Time to Eat… Reflections on The Dinner Party Project by Catherine Lea

It’s time. At quarter to six on a November night, the lasagnas are coming out of the oven. Cups of bright orange soup steam on silver trays. The carpaccio gets its final sprinkle of cilantro. Our guests have begun to filter in to the cafeteria – which is decked out, tonight only, in autumn colors and handmade tissue flowers, the lunch tables transformed by brown paper runners, pitchers of fruited water, and colorful paper hand-prints. A formal place setting has been arranged with care at each seat. The room is warm with the smells of pumpkin, ginger and garlic, and the fifth grade students at PS 111 are ready to host their dinner party.


 It’s a moment that fills me with pride on their behalf. For the past seven Wednesdays, I’ve had the privilege of going into two fifth grade classrooms at PS 111, helping the radiant Hope Mirlis talk to the students about cooking, nutrition, food customs, and what it means to plan and host a dinner. Together, we have learned about eating with the seasons and balancing meals. We’ve measured out the sugar in bottles of soda (“Whoa.”) and talked about portion sizes. We’ve practiced setting the table and serving each other on our best behavior. In one memorable class

, we tasted each of the components of a vinaigrette and described them –salty, sweet, lemony– before mixing them together into a concoction that the kids dubbed “VinaiGREAT.” (Well, one of them named it “Throw-Up Liquid” – guess you can’t please them all.) The students have been by turns skeptical and thrilled, shy and hamming it up – but mainly enthusiastic. The morning of the big dinner party, they were so excited that they burst into applause when we walked in the room.


 At the risk of sounding cliché, the Dinner Party Project has been as much of a learning experience for me as for the students. I grew up in rural Vermont, where it’s hard to avoid a basic knowledge of food and farming. Walk into the fifth-grade classroom in my hometown elementary school and not only will you find students that know where milk comes from, you’ll meet a few who have milked their own dairy cows. But New York City, culturally rich as it may be in a thousand other ways, it takes an active effort to get to know how your food arrived on your plate. I was impressed by how interested these city kids were in tracing their dinners and eating with the seasons.


I was even more impressed by how much they took home. In a big class that meets just once a week, it can be hard to gauge how much of our discussions about healthful eating and meaningful mealtimes actually sink in.  We also knew from the kids’ stories that it can be difficult for busy families to sit and eat together without distractions, let alone shop and cook fresh food together. That’s why I was so excited by what I later heard from parents: “My daughter has been talking about portion sizes at dinnertime.” “When I take her to the grocery store, she reads the labels of every beverage I take off the shelf: ‘Look at all that sugar, Mom.’” Parents told us their children had asked them to put their phones away at dinnertime (they also requested that at the dinner party itself) and were planning to help them prepare food at Thanksgiving. Their hard work in class was paying off at home around the dinner table.

Spoons Across America, 11/20/13

And tonight, it’s all coming together. For hours the students, with the help of some dedicated volunteers from Spoons, City Tech, and the community, have been slicing and peeling, measuring and whisking. They have wept over the pungent shallots and taken turns stirring epic proportions of thick pumpkin puree and ricotta to fill the vegetarian lasagna. They have shaved parsnip and carrots into translucent ribbons for our carpaccio salad, and practiced the knife skills we learned a few weeks ago, using safety knives to slice celery and peppers for our crudité-in-a-cup. Now, as the cafeteria fills with hungry parents and siblings, the kids are jostling for the chance to pass around the soup and salad, practicing their spiels (“Have you tried our crudité?”). I watch a student peer out from the student lounge, where we’re ladling up the last of the soup, and whisper to the crowd at large: “You’re welcome.”

Spoons Across America, 11/20/13

Thank you, I think. A week from Thanksgiving, I am full of gratitude: for the chance to be involved in this incredible program, for the weeks I’ve spent learning from Hope’s passion for food and talent with kids, for their dedicated teachers and our volunteers (some of whom stuck around long after they planned to leave this afternoon), and for the fact that we’ve somehow managed to pull it all off as the families begin to sit down. Mostly

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, I am thankful I got to work with these funny, talented, and enthusiastic students.

Time to eat.

Catherine Lea is a personal chef and teaches after-school cooking classes for kids. She has studied food and farming in Vermont, New York, and Cuba. She lives in Harlem and writes on regional farm and labor issues.

Thank you to Dinner Party Project Managers Hope Mirlis and Catherine Lea for working with the students at PS111 on this project. Thank you also goes to Bloomberg LP for funding the project, volunteers from City Tech, Chef Charles Rodriguez from Print Restaurant, Rose Brook for photos, and all our tireless supporters and volunteers.

View more pictures from The Dinner Party Project below:


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