By Daniel Meyer
For the past year or so I have been working with an organization called the Sylvia Center, a small New York-based non-profit that teaches kids, largely from underserviced communities, the pleasures of farming and cooking. Early in the spring we began the first of a year’s worth of ten-week cooking classes at the Ingersoll Community Center in Brooklyn. The kids come to the center from a small handful of neighborhood schools. Every Tuesday and Thursday after school we cook: ten kids, three “grown-ups,” one recipe (always vegetarian), and zero chance of a dull afternoon.
Last week we cooked vegetable pancakes. The kids (ages seven to twelve) all agreed that those were two words that had no business next to one another. Nevertheless they remained diligent, chopping onions, grating carrots and potatoes, and whisking eggs. The oozy combination of vegetables, flour, and egg elicited their customary groans of “eeewwwwwww” and “that’s nasty!” I don’t blame them.
While the kids waited for their pancakes to fry (we have yet to introduce them to the pleasures of spattering oil), I took a crack at holding their attention, a job that is typically (and happily) reserved for our co-grown-up, Jacqueline, a kindergarten teacher. I had just returned from Ghana with a suitcase full of spices, one of which, a kebab spice with a late kick, I brought in for the kids to try. I put small pinch in each of their palms, which they all conveyed to their mouths, many by way of their clothing. Ten seconds later they were screaming hysterically, fanning their tongues with their hands, and bolting for the hallway water fountain. (This is why I am not a kindergarten teacher.) Resilient and ever-adventurous, the kids tromped back in and demanded more spice; always a sucker for their enthusiasm, I gave it to them, this time under the condition of no screaming. (Maybe that is why I am not a kindergarten teacher).
The finished pancakes, plump, crisp, and unmistakably made of vegetables, were met at the table with a discerning question: “Are you sure these are pancakes?” This girl was absolutely right. You can’t give a ten-year-old a puck of vegetables (fried though it was) and expect her to believe it’s a pancake any more than you can give a fisherman a shrimpburger and expect him to believe it’s a trout.
But for all their skepticism these kids are absolutely fearless when it comes to food. I barely touched a vegetable until I was a teenager, let alone a pile of them masquerading as my favorite breakfast (in weeks past they’ve also demanded to taste raw garlic, raw onions, and raw flour). As long as it’s an adventure, they’re game.
As for the girl who doubted the legitimacy of the pancakes: she ate four.