Turkey meat loaf and mashed potatoes were on the menu for our final cooking session at Cristo Rey High School, with the students cooking and serving this meal for family and friends to show off the skills they learned over the semester.
The meal was fitting in a way that I did not appreciate until later — it was the same one my students in the very first cooking class chose to make for their families in 2013, when I started the My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program at St. Martin De Porres in North Philadelphia.
I still remember that day, and how I nervously fretted over whether these 10- and 11-year-olds would be able to prepare a meal for 20 people. I even contemplated peeling the potatoes myself at home, worrying that we'd never get 10 pounds of potatoes peeled in time. But, lo and behold, the students made me proud, skinning the potatoes at the sink like little pros. Never mind that the potato peels jammed the garbage disposal, which then spit out the skins like a small hurricane all over the kitchen. Other than that, the first dinner was a triumph. I teared up watching how much the students had learned and how proud they were to show their parents.
And so here I was, five years and nearly 100 cooking classes later, with another group, preparing that same meal, but with one big difference: This class would be the last one I would teach as an employee of the Inquirer. After 31 years at the newspaper, beginning part time in 1986, and working the last 12 as food editor, I have decided to take a buyout. This is my last week at the helm, after editing some 600 weekly food sections.
I will continue to teach My Daughter's Kitchen cooking classes and write about them for the paper. And I plan to put together a cookbook of the dozens of recipes I have taught to schoolchildren over the years, beginning with the ones I taught my own daughter in 2011, when we started the cooking blog after her request for simple, inexpensive, healthy recipes. I'll combine the best of these recipes with my favorite stories of the children and the beautiful photographs my colleagues have taken over the years. Profits from the cookbook will go toward supporting and expanding the program. I'm so looking forward to that project.
As my time at the paper comes to a close, I'm filled with emotions. Yet the strongest of these is gratitude. I'm so grateful that this newspaper believed in the concept behind My Daughter's Kitchen, that teaching schoolchildren to cook a healthy dinner together could make a difference. I'm grateful to all the readers who followed along on the journey, who donated money, who wrote wonderful notes of encouragement. Special thanks to readers who tied on aprons and volunteered to teach classes themselves. Two of those volunteers bought stoves and had them installed so classes could be held at those schools. Two more readers also donated stoves.
I am so grateful to all the schools that opened their doors to us, to the principals and school officials who saw the promise of what cooking together could bring. And, of course, enormous thanks to Vetri Community Partnership, which has been an integral part of the program and its expansion over the years. I never could have done it without them.
It may not sound like much: A bunch of kids cooking a meal and then sitting down to share it together. But year after year, I heard from students and teachers and parents how meaningful it has been on so many levels. And this year was no different.
"We were so excited to be a part of this program that I have been reading about for years," said Sister Regina Flanigan, the administrator at Cristo Rey. "Not only are they learning the skills to cook, but they are learning teamwork, how to work together. … And they are so proud of what they are doing. They come and tell me about it all the time."
Each student took away something different from the class. "For me, this class was a break," said Najah Fleming, 18, who hopes to go to medical school. "It was a stress reliever."
"I had to force myself to come in the beginning," said Dashaun Dunmeyer, 18. "But in the end, it became like a real hobby, something that was really fun that I looked forward to."
"I became really dedicated," said Essence Battle, 18. "I really learned recipes that I like and can make at home."
"I also learned that cooking can be creative, that you can experiment, " said Hannah Gonzalez, 18. "But I also loved that we are all so different, we have such different personalities, but we all work together, and in the end, we all come together as a community, and share the meal."
Olivia Rivera said: "I'm coming to the age where I should be able to cook for myself. Now I feel like I can do that when I'm home by myself or when I'm babysitting."
I have also learned a few things over the years: I learned how much these kids love the opportunity to be with their classmates after school. How one simple beef stir fry can make such a difference on a bad day. How learning to make a pot of chicken tortilla soup can feel so empowering.
And, not insignificantly, I learned how to avoid another potato peel hurricane in these ancient school buildings: Skip peeling the potatoes and call them smashed instead. The skins soften up and add vitamins and minerals. And nobody has hesitated in mounding them onto their plates.