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.
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.”
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, I am thankful I got to work with these funny, talented, and enthusiastic students.
Time to eat.
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:
We are so very honored to have Spoons Founder, Julia Jordan, share her memories of food, eating from the land, and family with our community. As you read, you’ll see that Julia learned about healthy eating (in its largest definition) from her family. Where did YOU first learn about eating healthy and living a healthy lifestyle? Take this very quick poll, and the Kashi REAL Project will donate $1 to Spoons Across America. Join us as we raise $35,000 to support our nutrition and food education programs for children.
1950’s Food Memories at the Bolands and the Founding of Spoons Across America
Mulberries, Tomatoes, Mushrooms, Olives and Romano Cheese … Lettuce, Cabbage, Spinach and herbs from our kitchen window garden … basil, parsley, and garlic too!
I grew up in a family in which we didn’t know the terms seasonal or healthy eating … what other kind was there! Truth be told, out-of-season meant we went to the fruit cellar in the basement and brought up the clove-speared pickled peaches to dress the ham. Or the Concord grape jelly, made during the 2 weeks in which grapes were picked and sorted, boiled and hung in layers of cheesecloth … dripping juice into a big pot over night … waking up the next day to complete the task … sugar and pectin to the mix … and boiling jars and lids and …. filling ….. and waiting overnight to make sure the lids popped … so the seal was secure … and then waiting again .. the longest time …. Then, in mid-winter, peanut butter and Concord grape jelly sandwiches for school lunch.
Winters of quart jars of thin-skinned tomatoes w/salt and basil … a pre requisite number would get us through the winter months of weekly family meals: Thursdays– spaghetti and meatballs, Fridays—meatless pizza with mushrooms …. And on family festive occasions manicotti or lasagna … hand rolled paper-thin noodles… That was the norm.
Summer meant picking sour cherries from the neighbor’s tree and making scrumptious pies, out maneuvering squirrels to get the best of the ripe peaches and Bartlett pears. Annual Father’s Day celebrations at Grandpa’s … a mulberry feasting frenzy … invariably another white dress was permanently purple stained … a mark of deliciously fragrant and sweet eating.
Fall meant living in a pungent, pickling spice environment for 4 days in September every growing-up year … mandoline at the ready … Mom slicing the cucumbers just so for the tastiest bread and butter pickles on the planet … just the right amount of onions mixed in with that vinegar and …. the bean relish, sometimes more yellow and orange, sometimes more green and red … depending on which farmer had the best beans and carrots and bell peppers on the day we went to the farmers market down in the Flats near Distribution Terminal in Cleveland, Ohio.
This is why Spoons Across America was established … a group of folks who were as passionate as me about food and how it weaves its way from farm to table (our official 501 C3 name), got together at a moment when no one understood that children and families and teachers had lost their connection to the land and its bounty, to its rhythms and cycles and no one seemed to care about the consequences …. Luckily today there are many organizations working tirelessly to get us reconnected and Spoons is one that serves to influence and create the joy, magic, and power of a food-centered life. One in which food memories are filled with love and compassion and awe and interdependence … where we teach children to be stewards of the land and its limited resources.
With fond memories,
Julia Vita Boland JordanPosted by Ali | 0 comments
Hallie worked with Spoons Across America during June and July thanks to a Professional Development Internship from The Culinary Trust. Born and raised in Manhattan, Hallie is a rising Junior at Yale University with a passion for food, food justice, and sustainability. We were lucky to have her enthusiasm and excitement for our mission with us this summer and look forward to continuing to have her on our team in the months and years to come.
My love for the kitchen is real – so real that at some point or another I read every single cookbook in my household from cover to cover. I probably should have been doing homework, but if it weren’t for all that productive procrastinating, I wouldn’t be here today interning at Spoons Across America.
I was drawn to Spoons Across America because I share the organization’s belief that an appreciation and understanding of food starts at the table. The act of cooking is an exercise in generosity and service. It takes time to go to the market, plan a menu, gather friends, clean the house. There is something so undeniably vital, spiritual, and essential to gathering around the table with other humans, and celebrating life over a home-cooked meal. That’s the way to get any message across – through sheer visceral enjoyment and connection. I was eager to engage in a kind of work this summer that would allow me to share my passion for the power of food as a source of conviviality, and think about this issue in a more cerebral way.
In a perfect world, there is always an excuse to be in the kitchen. Growing up, cooking dinner for my family acted as a kind of homework break. Being in the kitchen and handling ingredients – whether chopping onions or rolling dough –provided a moment of respite. Schooldays were draining, (as any workday can) but in the kitchen, there was a distinct purpose to my work: to cook dinner, to make it tasty, to make it healthy, and to enjoy it with my family. It was a place where I knew my role, and a world I was fortunate to grow up exposed to. And so, when my algebra II homework got old, I’d find myself baking homemade granola or experimenting with uses for asparagus butts.
I was fortunate to grow up exposed to good, seasonal food as a way of life, and I appreciated that fact more and more every day. So in my junior year of high school, I left home to attend a semester program in Vermont called The Mountain School. There, forty-five other students and I lived and worked on an organic farm that we also called home. We birthed sheep, took classes, grew vegetables, and mopped the dining hall. Never before had I felt so connected to a place, its land, its food, and its people. I came home more excited than ever about embracing the deliciousness of sustainability, and spent the next summer maintaining my family’s home garden and working on Waldingfield Farm in Connecticut.
Here’s the thing, though: trying to keep up with the summer harvest from just a half-acre home garden is harder than you might think. Even six people eating three meals a day out of the garden just won’t do it – the kale and zucchini just keep coming. And when we got sick of forcing bags of arugula on our friends (and their friends), I decided to learn about the art of jarring. I began preserving my family’s rhubarb, plums, and peaches in the form of jams and sauces, and pickling my cucumbers and carrots.
Some of my favorite days at Waldingfield were those spent running the stand in the Sandyhook farmers’ market. I loved the face-to-face aspect of it – answering the “what do I do with bok choy?” question, or teaching customers about the different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and sneaking samples of sungolds all day long.
That summer at Waldingfield led me to seek out a job during my senior year of high school with City Harvest, an organization that fights hunger in New York. There, I worked as a nutrition education intern, giving cooking classes to children and their parents from low-income neighborhoods of the Bronx, imparting strategies for healthy cooking on a budget. I remember the first recipe I made with the class was carrot ginger soup; we chopped carrots with plastic safety knives and sautéed them on a hot plate that was set up on a table in the classroom. I can still picture one student, Robert, looking quizzically at a carrot in his hand, telling me he had never seen one with green leaves on its top. It shocked me at first. And though it took a whole afternoon of being the hands that made that carrot ginger soup, Robert was eventually open to the idea of tasting it. And when he did, he loved it. I relished the feeling of having successfully imparted enthusiasm for a topic in which I was deeply invested – of having made a positive change in someone’s life, and having communicated it through sheer deliciousness.
My work at City Harvest as well as my other experiences have revealed to me the nuances of a question I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time: can families like Robert’s ever make real, affordable, long-term change? Restaurants do it, companies do it, but can a lower income household also be a healthy and sustainable one? I realize that the answer to this question is one rooted in issues deeper than convenience and food cost; it is an issue of education and exposure and finding the right way to spread the word about how affordable, sustainable, and wonderful it can be to cook for oneself and one’s family. And I sure do hope to make a valuable contribution to answering those questions. Spoons has been just the place for that, and I look forward to seeing another year of successful food literacy programs for kids.Posted by Ali | 0 comments
“I think the Dinner Party Project was really fun! I didn’t participate last time but I loved it this time. I learned how to chop tomatoes so that they don’t explode all over you! I also learned how to make delicious crostini and burritos. I’ve already tried working on the crostinis at home and it was a big hit! I think I might use these recipes at family gatherings Overall, it was awesome!!!’- Lainey
Over 150 4th and 5th graders participated in one of five Dinner Parties as the culmination to our signature program, The Dinner Party Project. In this hands-on multi-week program, 4th and 5th grade students learned all the steps involved in planning and executing a dinner party for their classmates, families, and invited guests. The goals of The Dinner Party Project directly align with our mission of promoting healthy eating around the family table. We are particularly grateful to our Dinner Party Project supporters; The New York Women’s Culinary Alliance who supported The Dinner Party Project at The Earth School and the Gracie Mansion Foundation, UBS and The Julia Child Foundation for supporting The Dinner Party Project collaboration between PS 132 and Gracie Mansion.
Down on East 6th Street… At the Earth School in the East Village, cooking teacher Tim Lammers incorporates the lessons and goals of The Dinner Party Project into his yearlong cooking curriculum for 4th and 5th graders. Lessons about nutrition, table setting, etiquette and choosing a party theme took place along weekly cooking lessons. “The kids get upset when they don’t cook every week,” says Lammers, so he is sure to include some element of cooking or food preparation into every class. By the time of the parties in the school cafeteria, the students have prepared every dish at least twice. This was the 2nd year of the project at the Earth School and as such, the 5th graders participated last year as 4th graders. Jia Lee, 4th/5th grade classroom teacher, remarked that the 5th graders took on a leadership role with the 4th graders, and Tim noticed that “they took it very seriously” since they knew a little bit of what it was like.The project culminated this April and May when the students cooked in one of 4 class parties of family members, teachers, and special guests. By all accounts, it was a great time!
” It was very fun to help. I love cooking different thing[s]. It was exciting. I learn about checking stuff that I eat or drink and I will love to share it with my family.”- VJ
“I like making the food with different people and learning about them while working… I enjoyed making the menu for the dinner party because I liked listening to other people’s ideas. I also liked trying new things for the menu.”- Maya
“From the beginning to the end, I LOVED the dinner party! The food was great! Ans I was not the only one who loved it- including my family who I brought to the party. Everything from the beginning speech to the ending desert was great. Even though the party just ended, I can’t wait for the next one.”- Serena
Check out the photos below and then read on to find out what’s happening 175 blocks uptown!
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