It's hard to pinpoint when I first pondered the notion of young children learning to cook, but it may have been the day I ate pre-chewed carrots.
One afternoon two years ago my then 4-year-old sister Elizabeth peeked her head above the kitchen counter and pointed to a rack of muffins by the oven. "I made them," Elizabeth announced. "They're carrot cake. Want one?"
I smiled at the muffins and at Elizabeth. "Of course I want one," I said to Elizabeth, winking at Mom as we shared the joke of this little girl actually making anything herself. Maybe--maybe!--she helped Mom stir the bowl. "They look really good."
So I took a big bite out of one--"Mmmmmmmm"--and just kept smiling at Mom, mentally asking her if I was ever like this when I was Elizabeth's age.
"And tell Dougie how you got the carrots into little pieces," Mom said to Elizabeth.
I looked at Elizabeth with eager eyes and a full mouth. She just started chomping her teeth.
My jaw froze, but I managed to keep smiling. After gulping hard, a question filled my brain: Are you ever too young for cooking lessons? I really, really hoped not.
Months later, a friend offered me a way to find out. Pam Meredith, 33, runs a cooking school from her cottage of a home near Oxford, Md., offering courses on gourmet pasta sauces and fancy salads and elegant dining. Every four weeks during the summer, Pam shift gears and opens a camp for kids.
"Stop by," she said. "Kids are naturals in the kitchen."
I already knew that. What could be more natural than chopping carrots with the teeth God gave us?
"How many of you ever had gazpacho, chilled tomato soup?" Pam asks the crowd of fidgety elementary school children. There are 16 of them enrolled in the week-long camp at her "Pudding on the Ritz" cooking school, and this is Day One. Of the 32 hands out there--spanning the ages of 6 through 9--only one goes up.
"William, you've had gazpacho?" Pam asks.
"Yeah," William answers. "I've had tomato soup."
"You've had it chilled?"
"Oh no, I've just had it warmed up."
That's what I figured. These kids are way too young to even know what gazpacho is, much less to have actually eaten it. Bad news for Pam. Sixteen restless children being asked to help make a soup they've never heard of and probably have trouble contemplating. You mean it's cold? Why don't you just put it in the microwave?
But Pam soldiers on, asking for volunteers to help her cut a red onion and peel cucumbers. Every camper shoots a hand to the ceiling. Eight kids are chosen: four to chop (saw really, with safety knives) and four to peel.
Back at her seat, Emma is debriefed by her campmates. "Did you get to peel?" Claire asks.
"No, I cut," answers Emma, a red-headed 6-year-old. "It was so fun. It was."
Claire replies: "You can't cut all of it!"
Which is true, since Claire is called next, part of the brigade chosen to cut the cucumbers into small bits. She's up there with one of the three boys in the camp, Patrick, 8, who is staring hard at the food processor. Like all the other children, Patrick couldn't say what the Cuisinart did when Pam showed it to everyone, but he seems to know what's coming. It's loaded with all the gazpacho stuff.
"Okay, Patrick, you can push the bu---"
Pam was about to say "button," but Patrick is already whirring the veggies into pureed oblivion. The 15 other kids sit rapt in their seats, peering into the wild red roar of the processor.
Gazpacho, I think, might win over this crowd after all.
Allow me to sum up Pam's cooking camp (minus the morning craft session) in a few words: peel, chop, measure, pour, stir, wait. That is the heart of every meal these kids will make by the end of the week, from cheese omelettes, to baked chicken fingers, to homemade ice cream to pasta. The drill is this: Pam and her two assistants stand before the children in the kitchen, explaining how the recipes are made, asking the campers to guess the next step or figure out why a certain ingredient is used. At every possible juncture of the recipe, a camper is brought to the front to complete a single task, be it pouring one of four teaspoons of sugar into the cake mix, grinding peppercorns into the soup, slicing butter, sifting the flour (two sifts per camper, please!).
It is a laborious, tedious, slow-motion way to cook. The kids crave it.
"I've only had one turn stirrrrrrring," one girl said glumly to Pam in the middle of a batch of mashed potatoes supreme. What she forgets is that much of her life here has been spent stirring, that stirring is really the one task everyone does together. All mixing bowls are passed around the table, so that each camper has a turn with the spoon. "Stir, stir, stir the pot/Pass it down/Ready or not," is their mantra. Everyone chants it together. No one lets a bowl pass them by. Ever.
Each time Pam looks for a helper--actually, each time she just shifts her voice to that tone the kids recognize as the pre-helper-inquiry--a wall of hands goes up before her. Nobody misses an opportunity to add, chop or mix something or to smell, taste, look or otherwise inspect an ingredient.
I think of my favorite winter hobby, making chili. God how I hate chopping those onions.
"Does anyone know why we knead bread?" Pam is asking the class as she massages a blob of dough into a flabby ball.
"We need it to make sandwiches," a girl answers.
Most of these kids are first-timers at the camp. No one can point to much of a history in the kitchen. Ask them about dishes they've cooked before and toast comes up more than once. So does baking a cake with grandma.
Still, listen to what they say after a couple of days of culinary indoctrination.
Pam: What does salt do?
Hannah, age 9: It brings out the flavor.
Pam: Do you know what sour cream does to a cake?
Daphne, age 8: It keeps it moist.
Pam: Why do you think I poke holes in the dough for the pie crust?
Natalie, age 6: Um, to let the steam out.
Thankfully, I'm taking notes through all of this. There's so much to learn.
"You can really put anything you want on nachos," Pam is explaining over the chatter of 16 children dicing and shredding cheese. "Jalapeno peppers, black beans, olives, crab meat. Anything is perfectly acceptable."
"Chocolate sauce?" a boy asks.
Pam bursts out laughing. The boy wasn't smiling.
Pam said a main goal of the camp is to teach kids the adventure of cooking. They spend the morning making a meal, then get to enjoy their work when they sit down for lunch. The week's dishes have been heavy on kid favorites: milkshakes, chicken fingers, fajitas, fruit salad.
A big exception: gazpacho, so far the only official Grown-Up Food to make an appearance. Though hardly a hit, most of the kids did at least try it. No one finished it.
With that in mind, I wince when I see what's on today's menu: pasta with homemade pesto sauce. To me, pesto conjures up all sorts of sophisticated Grown Up words: bistro, gourmet, al fresco, de rigueur, fromage. I'm not even sure I'm old enough to like pesto.
The kids don't flinch when Pam makes her announcement. Probably, I think, because no one raises his hand when Pam asks if anyone actually knows what pesto is.
So Pam passes the pine nuts and the basil around to give everyone a smell.Then she rotates in her cooking crew. As usual, everyone pushes for a turn up front. Alexandra gets to press some garlic, and Hannah measures some sea salt. Natalie grinds a bit of pepper, and William scoops the pine nuts. Taylor helps put a handful of basil into the mix.
Eyes brighten as Pam begins adding the ingredients to the frantic food processor.
Whzzzzzzzz goes the garlic.
The children stare.
Whzzzzzzzz go the pine nuts.
The children stare. A few smile.
Whzzzzzzzz goes the oil.
All is well.
Whzzzzzzz goes the basil.
And the pesto turns green.
No smiles. A few straighten in their chairs. Others scrunch their mouths, tighten their eyes. William asks if pesto is spinach.
"I'm not eating that," Claire says to her friend.
The dissent spreads quickly, and the mob is squarely against eating anything--repeat, ANYTHING--that is green.
"Okay," Pam says cheerily, "we don't have to share with others that we don't like it. Just keep that to yourself."
Lunch time, and the kids line up with their plates. The pasta piles are hearty, but most of the troops skip the pesto. A few brave souls seize the serving spoon and delicately place a smidgen of a smudge of the green sauce on the far reaches of their dish. If pesto was a bomb, it would have been defused, so careful are these technicians.
The early reports from the front are that the pesto is very spicy. A few groans follow.
Taylor, 7, quietly gets up from her seat, half her pasta still on the plate. She was one of the bold ones who opted for a teensy bit of pesto, and it's all gone. She walks up to the pot of green sauce, dips in the spoon and gets the first seconds of the day.
It's only three-eighths of a dollop, barely enough to cover a cracker. But Pam smiles. She's gotten a 7-year-old to like green stuff on her noodles. That's got to be worth something.
Douglas Hanks III is a reporter for the News Journal in New Castle, Del.
Recipes for Kids
Cook these recipes from Pam Meredith's class with your children, having them do as much of the preparation as possible. But adults should always supervise when it comes time to put ingredients in the food processor.
Fresh Basil Pesto
(Makes about 1 cup)
Pesto is usually served over hot spaghetti. You can also spread it on toasted bread, top it with grated cheese and heat under the broiler until the cheese is melted. Or spread pesto on pizza dough instead of tomato sauce.
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup packed fresh mint leaves
5 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
4 cloves garlic
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. In a food processor or blender, combine the basil, mint, pine nuts and garlic.
2. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil in a stream to make a smooth paste.
3. Add the salt and pepper to taste and process.
4. Serve over hot pasta. The pesto can be transferred to a resealable container and frozen. Or drizzle additional oil over the top, cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 214 calories, 2 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 146 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
(Makes about 8 cups)
Thanks to the use of a food processor (with Mom or Dad's supervision), little hands have a minimum of chopping to do with hand-held knives.
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 onion, chopped
4 cups tomato juice
4 fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon oregano, dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Croutons (optional garnish)
Sour cream (optional garnish)
Fresh basil sprigs (optional garnish)
1. In a blender or a food processor, chop the cucumber, tomatoes, bell pepper and onion.
2. Add the tomato juice, basil, vinegar, oil, oregano, salt and pepper to taste and process until combined.
3. Stir well. Pour the soup through a strainer; discard the solids. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes before serving.
4. To serve, pour the soup into individual bowls. Sprinkle the soup with croutons or top the soup with a spoonful of sour cream and place a sprig of basil on top of the sour cream.
Per 1-cup serving without garnish: 93 calories, 2 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 47 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber