Most of us have a memory of food that instantaneously takes us back to childhood. To this day, whenever I taste a bite of chile verde, I’m immediately transported to the kitchen of my childhood home. I’m filled with the same excitement and pride I felt when asked to peel the tomatillos for my abuelita’s famous recipe.
My twin and I feverishly peel the tomatillos in a race to see who could peel the most. The sizzling of the onions and meat on the stovetop; the passionate Spanish chatter between my mother and abuelita, and the faint squeals and laughter from my cousins and siblings playing outside create a comforting dinner-time symphony.
My twin wins the tomatillo-peeling race, but we are both rewarded with tortilla con queso – which we quickly devour with our hands still sticky from the tomatillo skins. The savory aromas of cumin, onion, and cilantro quickly fill the air, coaxing my cousins and siblings back into the house and around the dinner table. Alas, I take a bite of the warm, tangy, and nutty culinary masterpiece I helped create – bursting with flavor and, of course, love.
The power of food memories is undeniable. Perhaps because they’re far more sensory than other memories in that they involve all five senses, making them especially intense. Ultimately, it’s not so much the chile verde, but the whole experience of being a family, being nourished, and the emotions surrounding that food memory that makes it so powerful.
My fond memories of cooking as a child and my passion for education is what drew to become a chef educator for Cooking Round the World. What started as a refreshing break from my day job as a professor of nutrition and health sciences, quickly became all I could talk about with my friends and family!
The endearing and funny stories were endless! For example, the first time a little girl named Maddy was in charge of mixing an Italian cake recipe, I encouraged her to do a mixing dance and song. From that day forward, every time she mixed a recipe she’d grab the spoon and bowl tightly, sway her hips back and forth and chant “mix, and mix, and mix, and mix” – all with a serious and determined expression on her face! Adorable and hilarious!
As I taught students tips and tricks to help them become better chefs, I was impressed by how engaged and excited the students were to learn. They were consistently eager to know the who, what, where, and why of each recipe and it’s country of origin. Why are potatoes popular in Russia? Because they keep well in long, cold winters. Why are chives in the Vietnamese spring rolls? Because chives grow very well in the tropical climate of Vietnam.
Depending on the age group, lessons included story time where we’d read a traditional folktale from the country of the day. Students were so quiet and engaged during this special story time that you could hear a pin drop! Whether they were learning through small teachable moments during cooking or story time, the students ate up every lesson!
While the experience of cooking was central to the lessons, students went home with a wealth of new knowledge solidified by the senses, context, and emotions of the cooking experience. The lessons were so impactful that I regularly would get comments from parents that validated the influence of the experience.
For example, one parent shared how impressed she was when her child pointed out fennel at a recent trip to the grocery store and knew all about its origin, health benefits, and what recipes to use it in! Many parents also regularly reported how much their child loved cooking class. One student exclaimed, “I wish cooking class was every day!”
During one conversation with a parent, we reminisced about the days when home economics and cooking class were integral parts of our childhood experience, as were family dinners and home cooked meals. She thanked me and the program for bringing something that seems to be missing from too many children’s lives.
We also discussed the growing interest in food literacy as evidenced by the Farm to Fork movement and the surge in farmer’s markets. I also shared my observation of today’s children’s interests in culinary shows and the Food Network. Not only were child chefs featured in many shows, but competition shows like “Chopped” and “Nailed It!” seemed to be one of the few shows my friends and their children could agree on watching! The rise in food allergies has also prompt families to be more mindful when making food choices.
Thanks to this heartfelt conversation with a parent, I had an “A-HA” moment and realized what a huge role programs like Cooking Round the World were doing in fostering this potential paradigm shift back to appreciating slowing cooking. I soon gained a strong desire to become more involved with Cooking Round the World in some way, whether it meant taking on more cooking classes, assisting with curriculum development, or even being a part of the marketing team, I wanted in! So, when I got the opportunity to own a part of the Cooking Round the World, I jumped on it! It was the perfect fit!
As owner and director of Cooking Round Contra Costa and Alameda Counties, I am delighted to provide students with the opportunity to experience the same sense of pride and excitement that I had as a child when preparing a meal from scratch. I am also thrilled about the endless teachable moments the Cooking Round Contra Costa County curriculum provides. Children get to travel the world without leaving Contra Costa County and to learn to appreciate diversity through food during a time in history when we can all use a little extra love and compassion!
When a student is immersed in the joy of cooking with all five senses engaged, the opportunity for teachable moments is endless! Our mission at Cooking Round Contra Costa and Alameda Counties is to harness and magnify these teachable moments through carefully structured curriculum and well-trained chef educators. To name a few, students learn lessons in diversity, teamwork, food literacy, health, and even math!
What makes Cooking Round Contra Costa County different than other cooking classes is the strong emphasis on cultural education. With each lesson, students “travel” to a different country.
This is a hands on cooking program where students do all of the peeling chopping, zesting, and sautéing themselves. Chef educators are merely there to facilitate and encourage the students complete the tasks on their own. Students gain confidence in the kitchen by learning proper chopping skills and get familiarized with the names and uses of an array of cooking tools such as food processors and colanders.
During a typical class, students cook one to three recipes. Depending on the size of the class, students break out into teams to complete one of the three recipes. Each recipe has many tasks (peeling, chopping, mixing, shredding, juicing etc.). Students quickly learn that it would be nearly impossible to complete each recipe on their own! Once cooking is complete, Students then sit as a group and tastes all recipes, family style!
A core objective of the Cooking Round Contra Costa and Alameda Counties curriculum is for students to gain knowledge and appreciation for where food comes from. Educators are encouraged to explain the path from farm to plate with all ingredients, but it is always more memorable when food literacy education happens organically. A perfect example of a teachable food literacy moment is when a student was alarmed that his potato had dirt on it. In hopes to address his concerns through the use of the Socratic method, I asked “ Well, where do you think potatoes come from? ”He exclaimed “the grocery store!” I then used this teachable moment to explain that potatoes actually grow under the ground!
A common factor that keeps people from cooking is lack of confidence in the kitchen. Oftentimes students that join the class love food but are too timid to take charge in putting the recipe together. But, with time, we see the same timid students blossom into little chefs. In addition to confidence in the kitchen, student gain confidence, overall, in a new skill. Often times parents walk in early to pick up their child from cooking class and are shocked at how engaged and talkative their otherwise shy child is during cooking class. That’s the power of cooking!
Though not central to each cooking lesson, there are often teachable moments regarding how food impacts our health. For example, once when looking for something engaging to discuss while grating carrots for Chinese egg rolls, I mentioned how carrots help support eye health. While some older students had this knowledge, and younger student’s eyes lit up with delight. On a different occasion, I noticed how much of a struggle chopping onions was for one of my students. I informed him it was likely the sulfur in the onions making his eyes water and handed him some goggles. I then proceeded to explain that the same sulfur in the onions also have anti-cancer properties. When I turned my back, he started to chow down on the onions --- raw! When I asked him to wait to taste the food, he replied, “But you said onions help fight cancer!” So funny!
Math & measuring.
Students also have the opportunity to learn their math skills through cooking classes. An example of a teachable math moment is when a student was asked to add a teaspoon of salt as a finishing touch to the Italian soup. Unfortunately, he added one CUP instead of one teaspoon. Instead of tossing the soup and forgetting about the event, students were ask to take a small taste of the soup and were given the lesson on measuring cups and teaspoons.