On Wednesday night, I taught a cooking class to foster teens in the Bronx through a volunteer program at City Harvest called Cooking Matters. It was the first of a six-week program designed to give kids basic cooking skills and the very fundamentals of nutrition. They are there because they want to learn.
A handful of kids showed up by 5:00, the appointed starting time, and we thought we might not get all ten who signed up. But they straggled in, a few at a time. Each time more came, we’d scurry to set more work stations. We got to ten, then fifteen; we began to run short of space and knives. By 5:30 the last three kids skulked in, looking stoned and belligerent. We handed them the paperwork and workbooks, but the tough-looking boy waved me off.
“Don’t need it”.
“Yes, you do,” I said. “If you are interested enough to be here, then you’re going to want to participate. You need to do the paperwork and take the book.”
“Nah, I’ll watch”
“Nope. If you don’t want to be part of the class then you have to go”. With dramatic gestures of resignation, the boy I’ll call John took the book; the girls with him followed his lead.
Most of the students were male. The room was teeming with ‘hood-enhanced testosterone which, if bottled, could probably out-bully pharmaceutical steroids. Moments after they arrived, one of the girls who came in with John got into a verbal skirmish with another boy. It was seemingly about nothing, but bloomed into fury in a matter of seconds. The kids’ bodies, fueled with the scent of agitation, tensed in readiness. Some surged halfway up from their chairs, raising their arms in pre-battle stance.
I positioned myself bodily between the opposing factions; I reminded them they wanted to learn to cook. Somehow the anger abated just enough to move on. It didn’t go away—it bubbled right under the surface for most of the two-hour class, keeping every fiber of my being on high alert. We were using knives.
I would never try to pretend to the kids (or to you) that I know or understand anything about their lives— any more than they know about mine. But we have cooking in common, and that’s all it takes. (I’ve always thought if warring world leaders could share their mothers’ cooking with each other, they’d find their way to peace).
I ask the students why they want to learn to cook. Hands fly up in the air.
“So I can take care of myself.”
“To be able to someday maybe take care of my family, like if I have one when I move out.”
“To eat better food than you get when you can’t cook and you gotta have all stuff like from the store and it’s not healthy.”
“ ’Cuz I love to eat”.
They agree: when you cook for someone you show him or her you care.
“Yeah,” says one boy, “ ’Cuz you would never spend all that time and money and stuff to make something for someone if you didn’t care about them”.
“And when you cook for yourself?”, I ask. There’s a moment of silence, then a kid shouts out, “Same thing!”
Now we are ready to cook. (I wish I could say it all happened as smoothly as in the re-telling, but along the way kids jostled elbows and knees, made wisecracks while I was talking, and tried to provoke arguments with each other).
As I teach the first group of kids how to use their knives to dice apples (for an apple, yogurt and nut salad), I learn more about them. John is hunched over his board, holding the knife just as I’d instructed. I make my way around the table, placing kids’ hands in the right position and showing them how to line up the apples. One quiet boy can’t figure out how to keep his hands in position; he seems to have a disconnect between my instructions and his motor skills. The kid cracking all the jokes before can’t stand still long enough to get his apple quartered, and one of the girls looks like she is going to cry when I correct her. I glance over at John and see evenly diced apple piled on his board. I tell him he did a great job and he smiles, then quickly shrugs a “whatever”. I was wrong: he wasn’t stoned when he came in, he was posturing. He asks if he can help me teach the second group of kids.
“No John, I’m the teacher”
“Can I do more, then?”
“Sorry, John, but everyone has to get a turn”
He steps back and waits. When the work stations don’t fill up, he edges forward. I hand him an apple and this time he doesn’t hide it; he beams.