Cooking in Suburbia

Photos by Michael Piazza

The activity in the dining room is dizzying: tablecloths are being spread, places set, drinks poured, centerpieces … centered. Behind the kitchen door, steady hands put the finishing touches on dinner, tossing local greens with Brussels sprouts and dried cranberries and sprinkling scratch-made spinach and egg pasta with fresh parmesan. Cranberry oatmeal cookies, just taken from the oven, are placed on trays.

It’s a colorful, farm-to-table menu that most any restaurant would be proud of—and it is all being prepared and served by 10-year-olds. Back in the kitchen, small hands clutch plates of marinated baby cucumbers to serve their families and guests, who are beginning to arrive. They’ve been invited here, to the Maria Hastings Elementary School in Lexington, for a dinner celebrating all the fifth-graders have learned during a five-week afterschool culinary program called Kids Cooking Green. The mood is festive and casual as the servers offer their guests hors d’oeuvres, cups of local cider and verbena-infused sparkling water. Pretty soon, the kids will bring out the bowls of salad and the pasta, and sit down with their families to eat dinner—a lost art for many Americans, and the reason why Kids Cooking Green exists.

“There’s so much wrong with the way we eat in America,” says Liza Connolly, who co-founded Kids Cooking Green in 2006 with Lori Deliso. “We’re just so over-scheduled these days, we’ve lost the practice of eating as families.”

This reality hit the longtime friends especially hard when they traveled in Italy, where they recognized a passion for food and family that is incorporated into people’s lives. Deliso remembers showing up to closed restaurants in Italian villages and having owners invite them in, sit them down, and feed them as if it were normal business hours. “We’d come back here, and it’s so different,” Deliso remembers.

So she and Connolly set out to do something about it. They started teaching cooking workshops for children at the Lexington farmers market, which Deliso directs. The curriculum focused on teaching kids how to use local ingredients to make and enjoy nutritious meals with their families. Soon, they began receiving requests to start classes in a few area schools. Deliso’s decision to start in her own community of Lexington—whose median family income exceeds $150,000—was intentional, though it’s a decision about which she regularly gets questions from those who wonder whether the suburbs need the program.

“You know what?” says Deliso, who, with her husband, runs Somerville’s Dave’s Fresh Pasta. “People are eating processed foods here as much as anywhere else, eating a lot of take-out, and eating in the car on the run.”

Apparently, Deliso’s message has struck a chord with suburban parents. This school year, the program is in all six Lexington elementary schools, as well as schools in Wilmington, Arlington, and Bedford. In each class, Deliso partners with a local chef or baker to inspire the kids and assist with the celebratory dinner. (Susan Callahan of Goodies Homemade Cookies baked with the kids for the pasta dinner at the Hastings School, while Peter McCarthy from Evoo and Za and Paul O’Connell from Chêz Henri in Cambridge are among those who have assisted in other classes.) Deliso, who frequently cooked with her two children when they were growing up, says she asks parents to join their kids on field trips to the farmers market and serve as “sous chefs” for the dinner because she believes the program works best when it serves the whole family, and not just the child.

The program doesn’t stop at teaching kids how to handle a knife or crimp the edges of ravioli. It also broadens their awareness of the origins of their food through visits to the farmers market and exposure to characters like Charlie Radoslovich, who teaches ordinary folks how to start farming in their backyards.

“There are a lot of cooking programs out there, and a lot of farm programs out there,” she says, “but I don’t know that there are that many that put them all together.”

“How many of you have done cooking at home?”

It’s early October, and Kids Cooking Green instructor Amy Copperman is peppering a group of kids from Arlington’s Stratton Elementary School with questions about food. A few hands shoot up in response to her query. This is Copperman’s first as the lead instructor. For most of the kids, it’s their first formal lesson on food and cooking.

“What are some rules for using a knife?” she continues, eliciting a number of insightful responses (with a few silly ones as well) from the nine third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders around the table.

To be sure, the kids in Arlington know their stuff. Nearly all of them have gone apple picking, several go regularly to farmers markets, one girl’s dad owns a restaurant, and another boy knows what a truffle is. The starting food I.Q. may be a bit lower when Deliso introduces the curriculum to less affluent schools in Malden and Boston, which she is doing for the first time this school year. But regardless of a child’s food savvy, the suburban kids here may be just as likely as children elsewhere to forego sitting down with their families regularly for meals and settling for quick, often processed food.

In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan writes, “The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from mere animal biology to an act of culture.” This, in not so many words, is what Copperman hopes her students take away from her class.

She is clear and collected as she has her pupils examine where pieces of fruit come from, gives them a 101 on the superiority of local food, and brainstorms with them the elements of a dinner party. She has the children’s full attention, and it’s hard to believe this is her first time as the lead teacher of a Kids Cooking Green class. It starts to make sense for me when I discover later that in a past life, Copperman went to Harvard Law School and worked as a lawyer in a nonprofit legal aid office for 12 years before being laid off in 2010. As an attorney, Copperman had racked up quite a bit of teaching experience—mostly giving trainings to legislative staff or tutoring social workers in a homeless shelter on the intricacies of housing law.

The mother of two used her layoff as an opportunity to determine whether law was truly her calling. It wasn’t, and after some thought Copperman chose to return to a fond source of comfort and joy throughout her life: cooking. Her mother had been one of the first women to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, and Copperman had grown up in the restaurants where her mother worked. So, set free from pantsuits and pouring over technical legislation, Copperman liquidated an IRA and applied to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

It was here where she began to volunteer as a cooking instructor for children and adults in the Cooking Matters program. When she emerged from CSCA in May 2011 with her certificate in culinary arts, she didn’t follow many of her classmates who began working in restaurants. Instead—perhaps inspired by memories of learning how to cook from her mom—Copperman began looking for opportunities to teach because, as she says, “what I cared about was what people cook at home.”

Back in the Stratton School’s teacher’s lounge, Copperman has nine pairs of eyes fixed on her as she cracks two farm-fresh eggs into a large nest of Durham wheat flour she’s poured out on the table. Her fingers work the flour into the egg, around and around until she is kneading a hunk of dough roughly the size of a bag of sugar. With each step, she carefully explains to the children what she’s doing—and why.

At another table, Lori Deliso is setting up the manual pasta rolling machines. Today, the kids are making sheets of pasta from scratch, into which they will spoon a butternut squash filling to make ravioli. Some of the raviolis will be plated and frozen for the celebratory dinner in a few weeks. The rest will be boxed to go home with the kids for dinner. A few of the kids don’t want to wait that long.

“I just want to cook this up and eat it!” says Katie Richardson, 9, as she carries two ravioli across the room to a plate for the dinner.

At the Hastings School, I’m scooping my third helping of pasta onto the plate in front of me. The feverish pace from the earlier cooking and prepping has subsided, and students are now sitting with their families enjoying the fruits of their labor. Laughter and kind words abound. A look of pride and accomplishment is evident on the kids’ faces.

Sitting next to me is Linda Kong, 10, who’s already starting in on the plate of cranberry oatmeal cookies that she brought to the table. When asked about her biggest takeaway from the class, Kong replies, in deadpan fashion, “That grape soda won’t change color for 10 years.” Visiting the Lexington farmers market made an impact on Kong, who says she was surprised how much fresh food grows so near her home. Her mother, Bing Liu, tells me she noticed the program’s influence a few weeks earlier when Kong offered to make her a smoothie using fresh ingredients and know-how she gleaned in Kids Cooking Green. “Before the class, she thought cooking was easy,” Liu adds with a smile. “But now, she knows it’s hard work.”

If it’s true that this kind of scene doesn’t play out near enough in kitchens and around tables in the United States today, it should. Food activists wring their hands about what will solve our national eating disorder, but maybe it’s as simple as letting our kids back in the kitchen and rediscovering the family table. If that’s the case, then programs like Kids Cooking Green may be doing some of the most important work anywhere.

Even if it’s as Amy Copperman puts it: “one cook at a time.”