It was quite a moment to witness in the teachers’ lounge at Wiggins Elementary School in Camden: a team of fifth-grade boys — and one girl — buzzing around to prepare a three-course dinner for 20, hosting their families and friends after seven weeks of cooking classes.
Even more moving than seeing the skills that had been developed was watching the pride that was swelling as the students executed the lessons they’d learned.
“I am the master chef,” A’Zon Young, 11, declared as he sautéed ground turkey, carrots, celery, and scallions for turkey lettuce wraps, one of the dishes they would be serving. “There is no doubt.”
Tyrone Baker, 11, did not challenge him but threw down his own superlative: “Well then, I am the master of the salad,” he said, having just completed perhaps his favorite dish of the semester, apple, orange, and parsley salad.
Eliany Chavarria, 11, had clearly distinguished herself as the pastry chef in the group but was letting her work speak for itself as she and Umar Drinkard, 11, expertly cut circles of dough and filled them with blueberries and blackberries for the hand pie dessert course.
Edith Bobb and Susan Lore, both fifth-grade teachers at Wiggins, have been leading the after-school cooking classes each spring and fall for the last four years, starting in the church kitchen across the street, and then getting a stove installed in the teachers’ lounge so they could hold classes there.
“We really enjoy it,” said Bobb, who along with Lore logged her 64th cooking class last week. The teachers also find it motivates good behavior in the classroom. “If you can’t handle your business in the classroom, we are not going to have you here,” Bobb said.
Lore has spoiled her husband by testing the recipes before each class. “He actually asked me if I was going to make the shakshouka recipe for breakfast before I left for school one morning,” she said.
This year, they were joined by school nurse Annemie van Laar, who throws in nutrition lessons as she goes. “Did you know that parsley cleanses the liver and kidney?” she asked as Tyrone chopped the herb for the fruit salad.
They are just three of the 65 volunteers at 32 schools in Philadelphia and Camden teaching kids to cook healthy, affordable meals as part of My Daughter’s Kitchen program. Each week, students all over the region learn to prepare a meal for six for under $20 and then share it with their classmates.
As is always the case, this culminating class requires more cooking than the students have ever done before, because they have to cook for so many more people.
“This is a lot of work!” Umar said as he chopped through nine stalks of celery.
But even in the stress of party prep, Lore did not miss the opportunity to infuse math lessons: “We are tripling the recipe that called for 16 ounces of turkey. What is three times 16?” she asked her students.
The wheels turned. Fingers were scratching numbers in the air.
“48!” Tyrone said.
“Yes, good,” she said, and pressed on, asking them to multiply fractions, convert from tablespoons to cups. The young chefs computed as they cooked.
The mission of the program is to teach skills like chopping and roasting, demonstrating how easy it is to make healthy and tasty meals, introducing new foods along the way. The bonus is when students discover new foods they like and can prepare themselves. Getting the students to make the meals at home is the grand prize.
In this class, just about every student earned that prize.
Tyrone made his favorite fruit salad for his brothers. A’Zon, known in class for his weekly request: “Bro, you gonna finish that?” made the turkey lettuce wraps at home. So did Eliany, with help from her older sister around the stove. “My mom was really shocked!” she said. “I was so proud of myself.” Eliany was also surprised to find how much she liked two foods she was sure she didn’t: mushrooms and salmon. “I really changed my opinion about mushrooms. I took one bite of that mushroom cheesesteak and I was like, ‘Wow, I love it!’ ”
Juan Rivera, 11, made shakshouka, a Middle Eastern stew with poached eggs, for his family. “They were very impressed,” he said. “I thought this class would be extremely hard because I had never cooked this stuff before, only cupcakes and desserts. But it wasn’t that hard.”
Tablecloths and fresh flowers had been laid on banquet tables set up in the school library and once the food was finished and placed on trays, the students were dispatched to greet their guests.
“Look at all this, we cooked all this food,” said Juan to his siblings “You made all that?” said his younger brother, wide-eyed.
“Welcome to the My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking class dinner,” Tyrone said as he introduced each item on the menu. “We hope you enjoy it.”
As the parents sampled the work of their children, there were many compliments and requests for seconds as the students basked in the praise.
“The class really made him more responsible,” said Tyrone’s mom, Brenda Martinez. “He really wants to help, he wants to cook, he even wants to do the dishes,” she said.
The teachers awarded each child a certificate and a chef’s toque, which the students wore for the remainder of the meal and through their final dish detail. And if there was any doubt of the pride they felt at what they had accomplished, Tyrone put it to rest as they said their goodbyes: “We are all wearing these hats to class tomorrow,” he declared.
“Yes!” was the unanimous response.
Makes 12 pies
1 package (2 crusts, refrigerated pie dough)
12 ounces fresh blackberries or other fruit
1⁄4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 egg, beaten
Additional sugar, for topping
1. Preheat oven to 375. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Rinse the berries well, cut them in half, and place them in a medium-size bowl. Add the sugar, flour, and lemon juice and mix well. Set aside.
3. On a floured surface, roll out the piecrusts to 1⁄4-inch thickness.
4. Using a small bowl or large yogurt container, cut dough into 4-inch round circles.
5. Place the circles of dough on the baking sheets and spoon about 1 tablespoon of filling into the center of each.
6. Fold the dough over and press the edges firmly with your fingertips to seal. Using a fork, press down along the edges to create a ridged pattern. Using a knife, cut two small slits on the top of each pie. Brush them with the beaten egg and sprinkle a little bit of sugar on top.
7. Bake for about 20 minutes, until golden brown and flaky. Let cool slightly and enjoy.