For our last cooking class, it was the kids doing the convincing

Maureen Fitzgerald, FOOD EDITOR

Updated: Thursday, May 4, 2017, 3:01 AM

Children at the Neighborhood Center in Camden prepare a meal for family and friends for their final cooking class on April 26, 2017. Jameelah, left, and Terriell Lewis, center, look over the class cookbook with their daughter, Raziyah Lewis.

For once, I wasn’t worried that my cooking students would rebuff the meal we prepared together. For our last class, they chose their favorite recipe to make for family and friends, and they voted for the vegetable soup.

What was I not prepared for? That the kids would have to cajole some parents and guests into tasting that soup.

It was the last of eight weeks of the My Daughter’s Kitchen healthy-cooking program, where this spring, about 80 volunteers around the region have been teaching 200 urban schoolchildren how to prepare healthy meals on a budget.

The program grew out of lessons that I taught my own daughter, and it has expanded each season, with more and more schools — and volunteers — signing on.

For the final class, we traditionally have the students invite guests so they can show off the skills they have learned by cooking for them.

At the Neighborhood Center in Camden, where I was teaching, we had eight students show up for the last day, many of whom had invited guests. So I knew there would be a crowd, and I told the children we would have to stretch the recipes to make sure there was enough.

“How do you stretch a recipe?” asked Raziyah Lewis, 12, puzzled by the idea.

"Well, in the case of vegetable soup, you add more vegetables and more water,” I said.

We were also making strawberry-rhubarb bars for dessert, and a simple green salad to round out the meal.

We divided up responsibilities and made a plan: First off, the onions and carrots had to get simmering for the soup, and the dessert had to bake for 30 to 40 minutes, so we had to get the fruit chopped and the crust made and get that in the oven.

Our most senior and talented cooks, Ajaliq Ortis, 14, and Ajane Cates, 14, led the charge, with Ajaliq chopping the onions and carrots, and Ajane taking responsibility for the strawberries and rhubarb.

A dispute broke out that almost derailed the entire dinner when strawberries went missing from Ajane’s cutting board. Emotions were high. Accusations were made. And denied. But tempers were soothed, and the prep went on.

As we worked through the recipes at a breakneck pace, we discussed what we had learned over the course of eight weeks.

Ajane thought she knew a lot when she started, so she struggled to think of what she had learned, but after she thought about it, she realized there were a few things.

“Well, I did learn not to stand too close to the stove; I learned that the hard way,” she said, after having narrowly avoided a burn. “Oh, and not to get the potholder too close to the flame, I learned that, too,” she said, remembering that her potholder had briefly caught fire.

When the parents arrived, the students served them soup, salad, and a drink, and then they all sat down to eat together. But I noticed some of the guests did not have soup. Ajaliq’s aunt Anjoliq Still said she had a big lunch and didn’t think she could eat another bite.

“But you have to try your niece’s cooking,” I said, bringing her a bowl.

“There’s potatoes in there. You can just pick them out,” said Ajaliq. Her aunt did give in and try the soup and even gave it a favorable review: “It’s good, I like it.”

Saivon Segarra’s mother was also missing soup, so I offered to bring her some.

“Oh, no thanks, I don’t eat any of the stuff that’s in there,” said Melissa Gonzalez. “I don’t eat anything green.”

“See, that’s where I get it,” said Saivon, 10.

“Hang on, I have somebody I want you to meet,” I said, and I brought over Asiyah Miller, my best vegetable-soup convert.

“I don’t like vegetables,” said Asiyah. “But that soup doesn’t taste like other vegetables. It’s delicious, I love it.”

“That soup is banging,” Ajane put in, adding to the pitch.

I remembered that Saivon had loved the broth, if not all the vegetables. But he also joined the chorus.

“OK, Mom, how about if we both try it together?” he prodded.

Each dipped a spoon in the soup and gave it a taste.

“It is really good,” said his mom.

I stood back just to take it all in. When you have children coaxing their parents to eat vegetable soup, not because it’s good for them, but because it tastes so good, I have to think that cooking class was a smashing success.

Maureen Fitzgerald, FOOD EDITOR

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