I THINK I'LL make some alligator food. What do they eat?" 9-year-old Martin asks his party guest, Ray. "PEOPLE," Ray replies while wrestling him to the ground. When they finish roughing it up, Martin shapes two legs and dangles them from his dough alligator's mouth.
Martin Loser's wild and woolly birthday celebration did not happen at the zoo. Rather, it was a cooking lesson in the basement of his Potomac home with 14 other children who spent their afternoon sulpting and baking bread. As it turned out, it was much more exciting than the 12-inch chocolate cake and the dozen presents piled in the corner. It was more fun than the party games that followed. All the boys were proud to display their creations to interested persons anywhere along the flight path from kitchen to basement.
Beverly Kobrinetz is "The Birthday Baker." She spends Saturdays and weekday afternoons teaching children (and curious parents) how to bake bread. It is a creative 3-hour adventrue -- like working with Play-doh.And, the children can be messy while learning to make what it is they eat their peanut butter on.
"The whole thing is a real ego trip. You know what I mean?" Kobrinetz said, emphasizing the need to treat fragile egos delicately. "These are things that kids can do very successfully. No child can possibly fail. It's very, very good."
The parents supply the work area, a stove, the guests and a $5 fee per child; Kobrinetz brings the recipe, ingredients, utensils and the expertise of working with children.
"The kids don't intimidate me," she says with a thick Long Island accent. A statement not difficult to believe. When the children enter the room she seems to swell with excitement. With the look of a mother who knows you are about to attack the cookie jar and a deep voice that can, when needed, carry across the street, she commands their attention.
"Boys (pause). BOYS . . . Boys, who makes the best bakers?" she asks. "BOYS DO. And do you know why? Because they listen closely to every word i say.
"I want everyone to roll up his (and her) sleeves, line up and go into the bathroom to blow your nose and wash your hands. When you come back out, find a workplace at the tables and stand in front of a bowl with a partner." Each boy automatically grabs his best friend. There is some playful pushing and shoving to be first in line . . . .
At first the 13 boys and one little girl (Martin's sister, Michele) did not know what to think of spending three hours baking bread (there were a few "ughs"), but by the time the afternoon drew to a close all of the children eagerly gobbled Darth Vader heads, space ships and hosts of other idols and fiends that inhabit the minds of rambunctious youths. Martin called the party "excellent" (today's superlative among 9-year-olds). Racquel Loser, Martin's mother, was delighted.
"I'm as excited as the kids are," she laughed. "Martin showed some interest in cooking and couldn't get into the cooking club at school. When I saw an ad in a magazine I thought it would be creative.
"It's not inexpensive," she added, "but I felt that it was worth it. When you think abut taking the kids bowling or to the movies and making goody bags, I didn't think it was that much more. Besides, I really enjoyed it, too. I felt like participating."
Kobrinetz, 43, has been teaching children and adults to cook for 15 years. She also teaches elementary school part-time "just for something to do," conducts cooking classes in her garage, is a wife and the mother of three teen-agers, and paints and sculpts. "I put it all together and this is what I came up with," she said. "It's crazy and just different enough. My husband says that of all the crazy ideas I have come up with, this one is the best."
But the idea wasn't entirely her own. Becoming "Mrs. K, The Birthday Baker" actually originated when a woman called a paper looking for someone to teach a cooking lesson at her child's birthday party. The woman was referred to Kobrinetz. "I thought it was a good idea and it worked," she said. "So, here I am."
The children line up in pairs at the two long tables, one covered with a green cloth, the other with orange. for each pair there is a large plastic mixing bowl, measuring cup, teaspoon and one package of yeast. Kobrinetz explains yeast. The children learn to dissolve it. As they watch it fizz, they add sugar and stir. Kobrinetz's 14-year-old daughter and assistant, Lisa, adds salt to all the bowls. The energy level in the room grows.
"BOYS. BOYS. BOYS. Please don't sneeze in the bowls," Kobrinetz announces.
"Okay, trade places and let your partner stir." When it comes time for the flour, she announces that stirring will become difficult. "But I know you strong boys won't have any problem mixing it all real well.
"We're going to use four cups of flour and we'll get it one cup at a time." She pauses, looks to her right. "Don't hit me," she firmly warns one nagging boy.
By the time she doles out the fourth cup the room is noisy. "Remember, four cups of flour. And please, kiddos, unless you want your fingers cemented together for the rest of your lives, under no circumstances are you to put your fingers in the bowl!"
Joshua and Danny, quietly mixing dough across from her, jump. The room becomes motionless. "Isn't that your fifth cup?" Kobrinetz asks them. "No, this is the fourth," Joshua answers meekly.
She looks into the bowl and sticks her fingers in the dough. "Oh, O.K." The momentum of the party resumes as Andre yells to her: "I guess your fingers are going to be stuck together for the rest of your life."
She shows them how to knead and takes some kneaded dough around for everyone to see and feel. The children knead their own dough.
Lisa devides all the dough into even halves so everyone has his (and her) own. They learn to sculpt.
She shows them how to make letters. They make their own initials.
She shows them how to make pretzels. They roll and twist.
"That's beautiful," she announces to everyone. "I've never been with a group of kids who made better pretzels."
Joshua's pretzel isn't working. "Joshua, did you make an indent to form a 'v' at the bottom of your pretzel?"
"No, I made it a different way," he answers with authority.
"Don't do it a different way. Do what I tell you." He corrects his pretzel.
They are shown how to make an alligator. The scales along the back are cut with scissors. There is concern the the scissors hurt him. "Do you hear him yelling? And don't make balls for eyes, because they'll just fall off in the oven," she says.
Someone wants to make a parakeet. Michele wants to make a teddy bear. Kobrinetz obliges, showing them the easiest way and encouraging them to be creative.
After 30 minutes there are some award-winning sculptures: a parakeet that looks like a football, a tauntaun (space horse which will form an interesting blob in the oven because the neck cannot handle the weight of the head), tiefighters (space ships), a hockey stick with a puck attached, and a turtle that, surprisingly enough, looks like a turtle.
With the bread baking safely in the oven, Kobrinetz sits on the floor and plays party games with the children. Racquel Loser gets the ice cream and lights the candles. The games are followed by cake and a hearty chorus of "Happy Birthday" and presents for Martin.
When the bread is finished cooking, Kobrinetz gives each child his or her creations along with an enthusiastic "this is beautiful" for each.
The Birthday Baker is available for parties on weekends and during the week after school. For more information call 460-3191. BASIC BREAD DOUGH (Makes 3 dozen small sculptures) 1 package yeast 1 1/2 cups warm water 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon sugar 4 cups flour 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water Coarse salt colored with food coloring for decoration
Dissolve yeast in water in a large bowl. Add salt and sugar. Mix in flour. Knead into soft dough. Do not let rise. Roll and twist into assorted sculptures. Glaze with egg/water mixture. Decorate with colored salt. Bake in 450-degree oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Note: these sculptures do not have any preservatives and taste best when eaten immediately.