Monday, June 25, 2007

Our Last Community Meal

I teach cooking classes at my son's public school, and at the end of every term the kids in my class cook a giant meal for all the kids in the afterschool program. It is so beautiful. The kids help me choose the menu, we get a couple parent volunteers, we fire up the propane burners, and this incredible natural urge for community dining takes over. It brings out the best in everyone.

At first it is all like a normal cooking class -- walking the fine line between this perfectly calibrated culinary ballet -- and total chaos. At any moment I could look up and see a couple 5th grade girls with linked arms, spinning around on their heelies, like some giant disco ball has just descended and they were compelled to drop their Parmesan cheese and their Microplanes and pay homage to the funk machine that resides within.

We get past this, and by the time we finish and start serving the meal it's like we have turned into a catering outfit, staffed by extremely short waiters in fuzzy tee-shirts and jeans. The kids set the table like professionals, and do all the serving. This was their idea, the first time we did a community meal. I'd assumed we'd do a buffet, and I walked out into the cafeteria and the kids had set the tables and were walking from kid to kid offering salad and jambalaya. "Do you want salad? Do you want salad? Do you want salad?") (And, yes, the all do; the salad is the first thing to go.)

Today was the best Community Meal ever. One group of three kids made four batches of orange yogurt cake, with no help whatsoever. Two 4th-graders took over the food processor and intuited their way to a couple batches of FINE-tasting pesto. (We used to pound the pesto by hand, but if you've ever been in a room of five stone mortars and pestle pounding for 20 minutes straight, you will know what i mean when I say the headache is not worth the thrill.)

The meal was our best ever. We've learned to avoid the ongoing problem of an ancient electrical system that shorts out the whole room, usually right as we are in the middle of frying tortillas or ten minutes into baking zucchini-carrot cupcakes. We had the propane burners flaming away, and the kids were experienced and confident enough that they helped pull the whole thing off. Like real caterers.

Here's one of the recipes, with apologies to Martha Stewart, from whom/which this recipe is adapted:

Orange-Yogurt Cake
(Hint: for a crowd, make two batches and use a larger pan.)

Softened butter for the pan
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 cup plain whole yogurt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp grated orange zest
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350°
2. Butter an 8-inch square cake pan.
3. Stir flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, yogurt, oil, orange zest and juice, egg and vanilla into a bowl. Mix.
4. Pour into the buttered pan. Bake for about 25 minutes. Let cool, then cut into squares and dust with confectioners’ sugar.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

So this is the idea.

Kids are picky. From age 3 through age 7 the vast majority of them are stuck in a kind of developmental psychosis, in which only about 6 foods are considered safe to eat.

At the same time, parents want to sit down with their kids and eat a meal that does not consist of macaroni and cheese and baby carrots, and a soundtrack of whining.

The solution? Deconstruct the meal.

In some parts of China, a typical meal is served like this: everyone gets a bowl of rice. Condiments and accessories to the rice are on the table. You make your own meal. If you are three and only eat beige foods, you can have rice, and possibly chicken. If you are five and don't care for beige foods, you can ignore the rice and go for the chicken. If you are seven and starved for micronutrients, you can eat a whole damn bowl of broccoli. If you are 37, you can have it all and douse it in hot sauce.

No nagging. No cajoling. No whining. Everyone gets what they want.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The First Launch

Tell the truth: Before you had kids, you thought the world's current crop of parents was a bunch of idiots. Not only did they give their kids plastic toys and let them ride in strollers until they were practically teenagers, they also cut the crusts off their kids' sandwiches and made separate meals for every member of the family every night. What was wrong with these people? No wonder we had a diabetes epidemic on our hands, and fat kids everywhere. These damn fools were raising kids who couldn't even eat a pizza if it had a basil leaf on it. What a bunch of numbskulls.

Boy was it going to be different when I was in the driver's seat. I was going to feed my kids like a wholesome organic prairie mom. We'd be growing our own zucchini and picking blueberries from the patch I'd grow out back (yeah, in our shady Brooklyn backyard). We'd scrape the whole wheat flour drawer to make biscuits from scratch from the, uh, whole wheat flour drawer I'd create. My kids would eat shredded carrot sandwiches in whole wheat pita pockets, the way my friend Blake used to when she was a kid. They would love my homemade vegetable soups, and scarf down their lentil burgers and squash patties. Mmm, it was gonna be so great.

Then my real kids came along and messed everything up. My son wouldn't even drink juice as a toddler. It was a major triumph when he realized cake was good. Flash forward eight years, and he does like lentils with parsley and snow peas and tomatoes. He is slowly but surely shrugging off the insanity of the toddler madness years, in which different foods could not touch each other and anything green was poison. But the list of things he does not like still vastly overwhelm the select list of edibles.

Yeah, that's great and all, but it's too little too late. Now I have two kids, and between my son's dislike of rice and chicken, my daughter's dislike of tomatoes and corn and my husband's and my dislike of Annie's Macaroni and Cheese and Amy's Pizza Snacks, we are sort of in a bind.

The only solution: the mothership meal.