Pizza dough is made from yeastie beasties, peanut shells can double as parachutists and apples can be shaped out of balloons. This is all possible, of course, if you are Robin Buck, alias Checkers, and you are both a nutrition educator and a clown.
With her technicolor hair, blue-and-white jumpsuit and painted face, the 31-year-old Washingtonian hops the subway and heads to birthday parties, day-care centers, prisons, schools, low-income housing areas, shelters for battered women and department stores. Through story and joke telling, cooking, drawing, singing and a sense of compassion and cleverness, Buck entertains while she teaches children -- and adults -- that nutritious food is fun to eat.
And what she has found is that her clown outfit gives her immunity from barriers. She has the approval to touch strangers; she is not threatening, she is not there to preach.
In this era of mass communications and the current emphasis on getting children to adopt healthful eating habits, teaching nutrition via the performing arts seems like a natural approach. The same gimmicks and marketing symbols that are used to attract kids to sugary cereals and fast-food fare can be applied to thinking about fruits and vegetables, too.
When planning a job, Buck says parents will typically tell her, "but Johnny won't eat zucchini." He will, Buck replies, "if it's the propellers on an airplane."
While the field isn't exactly burgeoning with nutritionists who wear banana-peel suspenders, at least two nutrition professionals in Massachusetts -- Tobe Fit and Carrotman -- are making their way along the East Coast with acts similar to Buck's. Both were here recently for the Society for Nutrition Education's annual meeting.
Barbara Storper, alias Tobe Fit, the Juggling Nutrition Magician, is a registered dietitian and journalist from Jamaica Plain, Mass., who went to mime and juggling school. Her presentation includes juggling apples and eating them simultaneously, a magic trick in which she turns a "dinosaur tooth" brown by soaking it in sugar and a song about how the health-conscious Michael Jackson doesn't really drink Pepsi.
Ed Goodstein, a towering registered dietitian from Cambridge, Mass., dresses in a flashy Superman-like orange outfit and frequents schools, hospitals and health fairs with his discussion groups, games, songs, films and food demonstrations. Goodstein's promotional literature, which includes a drawing of him hoisting a weighty bottle of prune juice above his head, says "Look! Out in the garden! It's a tomato! It's a potato! No it's Carrotman!"
Belinda the Bunny has a cold, Buck tells a group of children assembled in a circle, placing a long, thin balloon behind her head to form two rabbit ears. Ha-choo. Ha-choo.
Buck is at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, entertaining the children of doctors assembled there for the Pakistani Physicians Association's annual meeting.
All Belinda Bunny has at home are potato chips and chocolate and that's not going to help Belinda get better, Buck continues.
So what does she do? She has a pot and some stones; she can make stone soup. The balloon becomes the rim of a large soup kettle and the classic story turns into a somewhat modified version.
*She invites Mrs. Duck to dinner. The balloon turns into a beak. The children's eyes are glued on Buck. Mrs. Duck will bring carrots, the children and Buck decide.
And Kathy Kitty (the balloon turns into a tail) will bring fish, Bobbin' Robin will bring cauliflower and so on. After her guests all play a round of baseball, Belinda has a mighty nutritious soup prepared and pretty soon Belinda has stopped her ha-chooing.
Later, Buck passes out pieces of paper and magic markers and asks the children to draw something that's "especially good for you to eat." The results: soup, carrots, apples, oranges, bananas, grapes.
Sabeen Malik, a 6 1/2-year-old from New York who drew oranges, grapes and bananas, says she likes fruits and vegetables because they make her strong. Every once in a while, her mother lets her eat potato chips, Malik says, even though she never lets her jump on the bed.
A former Michigan caterer and children's cooking class teacher, Buck studied social sciences, with a concentration in nutrition, in college, and now she's working on a degree in nutrition at the University of the District of Columbia. She jokes that she may be one of the few people to study organic chemistry in technicolor hair.
Buck came to Washington about three years ago to become the manager of the Sheraton Carlton's restaurant. She had been doing clowning since 1980 -- as an adjunct to her catering business -- and started doing birthday parties here in Washington, gradually working food preparation and her commitment to nutrition into her act.
Charging $75 to $85 per birthday party and between $150 and $175 per school or business presentation, Buck puts her catering experience to good use. One creation is her pineapple peacock, a specialty that she used to make for buffet table events. The peacock's body is made from a pineapple half, its radiant fan is fashioned with skewered fruit. Now at events, the platter is a centerpiece for an activity in which Buck encourages children to smell the fruit and then has them pluck out the fruit feathers and eat them.
One of her more unusual and rewarding repeat jobs has been at a Northern Virginia maximum security detention center for teen-agers, where she has been able to establish a rapport with the inmates.
Buck recalls explaining on one occasion the structure of human cell membranes by making an arc with her arms. "Do you know what cell walls look like?" she asked the group, not realizing the double meaning of her question. We sure do know what cell walls look like, answered one of the teen-agers. They all laughed.
Dressed in her clown garb in a conference room at the National Food Processors Association, Buck is speaking before the local chapter of the Institute of Food Technologists, an association of government, industry, university and trade association scientists. The scene is one of vivid contrasts: the scientists in their business suits and reserved demeanor, Buck in her loud outfit and outgoing clown persona.
While explaining, and demonstrating, what she does, Buck gets them all to stand up and sing. By the end of the evening, some of them are asking for colored stickers for their noses.
Several of Buck's food preparation ideas center around peanuts: peanut shell finger puppets, peanut butter as the skin for happy face sandwiches, or simply making peanut butter.
At one birthday party, she was making peanut butter in a food processor covered by her "magic scarf." She put peanuts in the base of the processor and told the children to count to 50. When they hit 45, one of the children exclaimed, "My mommy's 45!"
Here are a few of Buck's fun food ideas for the young -- or somewhat older.
EDIBLE AIRPLANES (Makes 1 airplane)
FOR THE PARTS:
1 stalk celery (cut to approximately 5 inches long)
1 small carrot
4 1/4-inch rounds sliced zucchini
FOR THE FUEL:
1 tablespoon peanut butter (mixed with chopped raisins, optional) OR cold pack cheese spread with chopped nuts and/or apples OR cream cheese (plain) or mixed with any combination of well-drained crushed pineapple, grated carrot, chopped nuts and chopped raisins
To manufacture the parts, wash rib of celery. Peel carrot and slice lengthwise into 1/4-inch board-like strips about 5 inches long (you will only need one, but can save the rest for future airplanes). Slice zucchini.
To assemble the airplane, fill celery with peanut butter or cheese. Stick a carrot strip crosswise over the body of the plane to form wings. Add a dab of filling to a zucchini round and press onto front of plane for a propeller. One can be added to the ends of each wing, too, for extra power. Slice the remaining zucchini round in half and press upright into rear of fuselage for tail fin. Prepare for takeoff and zoom into mouth.
PINEAPPLE PEACOCK (Makes 1 peacock)
1 fresh pineapple
6 whole cloves
Assorted fresh fruits such as: cantaloupe, honeydew, red or black grapes, blueberries, strawberries (for winter peacocks, use apples, oranges, green and black grapes and pineapple chunks)
10 to 40 (depending on servings needed) 8- to 10-inch long wooden skewers
* Using a sharp, sturdy knife, halve a whole pineapple lengthwise from base to frond. Snap off halved fronds and set aside. Reserve one pineapple half for the body.
Use other half to make the peacock's head. With rind still intact, place pineapple half cut side down on a cutting board. Slice in half crosswise. Cut a 1/2-inch slice from the widest end of one of the quarters so that you have a semicircle. Cut away 2 triangles (the shaded area in the diagram) to form the head and neck:
Push a cluster of 3 cloves into each side of the head to form eyes. Set head aside with body. Munch the cutaway triangles as you cut away the rind from the remainder of the pineapple. Remove core and cut each slice into wedges to be used on skewers.
To assemble fruit, first halve and scoop out the seeds of cantaloupe or honeydew. Cut fruit in wedges, removing rind. Leave grapes and blueberries whole. Slice strawberries in half, leaving on green stems.
Alternate shapes and colors on skewers, using grapes and blueberries as bead-like spacers, but try to arrange each skewer the same to create a radiating effect of colors. Save halved strawberries for the ends of the skewers, attaching them at an angle with the cut side up.
Take the frond halves and split them again lengthwise. Choose the 2 most attractive quarters and trim off dead and damaged leaves.
To assemble peacock, place reserved pineapple half on a large serving tray with the cut side down. Attach head to body with toothpicks by inserting toothpicks into the base of the neck and then sticking them into frond end of body.
To attach wings, take 2 frond quarters and place on either side of bird's body with the leaves pointing to the back. Attach with toothpicks.
To insert tail feathers, make an arc of skewers starting at the base of the tray and continue adding feathers until the last row rises perpendicular to the bird's back.
Children love to pluck the feathers from the bird, but watch them because the skewers are sharp.
HAPPY FACE SANDWICHES (1 serving)
FOR THE FACE AND SKIN:
1 slice bread, preferably a dense textured kind, such as danish rye or whole-wheat
1 to 2 tablespoons peanut butter
FOR THE FEATURES:
2 tablespoons grated carrot
Banana, cut in 1/4-inch slices
Nectarines or apples, cut into thin wedges
* Spread bread with peanut butter. Place feature toppings in bowls. Buck encourages the children to create their own faces, but demonstrates with the following configuration: Scatter grated carrot around the edges of the bread for hair. Use 2 banana slices for the eyes with raisin pupils in the center of each. Use a pineapple chunk or peanut for the nose. Use nectarine or apple slice for the mouth. Serve with milk or Paradise Punch (see below).
PARADISE PUNCH (1 serving)
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup apple juice
Combine orange and apple juices and stir. Tastes like apricot nectar!
PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES (Makes about 2 dozen cookies)
2 cups chunky peanut butter
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
1/4 cup honey
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup raisins 1 cup uncooked oatmeal (approximately)
Mix all ingredients together, adding oatmeal gradually at the end until a doughy consistency is achieved. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten cookies with a fork. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until browned.