Sunday, January 9, 2011

After School Special: Common Threads

Admittedly, I've fallen a little behind on writing about some of the DC-area after school cooking programs I've had the pleasure of volunteering with in recent months. So I've got some catching up to do....

I am pretty sure I've blathered on about how much I love experimenting with food from different cultures. I even did a spot of teaching about international cuisine this past summer. What better way to learn about and appreciate other cultures than through experiencing their food? You can tell quite a lot about people by looking at what (and how) they eat. (I won't get into that topic too deeply, but should any of you want to discuss food traditions and flavors from different parts of the world, just invite me over for dinner, open a bottle of wine, and we can talk for hours. Depending on how long the dinner runs, I should forewarn you that I may try to talk you into getting a graduate degree in food anthropology, as I've been trying to convince my dear cousin Sonia to do for some time now, heheh.)

Anyway. A few months ago I learned of a Chicago-based program that works with 8-12-year-olds on basic cooking skills while touching on nutrition principles and building an awareness of other cultures around the world. As fate would have it, I had an opportunity to meet with Common Threads' culinary program manager for a cup of coffee while visiting my cousin Brooke in Evanston, IL this past September. (I have a lot of cousins, yes.) The fall term had already begun, but I was so captivated by the program that Courtney suggested that I help out at a few classes at DC locations to see if I might want to be a chef instructor during a later session. So a few evenings this fall I volunteered as a food education assistant to Chef Sam at an elementary school in Southeast DC -- not far from where I used to teach, actually.

Each class during the 12-week session begins with a brainstorm to see what students already know about a particular country. It's interesting to see what people's associations are: the kids' own knowledge of Haiti, for instance, centered around the recent earthquake, where my own impressions were largely informed by conversations with my Haitian students back in Brooklyn, the book Krik? Krak! and a former boyfriend's time in the Peace Corps there. After the warm-up discussion, kids work in groups -- with an adult, or sometimes two per group (they are using real chef knives, after all) -- to prepare three or four native dishes. Then it's time for cleaning up and sharing the meal together. It's good food, too. The evenings that I helped out, we made traditional Brazilian and Haitian fare. The recipes were no joke, requiring garlic mincing and marinade concocting and dessert tasting along the way.

Yeah, they're really in there doing the cooking! Look at that concentration. And, yes, though sometimes needing a little prodding to do so, these boisterous kiddos even helped do the dishes.

It's a pretty cool program that encourages kids to be engaged with food on many levels. As Common Threads so eloquently describes its work: "Through the simple process of preparing and sharing a nutritious meal, children who participate in our programs learn to connect with their bodies, their neighbors, and their world in bite-sized lessons."

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