I’ve never liked children. In fact, I don’t think I ever really qualified as one. As a person who could read the newspaper at age four, childishness always seemed a bore to me. While other girls played with Barbie, I played “lawyer,” with my next-door neighbor as my secretary. He was good at it.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that through cooking, I could engage a child’s curiosity, could see the process going through his mind as he crafted a sculpture out of ingredients. This was good stuff.
It all started with my twin nephews, Zachary and Alexander. They are frenetic three-year-olds notorious for refusing to eat, so I tried to come up with a way to make their arduous mealtime ritual fun. I thought perhaps if they created the food, they would be more eager to ingest it.
So we made baby pizzas. I was delighted with their enthusiasm as they ladled the sauce, sprinkled the cheese, then watched the pizza bake in the oven. They ate two bites and fed the rest to the dog.
But it was a beginning, and it inspired me to explore the idea further. My friend Lisa runs a progressive preschool, and she and I had discussed building gastronomy into the curriculum. Since her three- and four-year-olds were already starting to work with multiplication tables, I knew these kids were eager to learn.
I was concerned that too many children had no idea what raw broccoli looked like, and didn’t know that a chicken did not naturally come in a plastic-wrapped container, so I figured this audience was ripe for the challenge. Of course, my desire to rid children of their food-related misconceptions was at distinct odds with my desire to stay as far away from children as possible.
Lisa invited me in to teach, and much to my surprise I got really excited about it. The question was, how would the kids feel?
Since I was going in during “Colors and Shapes” week, I wanted a recipe that would reflect the theme they had followed. Pizza seemed to fit the bill. I also discovered through my research that pizza was created to honor Queen Margherita of Italy, so I equipped myself with a tale and a replica of the Italian flag. Perfect! Good story, easy ingredients, and what kid doesn’t like pizza?
The morning of the class I was nervous. What if they didn’t like me? What if they could sense I was not user-friendly? I know that Lisa and some of her teachers had equal misgivings. Could I, the self-proclaimed child-hater, present a lesson that was up to snuff?
Kids have radar for people like me, like a sixth sense where they can tell there is an enemy in their midst. They typically proceed, in such cases, to make said enemy’s life a living hell.
Undaunted, I shrugged off the fear and headed to school. I could do this. As long as no one bit me or peed on me I would survive.
Much to my surprise, the children were calm and collected when asked to sit down around the work table. They even washed their hands. As I told them the story of Queen Margherita they were rapt with attention. (No doubt the visual aids helped.)
Then they sat quietly for thirty entire minutes and put their pizzas together. I let them taste different ingredients to see what toppings they wanted to add. They fearlessly tasted red peppers, broccoli and mushrooms. One of the kids, who will forevermore be known as “The Stacker,” created a pie that was at least three inches high. Turns out he really digs broccoli.
I couldn’t help admitting I was having a ball. The kids ate every bite of what they made (finally proving my theory), and were perfectly behaved.
As I walked out the door, one of the kids popped up from his nap cot and waved enthusiastically — “Bye Miss Jen!” The feeling of victory was complete: I had actually bonded with a child.
I can’t wait for the next class.
Jennifer Iannolo is an editor and columnist for the Atlasphere. When not chained to her laptop complying with the Editor-in-Chief’s endless demands, Jennifer also finds time to be an entrepreneur and passionate gastronome. Further articles and culinary ruminations can be found on her web site, Gastronomic Meditations.