I'm giving away my book proposal to anyone who wants it...
Why? Well, first, I think it's about time I let you in, get your thoughts, your support, your opinions. But also, I know many - really, many - of you out there harbor dreams of writing a book someday. I know because a bunch of you wrote me while I was working on the proposal, and sent me words of encouragement, and wrote eloquently about your desires to be authors.
Food bloggers generally keep their book projects and ideas and publishing machinations close to the vest. It's all very decoder ring secret. It is best for me - using this theory - to labor in silence getting an agent, finding a publisher, cashing my pitiful advance check, and then, when everyone gives me the go ahead, write an awesome post about it, announcing the date and you all, my people, will be thrilled for me and shower me with congratulations, but seriously, wonder to yourselves, how the hell did she get a book deal?...I am so much more talented than that hack.
And I'll tell you all I couldn't have done it without your support, and I'll mean it, but still, you'll think, why not me? It should've been me. How the hell did she do that? Is she sleeping with someone over at Random House?
So, I want this experience to be about me, but also about you and maybe us together. I mean, I've been talking to agents and I haven't even told you. I feel like I'm running around behind your back.
So, I'm letting you in. No secrets. I'm going to tell you everything. If I meet an agent for lunch and I leave the rest room with my skirt tucked into my underpants and she tells me she's no longer interested in representing a buffoon, I'll tell you. The good, the bad, the gory. The rejections. The nice things. The people who think I'm a talentless hack. Everything.
So, if you want the proposal, it's yours. I'm including the sample chapters below for those of you who have no interest in seeing the proposal, but want to see what I've been writing, what this book is about. Please leave me your thoughts in comments. I want to know what you really think. I do. I give you permission to be honest, but also remember that you could crush my soul, so you know, be honest without being an asshole.
When you comment, leave your your e-mail and I'll send you the proposal. (Kim@PunkMailDOTcom is fine to keep the spammers away.) When it arrives in your inbox, feel free to really use it. Copy parts out of it that work for your proposal. Use it as a template to start your own. Start working toward that thing you really want. One word at a time. Then, one sentence. Then, one page and another, until you have 60 pages of something that people can read and love and get behind. That will make me very happy.
If I can do it, you can do it. Seriously.
The Central Park East Cooking Project
A Year of Cooking & Eating with 20 Spatula-Wielding Four Year Olds in a Harlem Public School
There was a moment when everything felt like it was going along smoothly, like it wouldn’t completely turn into a disaster.
I caught myself thinking how cool I was, that I had just helped 20 four year olds make three kinds of filling for their Chinese dumplings – shrimp, tofu and pork. Over two long days, I cheered them on as they made their own dumpling dough, folded the filling into the dough, and worked the dough together into something that vaguely resembled a dumpling.
Or maybe more like a sheep’s testicle. But still, it was a glorious success. For one split second I was awesome.
That’s when I saw what was happening around the wok - the wok filled with shimmering 350-degree peanut oil. The kids jostled, elbowed and shoved each other to get right up next to it. The wok wobbled on the hot plate, which wobbled on the shoddy, graffiti-covered, public school table.
Emmanuel and Layla jumped up and down next to the wok, their dumplings squished in their little fists, their flailing arms and legs whizzing past the oil. Marlena poked her finger at the oil, to test whether it was truly hot, as if my long-winded descriptions of skin-grafts had been some kind of joke. About four feet away, Skycarday raised his hands above his head, about to launch his dumpling into the wok Lebron James-style.
I saw it all in my head - car-crash-slow-motion-style - a tsunami of oil disfiguring the kids en masse.
After four months of straight forward hotplate and griddle cooking, I had persuaded myself that it was time to step it up; that 20 four-year-olds could do multiple-step cooking, that they could make dishes most grown-ups didn’t even try to make, that I had under-estimated them and their abilities - that they could scale Everest, fly to the moon, cure cancer, whatever - that they could deep-fry their own dumplings in a wok bubbling with enough oil for a day at the Spanish Inquisition.
But now, as I was imagining the day ahead at Mt. Sinai’s pediatric burn unit, explaining to enraged parents why I thought it was a good idea to put a wok full of scalding oil in the middle of a pre-k classroom, I realized that I must have been drunk when I decided to do this, because this might be the worst idea ever.
Cooking with four year olds is an extreme sport. I know this for sure now. It should have its own category at the X Games.
It is nothing short of an endurance event, a marathon that ends with a sink full of impossibly dirty dishes, a floor strewn with debris, flecks of dough ground into the radiator vents, small children with cheese in their hair and the occasional sob-fest over a squirt of lemon that ends up in an open wound or eyeball. It’s a soap opera, start to finish.
Don’t believe those pictures dotting the internet and cookbooks, of mild-mannered, rule-following children in perfectly white, un-stained chefs hats and aprons, carefully measuring out a cup of flour for their home-made banana nut muffins and never spilling a smidgeon onto the perfectly clean counter top.
It’s propaganda, I tell you.
If you are cooking with small kids, ages three, four and five especially, and one of them isn’t trying to suck the chocolate out of the ass-end of a pastry bag the minute you turn your back, well then, you’re not cooking.
And that’s the message of this book, really.
That cooking with kids in a classroom has its virtues and its worth, its rules and systems of behavior that are necessary for completing the task safely and efficiently – like not scalding the children with boiling oil - but that even in the best of situations, it’s hell on wheels.
And that’s just fine.
Cooking with small kids is not about laying out your ingredients in neat rows and systematically following a recipe. It’s also not about cleaning up as you go. There’s really no time for such grown-up concepts. All of it is too fast and full-on.
Kids have to put their fingers in the sugar, even when you ask them not to. They have to put their tiny little unblemished faces right up next to the sauté pan, with the drops of hot olive oil splattering everywhere, no matter how many times you explain to them that the view from a foot away is nearly as good as the view from an inch away. They have to compulsively check the side of the soup pot to see how hot it’s getting every 30 seconds, until they nearly burn off the pads of their finger tips.
They have to throw the grated Asiago cheese into the air and make it “snow” in the classroom. They have to wave their sharp knives in the air like musketeers. They have to eat salt as if it were candy, and, for some reason that totally baffles me, they have to eat flour by the handfuls if the bag is left sitting out.
They have to.
It’s part of discovery and exploration and curiosity and creativity. It is innately who they are. And short of letting them burn, maim or cut themselves, it’s better to give yourself over to scraping ricotta off the walls and enjoy the chaos and the energy of it all, instead of trying to un-successfully contain it, tame it and stomp out the sheer and utter joy of it. You’ll just make yourself bonkers.
So, what I tried to do this year is exactly that – I cooked with them “right where they are.” And you’ll see when you read the stories, where they are in September is not where they are in February or where they are in June. It was extraordinary to be a part of these kids becoming who they are, growing into their skin, becoming big where once they were small.
Amazing, all of it.
The cooking was secondary to these enormous pursuits, of course, but still the benefits of cooking in school is undeniable - cooking teaches kids that food comes from places other than boxes and things wrapped in plastic packaging, that pasta can come from dough and dough is something you can make with your hands, using simple, familiar things like flour, water, eggs and olive oil.
It teaches them that they can make useful things, not just a great Playdoh sculpture, but also something that can be eaten and loved and savored by themselves and their friends. Art, but art that is useful in a tangible way in their lives. And also, that they can overcome the powerlessness of being four and having most of their decisions made for them by teachers and parents, and do something that most grown-ups can’t even do – like make pork dumplings completely from scratch, the filling, the dough, everything.
It also teaches them that even after a shaky start, they can (with a little guidance) rise to the occasion, gather their calmer selves around the wok, drop their dumplings into the oil (gently), retrieve them with a slotted spoon, and taste something familiar, that they have created with their own hands. And they can do all this – thank God - without having to be airlifted to a hospital.
And that is pretty great stuff.
That is bigger, I think, than learning to follow a recipe or figuring out how to measure a ¼ cup of flour or learning to line up all your ingredients on the table and call it “mis en place.” It sends a message that with the right instruction, we expect them to do the right thing when they’re next to a wok full of boiling oil or dicing up a carrot with a sharp knife, that we trust them enough to teach them the difference between what is serious and potentially dangerous and also, where it is okay to test the boundaries and explore, and occasionally hurl a ball of dough across the room like a Russian shot putter.
By giving them this trust, they get to do something bigger than their little world. They get to be bigger and that is pretty exciting.
At the end of the day, cooking with kids, especially the small ones, is just about getting them to love having their hands in it, to enjoy it, to have it be fun, to have it be messy, just like them. That might, I think, reap untold benefits in their future. If nothing else, cooking might feel familiar and joyful to them, hopefully more familiar than cracking open a package of Doritos for lunch.
But that’s a foolish goal, isn’t it? Because this little project – and for that matter, this book recounting the stories of these kids, their families, our recipes and our crazy, funny, full-on time together - isn’t going to change the world, or make a kid love broccoli, or sustain a hungry kid who doesn’t get enough food at home. That’s not really what this is about.
It’s about the pure enjoyment of creating something together, the process of being a part of something that is occasionally ugly, filled with disappointments, frayed nerves and monotony, and sometimes outrageously funny, happy, surprising and satisfying.
It is about a kid standing back with his arms folded across his chest and thinking, ” I did that…I did that…I really did that.” And listening to his family and teachers, the people who mean the most in his world, rave about how awesome he is and then, just getting to take that feeling to bed with him at night, letting it melt into his heart a little as he falls asleep.
I’m not telling you that you should start packing up your pots and pans and heading to your kid’s school to cook with them next week, but I’m telling you, that if you do, it’ll be worth everything you have to do to make it happen.
And when you take your clothes off at night, and you look down and see that you have melted chocolate chips stuck to the inside of your bra, you’ll still think it’s worth it. I promise.
When the Cheese Hits Your Eye Like A Big Pizza Pie…
Lucy did not want to go to school. My four year-old absolutely hated Pre-K.
My husband, David remembers it this way: Sending our child to public school was the biggest, most life-altering transition we’ve ever made, including the day we brought Lucy home from the hospital, and the day we brought home her sister, Edie, 17 months later.
Starting school was its own pure hell.
Our life went from leisurely mornings of books, cartoons, kisses, loafing and ten o’clock breakfasts in our pajamas, to misery ruled by the clock. Lucy loudly let us know how vehemently she did not want to go to school. Her stubborn, opinionated nature - the part of her I loved so much and tried to honor, the quality that made her strong, focused, able to dig her heels in and face down challenges until she mastered them - was turned on us with precision, a bazooka in the arms of little girl.
It was daily trench warfare. There was the 20 long agonizing minutes it took to put on her underpants, or how I followed her around with a handful of clothes, trailing her like a tracker stalks a a cougar through the mountains, living room, to bedroom, to bathroom, back to the living room, begging and nagging, until I became such a nattering pain in her ass that she begrudgingly let me work her arms and legs into a shirt and pants.
She resisted even the most simple activities, like peeing without being asked ten times, and was prone to intense negotiations, like how I was allowed to brush her hair. How much I could brush it? Where I could brush it? Could I brush it while she laid on the floor and bounced her head up and down?
Nearly every day, I ended up chasing a naked, tangle-haired chimpanzee through our Harlem apartment, waving my brush at her, and uttering futile ultimatums I was convinced I would never say as a mother, while she dodged behind couches and chairs, and slid under our dining room table.
She was also clear with us, on a daily basis, that Edie was the lucky one in the family (because she got to stay home three days a week), and that her life would be greatly improved if we just kept her home from school, and let her lay on the couch naked, with a cup of milk, watching countless hours of Pink Panther on Netflix.
This went on for months.
It wasn’t that Lucy didn’t like school. She loved going to her old pre-school, a non-threatening program taught by super-nurturing, super-perky Ivy League grads, where the teacher to student ratio was 3:9. They painted, did gymnastics, and the teachers whipped out guitars and bubble machines and sang Laurie Berkner songs for two and half hours, two days week. There was a lot of hugging. She barely wanted us to come back for her at pick-up.
Now, Edie had started going there, and Lucy told us every Tuesday and Thursday that Edie was luckier than she was, and that she was our favorite, and that we loved her more.
On this point, there was no changing Lucy’s mind.
Edie, however, disagreed. (It seemed that every kid in our family felt they were getting the crap end of the deal.) Edie hated going to the perky school and tortured us, in her own unique, defiant way. We were taking rifle fire from both sides.
Edie’s strategy was to simply lay on the floor, limp and spread eagle, and in the most annoying whine, repeat “I don’t waaaaannnnna to go to schoooooool” over and over so many times I considered entering her into the Guinness Book of World Records for number of times a small child can repeat a single sentence.
But Lucy’s new school experience was different. It was change in its purest form; scary, big, life-altering, at least from the perspective of someone who had lived less than four and a half years on the planet.
This wasn’t a program, housed in a cozy nook of a room inside an Upper West Side Jewish Temple, with brand new plush rugs for story time and indigo-colored bunnies painted on the walls. It was a full day, 8:20 in the morning until three in the afternoon, in an under-funded, put-a-band-aid-on-it, New York City Public School in Spanish Harlem. It was a huge grey building with hoards of strange, unfamiliar faces - without her family, without all those super-sunny teaching assistants to give out hugs, and accolades, and distractingly sparkly arts and crafts projects.
This was no joke. New York City public school was full on.
In New York City, getting your kid into a good public school requires that you be intensely neurotic and a good long-term planner. I’m good on the first, not so good on the latter.
There are some wonderful schools here, but people are terrified they’ll be left out of the system. It is possible, in some neighborhoods, to live next door to a great school and not get in because it’s full. This happens rarely, but it’s a pervasive and disturbing storyline of Manhattan folklore that no parent can quite forget as they start school visits, interviews, mock classes, applications, writing essays and waiting for a verdict about the educational fate of their child.
The whole affair can turn nice, well-mannered, sane people into raging psychotics who sign their children up for school while the kid is still in utero, carry flash cards in their diaper bags, and hire coaches to write the essays on their Pre-K applications.
David and I resisted the urge to be mental as best we could.
I attribute this mostly to David. I’m the hysterical one in the family, the problem-maker, the loud-laughing American who talks too much, worries too much, eats too much. I make small things into big things – this applies to birthday celebrations, dinner parties, toy purchases and any garden-variety problem that can be converted into a full scale crisis.
My husband is the calm one, the problem-solver, the long-haired Australian guy with the funny accent and the weird vocabulary, who sees that good can come from a challenge, not just paralyzing catastrophe, which is my go-to choice for nearly every scenario.
Where I prefer to stay in the house in my jammies, lest the big bad world cave in on me the minute I walk out the front door, David is a natural risk-taker, a rock climber (literally, this is his hobby, of all things) but also in life. He is open to adventure and things unknown.
All these things make me cry in the fetal position.
If David gets scared or blocked up by fear, I’ve rarely seen it. It might be just who he is and how he’s built, but I like to think it might also be a latent Australian trait, tied up in laid-back, surf culture and big waves, camping in the wilds of the Outback with six of the world’s deadliest snakes, or just growing up with Red Back spiders in your back yard.
Anyone who can tangle with a Funnel Web or a Red Back is going to be able to handle getting their kid into New York City public school. Of this, I’m sure.
I let David take the lead on this school thing. We visited a bunch of schools, discussed our educational philosophy over glasses of wine, and picked one school we felt meshed with our family’s temperament and put that on the application, leaving the other 10 option lines blank.
The Department of Education let us know we were insane for even thinking about getting in to the school and that basically, we had no chance in hell of it actually happening.
We rolled with the punches. I conjured up my inner Aussie girl. We decided we could “home school” Lucy and Edie for a year, (which basically means going to the playground and having playdates) enroll the girls in a few classes and try again next year, more emboldened and wise, and with a better understanding that we needed to get our shit together about our kids’ education.
I was secretly happy to have her home for another year. We kept moving.
Then, David got an e-mail. I remember him sitting on the couch and looking at his phone and chuckling. Lucy had been accepted to Central Park East II. Our school. Our first and only choice. The no-chance-in-hell school.
I was happy, for sure, and not so happy all at once. Getting into Central Park East II was a coup, an almost-miracle, a fantastic East Harlem school in a district of below-mediocre and failing schools and because of that, we couldn’t turn down the placement. If we did, we might never get in the following year.
But I still wasn’t sure she was ready. Or that I was ready. But none of that mattered now. We were locked in. Lucy was going to the big school.
I started cooking in Lucy’s class because she told me daily, while tearing the heads off her Barbie’s and growling at me, that other moms helped out in the class room. From Lucy’s vantage point, she was the only one without her mom, without any older siblings wandering the halls and peeking in to the only Pre-K class in the school, and offering a smile, something familiar from home in the middle of the day. She felt alone and wanted the problem rectified as soon as possible.
I was willing.
The problem was that I didn’t really know how to insert myself into the daily life of the classroom. Lisa, her teacher, seemed like a perfectly lovely woman, but she was just trying to get her own footing; organizing, comforting, shuttling around these disparate, needy kids that were strangers to her, and to each other, and trying to sculpt them into a cohesive, routine-centered group, a community where everyone felt safe and happy.
She had a lot in front of her and she didn’t know me. She wasn’t likely to let me sweep into the classroom with nothing but my mom jeans and good intentions.
I also didn’t want to make a lousy first impression- once you get pegged as the pain-in-the-ass parent at a school, your name becomes doused in poison, all venomous and exiled. Every time a teacher talks about you in normal conversation, it’s almost always associated with mandatory eye rolling and heads nodding in agreement about your craziness.
You just didn’t want to have that kind of stink on your name the first time out at your kid’s school.
But I wanted to be there for Lucy. And also for myself. I knew I was looking at the beginning of the end – my oldest was going to school. Next year, my baby – Edie, my last kid - would go to school. I was looking forward to having time to myself to write and get back to making a living as a full-time writer, but I wasn’t totally ready to be the parent of school age children.
I built my whole life around being the mother of babies. I didn’t know who this other woman was going to be. I also didn’t know who I’d be as a professional either. I hadn’t written anything in years without someone spilling their juice into my keyboard, or banging their foot on the F key so many times that 362 F’s got typed into whatever I was working on. I was used to the chaos, the craziness, the way our family was focused around babies.
All of it made me pine for another child, which is why David and I were trying to get pregnant again. The key word was trying, because it hadn’t worked. After two babies conceived with very little thought or effort, we thought we had number three in the bag. But it’s life’s little joke that as soon as you think you have something down cold, of course, it doesn’t happen. A year and a half of trying had left us talking about whether it would ever happen, or whether we even wanted it to happen anymore.
And maybe that’s another reason why I wanted to volunteer in Lucy’s class, to slow down time. I realize this is pathetic even as I write it, but I wanted one more year of being involved in her everyday life, her school life, one more year where she still needed me around. I wasn’t totally ready to let go of my first born and it was clear to me she wasn’t quite ready yet either. The classroom offered us a bridge, a place where she and I were closer to having our own separate lives, but gave us a little time to get used to the idea.
I got my big chance when I read Lisa’s weekly e-mail to parents.
Turns out they had a cooking time each week. The kids made butter on crackers and then, I think they planned on moving to cream cheese on crackers. Lucy told me all about it. It was, from all reports, a very good small motor exercise. They used plastic knives. They spread the butter. They tried not to break the crackers. They called it cooking.
I was pretty sure that wasn’t cooking.
So, I wrote Lisa an e-mail. It was a longish e-mail detailing my cooking experience and how I was a food blogger - I apparently felt that re-writing my resume would be helpful, as if I were interviewing for a teaching position at a culinary institute - and that I was game for anything, pasta from scratch, bread, whatever. I tried to sound passionate and knowledgeable without being a psycho.
She countered with a one-time offer of making meatballs. We were in a high-powered negotiation. She was George Steinbrenner. I was some B list, no-name ball player from the minors looking for a spot in The Show. I agreed a lot. I sounded chirpy, fun and not very neurotic. I put my best foot forward.
We discussed food issues. E-mails went back and forth. No major allergies, some possible shellfish sensitivities, one vegetarian who wouldn’t be in school the day I was cooking and one Muslim, so no pork. More e-mails. Nuts and, foods with nuts in them, were fine. There were no gluten issues or vegans.
It was a sign from the Gods. Angels sung. Light poured from the heavens.
I agreed to everything. We set a date and a time. Lucy was happy. So was I. I was going to make meatballs with 20 four year olds. I was going to The Show.
Cooking in an under-funded public school is many things, but it isn’t glamorous.
On meatball day, I lugged two huge, over-flowing bags of groceries, a pancake griddle and Edie, across town in a stroller for 45 blocks, and up four incredibly steep flights of stairs, only to have one bag split completely open as I reached the fourth floor landing.
My parmesan went thud-thud-thudding down the stairs. A 3rd grader had to rescue my cheese.
I was a pitiable sight.
I was also nervous. I had no idea what the kids would be able to do, or whether they would like cooking, or whether they would like me. I was pretty sure it could all go horribly wrong, (but as you’ve probably figure out, this is my go-to outlook for everything.)
I had experience cooking with Lucy and Edie. They had been cutting vegetables, meats and herbs with a serrated steak knife ever since they were old enough to sit on the counter. Lucy was so fond of making her own whipped cream that once, I found her hidden behind the shoe rack in her bedroom closet, secretly whisking a bowl of cream. She did it for so long, she made butter.
But that was different. I liked to cook and they liked to be with me, so we cooked together. In many ways, my kids didn’t have a choice. This was the mom and dad and the upbringing they got. But these kids in the classroom were new to me and I was new to them. They didn’t know me, let alone want to spend time with me. And there were many of them. I was outnumbered.
I had made a lot of preparations in my head and tried to think about what pitfalls there might be. My big dilemma was what to do about the garlic and the onions. My initial idea was that I should throw some knives in the bag and they should dice the garlic and onions themselves.
But then, at two in the morning the night before the cooking, I woke up with a gnawing thought - this was probably the first time many of the kids had used a sharp knife and they might not be able to get the dice small enough. And then, padding to the fridge to get a glass of water, I realized how incomprehensibly stupid that thought was. Of course, they couldn’t get the dice small enough. They were four. Did I think they came out of the womb knowing how to brunoise an onion?
I had to re-think everything. I could give them a lesson in cutting, but I knew I’d end up re-dicing their work and I didn’t want to do that. If some chef came into my home and re-diced my garlic, that would make me feel pretty lousy and incompetent. That wasn’t what I was going for.
So, at five in morning, in my bare feet and pajamas, and a cup of espresso nearby, I minced the garlic and onion. I also grated the parmesan, for good measure. I was pretty sure the kids wouldn’t have time to grate all the cheese.
I took a shower and another thought came to me - maybe even the dice was too big. Maybe one of the kids would chomp down on a piece of garlic and I’d put him off meatballs forever.
So, dripping water behind me and naked, I went back to the kitchen and got out another onion and a handful of garlic, revved up my food processor and pureed them into a paste with a little chicken stock.
Now, the whole house was up. I was naked standing in front of my whirring food processor and three tired, yawning people were staring at me. Although not one of them seemed surprised or thought I had lost my mind, which tells you a lot about what normal means in our household.
But I was good. I had options. I could decide at the last minute whether to use the dice or the puree. And this extra work held me together for awhile.
Until, I was walking out the door. (This is the way my mind works - lots of stray thoughts and panic, not a lot of productivity) Staring down into my bags of herb-filled bins and zip lock baggies full of ingredients, I had another thought. What if some of the kids had really never seen chopped onions and garlic and what if the very idea of these strange things in their meatballs made them reluctant to try them? What if the inclusion of these little bits or this beige-colored mush turned them off from meatballs all together?
What if? What if? What if?
This thought made me run back and grab the powdered onion and powdered garlic from the spice drawer. If the onion or garlic freaked them out, we could always use the powder. I could tell them it was dust from the horn of a unicorn if I had to…Okay, not really.
I was deflated and I hadn’t even left my house. I knew being prepared was a good thing, but it felt like a cop out. I went from wanting them to do all the cooking, to doing all the prep for them before-hand. I wasn’t even using real onion and garlic anymore. I had failed before I even started.
Who knew there would be this much consternation and thought in cooking with four year- olds? This level of panic lasted from my house, to the moment I lost my cheese in the stairwell, to my arrival at the door of the pre-K classroom.
And just before walking in, making my cooking debut - carrying one in-tact bag with a griddle inside and holding a pile of bins and bags of ingredients, and cheese in the other, while steadying it all with my chin, with Edie grasping my leg and begging me to take her home, my hair falling out of my pony tail into my eyes, the fingers on one hand grooved and stinging from the plastic bag handles - I asked myself why the hell I was doing this?
Why all this thought and energy about the meatballs? Who cared about powdered onion versus pureed onion versus diced onion? Why didn’t I stay in bed and get some sleep? What difference was this going to make anyway? Would the kids even remember this? Would they care? What was wrong with me? Could I make a run for the exit and still get out of here before they saw me?
And then, I saw her face through the window of the classroom door. Her face, in a blur of other little faces. And everything made sense.
Lucy saw me as I opened the door, shrieked with joy and came running over to me, arms out wide and wanting. I dropped my bag (loudly unfortunately) and the bins of herbs and oil and parsley crashed down onto a table just inside the classroom door. I scooped her up in my arms.
But the hug was brief. The whole room was watching. It was pin drop quiet. I put Lucy down, but she grabbed my leg and held on tight. She wasn’t letting me go either.
The kids stopped doing puzzles and games at tables scattered around the room, and slowly started to focus on me and all my paraphernalia and my children clinging to me. A bunch of them kind of made their way over and formed a tight, bustling circle around me.
It was like Elmo had walked into the room.
Then, the questions started. Why was I here? Was I Lucy’s mom? What was in the bag? What’s in those plastic things? Why is Lucy hanging off my leg? Who is that little girl? Is that Lucy’s sister? Is she crying? Why is she crying? Maybe I should carry her because she keeps asking over and over? Why does she keep asking over and over? Could I hear her? Was I deaf?
They were very interested in me and seemingly nothing else.
I had disrupted the whole classroom by merely walking into it. Four seconds in the room and I was already a liability.
Lisa greeted me with a smile and without missing a beat, dislodged Lucy from my leg with a few words. I don’t remember what they were exactly, but they were the perfect mix of “Don’t mess with me” and “It’s all going to be just fine.”
Lisa looked exactly like a Pre-K teacher should look: late 40’s, (young enough to keep up with small children but wise enough to outsmart them), practical, but smart-looking shoes, a hair cut that was pretty enough to be seen in public, but short enough to stay in one place all day long, tan khaki pants (not too distracting, good for movement and resistant to kid paints) and kind eyes, definitely kind eyes.
Lucy did what she was told, but apprehensively. Her eyes trailed me through the room. She was afraid she would get shut out of my cooking group. The kids got to choose where they wanted to work every morning – Cooking, Sewing, Writing, Playdoh, Pretend, Painting or Blocks. The groups varied daily. When enough kids filled out the group, it closed. For the last couple of weeks, Lucy had lamented being shut out of Pretend and she was angling from the beginning not to get shut out of Cooking, her mother’s group.
There was no way Lisa and I were going to let that happen, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
A bit of her trust had been broken by having to go to school. She wasn’t totally sure I was on her team the way I used to be. Edie seemed to feel the same way, she had not stopped begging me to go home since we walked into the classroom, as if this trip to school was a ruse to drop her off and leave her, too. It felt a little like our family was coming unraveled this month, not totally undone, just fraying a little at the edges.
Valarie, the assistant teacher, and Elena, a parent volunteer, helped kids stack blocks and issued mandates about the proper way to put away Playdoh. They tied shoes and shuttled straggling children to the carpet of the meeting area. They were a stealth team. Elena was softer, with a thick Eastern European accent and a neat, blonde bob. She was more parent than teacher, a non-obtrusive spirit that took kids to the bathroom and moved through the class without creating much ripple.
Valarie was different. She was tough, battle-hardened. She had years of experience and a gruff, no nonsense exterior. If she had a softer side, I hadn't seen it. I almost never saw her crack a smile. She was efficient, able to wrangle a herd of small children through Central Park without breaking a sweat or losing any stragglers, but I was afraid of her, plain and simple, and so was Lucy.
Elena and Valarie got everyone over to the meeting area. The kids sat cross legged in a big circle with Lisa sitting on a low chair at one end of the circle. This was the beating heart of the classroom. It was a lively comfortable place surrounded by shelves of books and decorated with calendars, schedules of daily activities drawn in words and pictures, and photos of the kids and their families. It was a joyful place, really, full of all kinds of possibilities for an exciting day.
Lucy sat there, biting her nails, her eyes trailing me, all nervous and watery, as I set up my cooking supplies in the back of the room.
It wasn’t, I’m afraid, much of a set-up. I had one table to cook on and another for the kids to do their prep. I laid out my little plastic containers of the oil and salt and herbs. There was no kitchen. No sink. No access to water. No counter space. There was a fridge with a tiny cubicle of a freezer, circa 1975, a microwave, a toaster oven so small it would prove useless to us, the griddle I was donating to the class and a hot plate. They had a pot or two, some colorful bowls, knives, forks and spoons plastic from Ikea. But all in all, it was the anti-kitchen.
Edie was watching everything wide-eyed from behind my pant leg. That first cooking session, I pretty much moved from the prep table to the cooking table, and back and forth, and back and forth, with a 25 pound weight strapped to my leg, and then, when Lucy joined us, another 30 pound kid trailing behind me, holding on the bottom of my shirt, desperate to be close and never let go, no matter what happened.
It was cooking in waist-deep water.
Next thing I know - and it happened really fast - a crush of kids was hovering at the prep table.
They were jostling for position, vying for a space next to this plastic bin that’s shaped like a circle, or that one with the blue top. I had things laid out “mis en place” style across the table but that was a huge mistake because they couldn’t help themselves, they had to touch everything, pick it up, examine it, lift the lid a little and look inside. This just excited them, the way steak excites a hungry dog. It jostled all the creative knick knacks in their brains and their hands were everywhere.
I had lost control and we hadn’t even started. I looked over at Valarie. She looked away and started drawing with five girls at a center table. There were 20 kids in this class total. I wasn’t going to get any help from reinforcements for my group of six. It was time to suck it up.
The rest was a blur. I remember kids with their sleeves rolled up and their hands in raw meat. They couldn’t wait to take a turn adding in ingredients. They fell over each other and pushed and shoved to get near the bowl, jockeying for position louder and louder.
They were lustful. They wanted to touch everything, dip their fingers into salt, herbs, oil, whatever was there, and open, and waiting, and put it in their mouths. I left the pot of salt open on the table and turned my back for four whole seconds to grab the olive oil and two kids dove in and started grabbing fingerfuls of salt and raining it into their mouths.
I saw Lisa watching me out of the corner of my eye. I was pretty sure she hated me and my meatballs.
I had them smell the diced onion and the garlic bits. No one had any clue what they were, even my kids were clueless, and they shouldn’t have been, which goes to show you that quizzing a four year old to name an eggplant or an olive is a fools business. Four year olds suffer from performance anxiety and sudden attacks of Alzheimer’s-like moments just like the rest of us.
Layla, a gorgeous girl with a billowing afro, who would, along with Nakamae and Lucy, make up the Holy Triumverate of Friendship that would form Lucy’s school life, recognized that Worchester sauce smelled like “barbeque” which I thought was just a little brilliant.
I put out a bowl of grated parmesan cheese. An innocent enough act. I asked each one of the kids to add a little cheese to the meat mixture. I may have said something about “taking turns.”
And that’s when it happened, kind of slow and warbled, like in a movie.
I watched six kids dive into a bowl of cheese, all at the same time, in slow motion, their faces wide open and moving frame by frame. I was helpless, unable to do anything. I could only move so fast because Lucy was hanging off my shirt, a water skier trailing off the back of a boat, and Edie was in her usual position, clutching my leg and murmuring about going home.
But it didn’t matter anyway. They were propelled by their own excitement. It was a force bigger than all of us. They took that cheese and shoved fistfuls of it into their mouths, and rained it down over the meat and then, stuffed whatever was clinging to their fingers into their mouths.
That’s when I saw cheese flying through the air and small children laughing with glee and in my mind, I remember wondering how it all went to hell so quickly, just by putting out a bowl of cheese.
It was a disaster.
I was speaking to them, saying words to try to get them to stop, issuing mandates, gently putting my hands on theirs to get them to stop, lots of things, but they were too far gone. They were throwing it at each other. Cheesy yellow bits were flying through the air. They were laughing and yelling. They didn’t even know I existed, or that I was talking. I was no one to them, a nearly invisible, fun-stopper that had no authority over them at all.
And then, I had this fleeting thought about salmonella poisoning, and how maybe one of the kids had touched the meat, and how we were coming dangerously close to someone having to be admitted to a hospital.
And before I could really dig into the horrors of that reality, the lights went dark. And every kid in the room stopped, put their hands on their heads and turned to the front of the room. Lisa was standing there.
And she was pissed.
I was in awe. I’d never seen benevolent power used in such an efficient way. The kids were statues (statues covered in cheese, but still), they didn’t move. The room was completely silent. Even Edie stopped whimpering.
It was inspiring. I had no idea such power over children even existed outside of fairy tales.
I put my hands on my head.
She told us we were all too loud - which definitely meant me, I was too loud - and the kids and I felt really sorry about that. We all looked at our shoes and shuffled them around a little. And then, the lights came back on and a new more subtle version of the cooking started to happen.
They put their hands in the meat, one at a time, and mixed the ingredients. They formed small balls and used a nice long slotted spoon to drop them onto the glistening griddle. I gave them the choice – the powdered onion and garlic, or the minced - the safest choice and the least safe. I explained the difference, showed them a whole onion and a whole head of garlic. They smelled them, touched them, rolled them around the table.
They chose the real stuff. They weren’t weirded out one bit by the smell or the little pieces. Lesson learned.
We put our hands over the griddle to feel the heat and we talked about how it would feel to put our hands in it and what would happen if we did. The griddle and its heat and the threat of pain tamed them. They watched the meatballs brown with curiosity and delight. We talked about how the meatballs went from light brown to a dark crusty brown and how they looked crunchy.
Then, we lopped them into a pan with some sauce I had made the night before and let them simmer away in a cast iron pan on the hot plate. They watched the steam rise up from the pan and waved their fingers through it, they begged me incessantly to try the sauce and I gave them each a blue plastic Ikea teaspoon and dipped it in the sauce and gave one to each of them.
If you cook, I told them, you have to taste. There’s just no other way around it.
They class ate as a group in the circle. They didn’t have long to eat. I used every minute of my time allotment. The 45 minutes went pretty fast.
Turned out, it had been a good idea to do much of the prep in advance. There just wasn’t enough time to have them do all the chopping and grating. It all worked out. We finished. It wasn’t pretty, more like we were in the mad dash of a near-impossible Top Chef Quickfire, but we did it. Just under the wire. They sat cross-legged together and ate on paper plates, their napkins folded next to them.
The rule of eating in the circle was everyone had to try the snack. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t have to eat it, but trying was essential. They accepted this as law. And I was grateful for that.
Home can be a democracy. There is room for opinion and independence and outright rebellion, even in some of the most strict families, but school is more like the army. There are rules for the group, everyone must abide, there isn’t a whole lot of special treatment unless it serves the whole lot, and there is mass compliance.
The rebel in me balks at this. But, truth is, this creates community, cohesion and safety. A place where everyone gets the same and the same is expected from everyone. And because of that, because parents were nowhere to be seen, everyone tried the meatballs without any argument.
They ate, and there were meatball naysayers, but a bunch of kids ate all of it and loved it. A few wanted more and got them. Lisa asked them questions about how they made them, and the kids occasionally remembered an ingredient or two, but most of them forgot what we had done for the last hour and kind of stared at her blankly.
She asked if there was meat in it and, I could see lights of acknowledgment switching on in their heads, and every kid shot his hand in the air to affirm that this was the case.
I looked back at the cooking area in the back of the classroom. There was a pile of caked on dishes, drops of sauce dried to the table, raw meat ground into the floor, and cheese inside the vents of the radiator. In fact, there was cheese everywhere, a light coating of cheese flakes covered the area like a newly fallen dusting of snow. I also found it mashed into the corners of the chairs and melted to the floor.
That’s when Valarie leaned in over my shoulder, and without any irony at all, or even the hint of a smile whispered, “You better clean that up. Mice come in here at night.”
Lisa looked over, too. From her vantage point in the circle, she could easily see the mess I had made in a third of her delightful classroom. She looked there, then at me, then back to the kids. She smiled weakly. That’s when I knew it was over.
It took me an hour after school to return the classroom to its rightful condition by washing everything in the girls bathroom, (in sinks that were at the same level as my knees) and then, packing all my belongings back into my one good plastic bag, and setting the pots and pans and dishes into one another and carefully arranging them on the over-crowded shelf.
I turned off the lights and shut the windows (because raccoons, of all things, can climb the scaffolding on the side of the building and get into the classrooms at night), and shut the door and carried my bags and Edie, who was still whimpering, and walking with Lucy still grasping my shirt, down four flights of stairs and into a cab. I was exhausted and ready for a glass of wine, or something much stronger.
I wondered exactly how teachers did this kind of thing every day, five days a week, without their heads imploding from the sheer exhaustion of it all.
I thought about dinner and my stomach turned over. The last thing I wanted to do was cook, or be near a kitchen, or have to wash a sink full of dishes. The girls and I laid our heads back on the seat of the cab, an arm wound around each of them, chatting about this and that, mostly we talked about going home.
The meatballs were far behind us. We had other things on our minds, art projects, a play date with a neighbor girl.
Life moved swiftly ahead.
I tried to forget that I blew it. That this was the last time I’d be cooking in Lucy’s class.
Meatballs are a great first dish for cooking with kids for four reasons: 1) they are simple to make, 2) there are lots of ingredients to smell and touch, 3) you won’t need to be exact about most of the measurements and 4) nearly every kid has eaten a meatball in one form or another. It’s the perfect first food, at least in this setting. Nothing scary here.
Cooking Notes: My directions here call for mincing the onions and garlic, but if you have some worries about how that will go over, you can puree the onion and garlic separately in a food processor with a tablespoon or two of chicken stock until it forms a paste.
2 lbs. ground beef or veal (or a beef and veal combination)
½ medium-sized yellow onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ bunch, fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
½ bunch, fresh basil, chopped
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
1 ½ tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
¼ cup parmesan, grated
1 cup panko bread crumbs (regular breadcrumbs are just fine, if you prefer)
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Your favorite marinara sauce, or mine from page XX
Put the ground veal/beef in a big bowl. Have the kids add: onion, garlic, parsley, basil, red pepper flakes, worchestershire, parmesan, panko, eggs, salt and pepper. Set aside a little parsley for garnish. Have the kids mix the ingredients well with their hands. Let them get right in there.
Give each of the kids a small amount of the meat mixture to form into a ball. I like them to be small, the size of a ping pong ball so they cook through faster. Keep doing this until the kids have formed all the meat into balls.
If you are using a hot plate in school, turn it on to high. Have the kids wash their hands. Have a kid put the pan on the burner and add oil to the pan, roughly enough to cover the bottom. When the oil is hot and shimmering, have each kid take a turn adding a meatball or two to the pan with a slotted spoon. You may have to do two batches, depending on the size of your pan. Let the meatballs brown on one side and then, have the kids turn them over with a slotted spoon. Cook the meatballs until they brown all over. They will not be cooked through. That’s fine.
Turn the heat down to medium. (This will be a little difficult to do perfectly on a hot plate, just go with it) With the slotted spoon, have the kids take turns removing the meat balls and putting them on a plate. Set the plate aside. Leave the browned bits and the oil in the pan (unless there is an unusually large amount and if there is, you can drain a bit out). Have a kid add the tomato sauce to the pan, add the meatballs back in. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
Serve a meatball, a little sauce and a garnish of parsley to each child. I almost always “garnish” with an herb or something colorful to teach them about presentation and also to keep them from being fixated on food that is a single color. Parsley is your friend in that war.