking at the stove. Each station is a color and every week they rotate clean up responsibilities. This week my group had to set up the station to eat and sweep the floor. Other groups helped to wash dishes (not the knives or graters which are put aside for the hired kitchen help) and wiped the counters.

One of the stations was cleaned off and that was where we stood and ate our creations. The kids set up small paper bowls, paper plates, and spoons. I noticed that the spoons were bio-degradeable. Then I stood at the stove and helped dish up all of the kids who came through with their little dishes. We read the “creed.” They have to eat a little of everything and if they like it they can come back for more if there is any. I saw all the kids eating and some came back for seconds. I chatted with some of the kids and they told me they wanted to try some of the recipes at home. Another successful afternoon in the kitchen!

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6 thoughts on “Common Threads volunteer: Week 3 in the kitchen

  1. "…I'll skip recipes with "too many" ingredients. I believe that the kids at camp learn not to be intimidated. Leaving the program I think they feel a lot of confidence about themselves and their abilities in the kitchen."

    I suspect the same may be true for you! And that's something that you can "pay forward" when your own child is tall enough to help you at the kitchen counter.

    It's not just poor, urban parents who don't teach their kids to cook; I have a lot of white, upper-middle class friends who look upon any multiple-saucepan recipes as some kind of magic. If you, with all your interest in healthy food, find some things intimidating, imagine what my friends will be (not) teaching their kids!

    (And, to respond to the obvious suggestion, we live all over the country, so no, I'm not able to be their kitchen tutor.)

  2. I am guilty of not teaching my oldest to cook. She had no desire to learn. Didn't want to listen and from an early age didn't want anyone telling her what to do.
    The youngest is much more interested and helps in the kitchen. Listens to instructions and asks for help when she needs it. (she is tired of hearing about HFCS though) She fixes a few meals all by herself. When her father goes out of town those are our special cook for 2 days when we plan meals to cook together.
    A few weeks ago she asked me to teach her how to do laundry too. I think she was surprised it was so simple.

  3. I just brought my 6 year old into the kitchen last night to dice cucumber and slice cherry tomatoes for our pasta salad. He used to love "helping" me when he was younger but lately has gotten away from it, I'm dedicated to the idea of bringing him back to the stove with me again, I think all kids should learn basic kitchen skills so that when they are off in the big bad world McWalnuts are not their go to meal.

  4. My parents, especially my dad, always let me help out in the kitchen. I always watched carefully what he did and with the time I could do more and more by myself. In my opinion it's important to be able to cook for yourself and don't have to rely on fast food or microwave meals and I'm very thankful he showed me how.

    More parents should take the time to do that with their children, but unfortunately many can't cook themselves, which is really sad.

  5. I recently learned that my 24 year old boyfriend knew how to cook absolutely nothing. I mean could barely make toast. Kitchen skills are so important, especially when children are young so that they don't become scared. He's lucky, since I love to cook, but I still had to teach him how to make scrambled eggs and grilled cheese so that he doesn't starve if I'm not around!

  6. My sister and I learned to cook and bake from my mom, dad, and two grandmothers. Some of our best childhood memories are from those experiences..

    Mrs. Q, a food processor would take the intimidation out of having to chop a large variety of ingredients. I use a Cuisinart mini-prep food chopper (about $40) several times a week. It takes no time to chop a mountain of vegetables. I mostly cook for 2 to 4 people and the mini-prep is plenty big for meals that size. I rarely ever use my 11-cup model.

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