Lessons for young cooks

Three cooks working on mashed potatoes in the convent kitchen: Maureen Fitzgerald and Kayla Reed, with a long-armed assist by Chamya Davis.
Three cooks working on mashed potatoes in the convent kitchen: Maureen Fitzgerald and Kayla Reed, with a long-armed assist by Chamya Davis. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 17, 2013

This is the last in a series of healthy cooking classes at St. Martin De Porres School in North Philadelphia.

The five girls were hard at work: Hope Wescott and Maliyah Gregg stood at the sink, quickly and expertly peeling potatoes.

Kayla Reid was at the kitchen table, carefully drying each leaf of romaine and chopping it with precision.

After selecting the serrated knife, Chamya Davis was efficiently cutting bread for croutons.

Jayla Reeves was confidently working through the meat loaf recipe, chopping the onion, sautéing it, measuring out the other ingredients.

As I paused to survey the scene at our final cooking class, my heart swelled: These fifth- and sixth-grade girls, who had fumbled with a vegetable peeler and struggled to slice an onion just 10 weeks ago, had learned something, they really had.

But there was no time to tarry, the clock was ticking: We were preparing dinner for about 20 - the girls, their parents, and some of the nuns who had so generously allowed us to use the convent kitchen for our lessons.

On the menu were the girls' favorite recipes: turkey meat loaf, mashed potatoes (without cauliflower this time), and Caesar salad with authentic dressing - anchovies and all.

The girls had even more energy than usual, they were so excited to show off their cooking chops to their parents. But, remarkably, they settled in and got down to business.

I had considered peeling the potatoes at home, knowing how long it takes to peel five pounds, especially when it's a new skill. But the awkwardness of learning had turned into confident peeling, not missing a potato eye, and producing beautifully skinned spuds at a pretty impressive clip. Exciting!

We remembered not to put the peels in the right side of the double sink - the side without the disposer - but we did not consider that the volume might stress the disposer, or as Kayla called it, the regurgitator. Sure enough, the device lived up its nickname, regurgitating the peels, spitting them out in a whirlpool-like fashion, accompanied by a spray of water.

Well, it wouldn't be a cooking class without a crisis, I told the girls, I guess we'd better just put the peels in the trash.

Maliyah didn't miss the opportunity: "Is this enough already?" She begged. "Can we be done?"

Yes, it probably was enough, especially considering we'd have to get them boiling in order to be done in time.

Meanwhile, Kayla was eager to show me her prepped romaine, no wilted or brown leaves in the bunch, all dried and nicely chopped.

"Cooking mama, how does this look? Is this better than last week?" she asked proudly, knowing full well that it was.

"Look at that," I told her. "That is really very well done, Kayla."

Soon the salad ingredients were ready, the meat loaf was in the oven, the potatoes were boiling on the stove, and I marveled at how well we were doing. My eyes welled.

But the table still had to be set. There were place mats and china with pink roses for the special dinner. Chamya counted out the silverware and distributed it. Maliyah folded a dinner napkin next to each plate. The girls made place cards for their guests.

Should we set up the food in the kitchen buffet-style, and let everyone help themselves, I asked.

"No way," said Hope. "People may take too much food and there won't be enough," she said. "I think we should serve them."

So that was our plan.

Before we knew it, the guests began arriving.

Each girl brought her mom, plus some extra family members - an aunt, a grandparent - into the kitchen to meet me.

I could see the great pride in the faces of the girls, hear it in their voices, see it in their excitement and body language. They were so pleased with what they had accomplished, and so happy to introduce me to their relatives.

After Sister Nancy gave a blessing, the girls fixed plates first for their guests, then for themselves.

It was time to eat! And time for some special awards for the girls.

"In professional cooking," I told the group, "there is something called a James Beard Award. It is given to the best chefs in the country every year at a big ceremony in New York.

"We are not trying to be professional chefs here. We are just trying to learn to cook healthy meals. So tonight I'm inaugurating the first Cooking Mama Awards."

Each girl was presented with a gold medal that hung on a ribbon around her neck. As each of the five came forward, her parents and relatives making video and snapping photographs, she beamed with pride at her personalized testimonial.

For Hope: The Endless Optimism and Good Cheer Award.

"When you were named, your parents knew that you were a soul filled with hope. You found something positive in every lesson - you even loved the mashed potatoes with the cauliflower lumps."

For Kayla: The Best Thinker award.

"You took the lessons seriously, always thinking about how things work in the kitchen, and often asking thoughtful questions. You even made connections with science and chemistry."

For Chamya: The Can-Do Award.

"You took home the ingredients, made the salmon cakes, and texted me a photo the very next day. I was so excited I actually screamed when I saw the photo!"

For Jayla: The Leadership and Efficiency Award.

"Anytime I needed something done in the kitchen, you took on a task, and focused and got it done, quickly and efficiently. And you were also generous about explaining to the other girls who were not as proficient in the kitchen."

For Maliyah: The Bravery award.

"You came to this class not liking a single vegetable. And you were not too anxious about trying any of them either. But each week, you got a little more comfortable, and, eventually, you were brave enough to try every single thing we made. Even if you didn't like it, you tried it, and I'm so proud of you for that. You even found a vegetable you liked." ("Cauliflower!", she volunteered.)

While the girls and their relatives thanked me repeatedly, I told them it was I who needed to thank them: Their boundless enthusiasm and willingness to try new things had given me a great gift of joy and hope.

And, I said, I hoped they would be building on their lessons by making dinner for their families at home.

At that, the family members broke into an enthusiastic round of applause.

Stay tuned: The girls' hard work has not gone unnoticed - a local chef, who has been following our weekly lessons, has invited us to dinner.


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Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at 215-854-5744 or mfitzgerald@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "My Daughter's Kitchen," at www.inquirer.com/mydaughter

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