The clock in classroom C-126 at Essex High School is still a few ticks shy of 10 a.m., but for the 20 students in Molly Mara's "Singles Cooking" class, it's lunchtime. While their pals are snoozing through calculus or conjugating Spanish verbs, five teams, or "kitchens," of students ranging from freshmen to seniors are preparing a smorgasbord of gourmet soups and quick breads.
"I love this class," says sophomore Tyler Heffernan, who's chopping green chiles for his kitchen's 666-alarm chili. "I hate to admit this, but I even like the exams."
How could he not? The exams are actually taste tests, assessing such gourmet fare as Boursin muffins and rosemary-scented tortellini soup. And the class, designed to inspire fresh, healthy cooking, is several hundred degrees of separation from the high school home economics many of us remember, in which what passed for haute cuisine was cinnamon-sprinkled snickerdoodles. It's no wonder so many singletons survive on takeout, canned soup and pre-packaged dinners in the post-educational, pre-family years.
"My personal goal is that students walk out with handfuls of stuff that they can prepare for themselves with no bad chemicals and additives, and that they get excited about good food and nutrition," says Marybeth Pirelli, chair of Essex High School's Practical Arts Department. "You're really fighting a huge battle, because the food industry is tied to the chemical industry, and more and more of our diet is becoming non-food."
More of an adolescent's diet is also fried: An American Academy of Pediatrics study released earlier this month revealed that 12- to 17-year-olds now eat 35 percent of their meals away from home, increasing their consumption of saturated fats andrisk of cardiovascular disease. The study also found that when kids eat away from home, they're more likely to gain weight, drink sugary beverages, and skip the fruits and vegetables.
This is hardly earth-shattering news, but it helps bolster the efforts of many Chittenden County high school administrators who seem to have the same goal as Pirelli. At Champlain Valley Union in Hinesburg, Pam Lord teaches "Cooking and Eating Well," with a heart-healthy meal as its final exam and another class called "You Are What You Eat." Sharon Boardman, of Rice Memorial High in South Burlington, says she covers nutrition and heart health in "Science and Society." Jackie Lynch, at Winooksi High School, requires independent projects in her "Life Issues" class, and seniors have presented such topics as fad diets and artificial sweeteners and how to eat healthy at college.
But Singles Cooking clearly raises the bar when it comes to providing teens with a hands-on look at healthy sustenance in the 21st century. Instead of lecturing about food science, Mara teaches a quick physics lesson about increasing surface area by having one kitchen bake soda bread in mini loaves so that it will cook faster. Though she references an '80s movie with her "anyone, anyone?" plea to the class at one point, her style is less Ferris Bueller than Food Network. Like Rachel Ray, Mara gives foodstuffs and stores nicknames; like Emeril Lagasse, she coaxes her kids to "kick it up a notch" when asking them to adjust their oven temperatures.
There's also a dash of "Iron Chef," as the five kitchens hustle to prepare soups and quickbreads in less than an hour. The heat is on: Students have invited other teachers to a buffet at 10:30, and at 10:10, some of them are still pouring batter into baking pans. "It's organized chaos," says Mara. "In 20 minutes they'll have an incredible product."
Singles Cooking examines four areas: time management, lifestyle, cost and health, says Pirelli. "Then they're supposed to have experiences in the classroom that will put these areas in conflict with each other," she adds.
Right now, there's plenty of excitement, as one kitchen burns its oil, sending plumes of acrid smoke to mingle with the sting of onions permeating the air. "Guys, guys, who's doing the onions and who's doing the peppers?" asks Mara, who later returns to perform triage on a cornbread recipe in which the ingredients have accidentally been doubled.
Mara opens the windows to air out the room and scolds Sarah Smallwood, a junior, for opening her oven to peer at her popovers. The transgression seems minor. "It was a little bit disastrous here in the beginning of the semester," says Smallwood. "We're getting the hang of it now. My parents are glad I know how to cook, and everything we've done in here has been pretty healthy."
Snickerdoodles, it seems, won't be on the menu for this home ec class. "We used to do deep-fat frying, like donuts," says Pirelli, explaining that such lessons helped students who were working part-time at fast-food restaurants, or who would go on to become chefs. Today, the scales have tipped more toward steaming and sauteing. "The reality is that nobody has a diet that's totally sugar free, totally fat free, but we try," says Pirelli.
Singles Cooking isn't all fiber and no fun. There are microwaves to expedite cooking. One student has stashed a Pepsi under his desk, a violation of the course's rule: "No food or drink should be brought to the classroom with the exception of water bottles." Asked about their favorite and least favorite creations from the semester, students wax nostalgic about the macaroni and cheese and the apple crisp, but wrinkle their noses at a memory of the granola.
If there's something they don't like, students are asked to take a "no thank-you" portion during the taste test. Vegetarians get special concessions: in one kitchen, a student pours a bag of Morningstar Farms Grillers Recipe Crumbles into vegetarian chili.
As the clock ticks toward 10:30, Mara lays out a pink tablecloth; Brigid Vanzo, a junior, makes signs for each of the soups and quickbreads with colored markers. Baskets are lined with napkins; pots simmer on the stovetops. Earlier, Mara compared her classroom to a hive, drawing honeybees from the hallway with its aromas. Now, the onion odor has been replaced by that of tomatoes, spices and baking bread; and sure enough, the teachers start trickling in for samples. "The purpose of this exercise was to see what you could make with a few very simple ingredients," Mara tells the class. "And the smells you have going on in this room are incredible."
After jostling to be first in line, students ladle helpings into plastic bowls and retreat to the adjoining room of desks and chalkboards. Quiet settles over the group as the classmates taste their creations. A few give a thumbs-up, and for good reason: The 666-alarm chili, for example, has just the right thickness and spices, while the jalapeño cornbread is soft and crispy.
"In Singles Cooking, they learn that they can cook great-tasting food in a short amount of time," says Pirelli. "And they feel confident around the kitchen."
They may have the "cooking" part down, but what about the "singles" issue? After coming back to the dorm after a day of classes, or back to the apartment after a day at a first job, all alone, will they really whip up some of these recipes instead of pouring hot water into Ramen noodles? An all-male kitchen team vows to live off cereal and frozen burritos when they graduate from Essex. One guy -- clearly misinterpreting the title of the course -- says his favorite part of Singles Cooking class is the girls. On another day, lessons about the nutritional values of various greens are similarly sidetracked. "Did you know lettuce is one giant ovary?" asks Heffernan. "I learned that in bio."
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Lisa Morgan Gould: I await a time when there will be a best Vegetarian/Vegan category... sigh... someday...