Mariah Bey, 17, was the first to arrive, though I didn’t recognize her immediately. The young woman who walked into the convent kitchen wearing trendy glasses, skinny jeans, cropped jacket, and boots was so far from the shy little girl I had known six years ago. But as soon as she smiled, I knew exactly who she was.
“I wasn’t going to miss this for the world,” she said, enveloping me in a big hug. “I told my mom I was leaving school early if I had to.”
I was so eager to catch up with Mariah and her classmates, the first students of My Daughter’s Kitchen, the class that pioneered the healthy cooking program that is now in 32 schools in Philadelphia and Camden. Four of the six girls I cooked with in the convent kitchen at St. Martin de Porres in North Philadelphia came from their respective high schools for a reunion last week to cook together again and chat about the class and how it impacted them.
When I taught that first class six years ago, I witnessed real progress over the course of 10 weeks as the students learned how to hold a knife, peel and chop vegetables, read a recipe, measure ingredients. We made vegetable soup and turkey meat loaf, omelets, spinach salad with bacon, and salmon cakes as the girls tasted new foods and we talked about nutrition. I saw the girls take real pride in cooking for their families in the final class.
But I always wondered, would the lessons stay with them, would they cook at home? Would it change the way they thought about food and impart the importance of healthy eating?
There were shrieks of joy and lots of hugs as the girls reconnected with one another, with Sister Nancy Fitzgerald, their former principal, and with me in that familiar kitchen. And then, they got right to it, just like the cooking classes of old, especially with all but Mariah still in Catholic school uniforms. As they worked their way through the sloppy joe recipe, they were right at home, comfortably chopping onion and celery, measuring ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, and starting to saute the ground turkey on the stove.
But they were honestly more interested in catching up than cooking, as some had not seen one another since they left St. Martin’s. They talked about everything and nothing, boyfriends, high school, their families, college and career plans, and how much they missed their elementary school. But their time in this convent kitchen had also stayed with them.
“I remember learning to slice onions for the first time here,” said Maliyah Gregg, 16, a junior at Mercy Career and Technical High School.
“Remember how the kids from aftercare would come and beg us to pass them food through the window?” said Hope Wescott, 17, who will graduate from Mercy and attend Harcum College in the fall.
“My family still makes me make the salmon cakes I learned in this class,” said Chamya Davis, 17, a senior at Little Flower headed to Albright University in the fall. “Now, I cook dinner all the time,” she said. “I got started here.” And then, “Don’t the hallways all seem really small to you now?” she asked. All the girls agreed they did.
“I’m so jealous you all got together,” said Jayla Reeves, 17, who couldn’t make the reunion because she had prom that night but who called to check in. “You taught us how to make fresh croutons, and I can’t eat the ones out of a package anymore,” said Reeves, a senior at John Hallahan Catholic who is headed to Bloomsburg in the fall. “I do prefer healthy home cooking to eating out now,” she said, though she admitted high school has her too busy to do much cooking herself.
“This is where I learned to make omelets,” said Mariah, a sophomore at Multicultural Academy Charter School. “But I know how to make a different kind now. It’s called a fluffy omelet,” she said, explaining how to separate the egg whites from the egg yolks and beat them separately and then fold them into the pan together. “It comes out real fluffy.”
As they were chatting, Hope’s eyes grew wide as they landed on the package of piecrusts on the table. “Wait a minute, are we actually making pie?” she asked.
“Yes, a few years ago, we added dessert to the last class,” I told them. I brought ingredients to make blackberry hand pies.
“I remember that this class was about healthy eating,” said Hope. “I did learn that, about eating more vegetables and all, but I still eat bad,” she said, being brutally honest. “I just like all the bad stuff,” she said. She has a part-time job at Five Guys and enjoys the burgers and fries. She loves fast food, loves hoagies, and often skips breakfast, as do most of the girls.
“But this class did get me cooking more, I will say that,” she said. “But the stuff I make is not always healthy, like fried chicken wings.”
That prompted Mariah to chime in: “I have no choice but to eat healthy because of all the health problems I’ve had,” she said, chronicling her liver disease, blood disorder, and hearing loss, among other things. She also had her gall bladder removed.
“It hurts for my body to process things like fried chicken,” she said. “I have to eat breakfast in the morning or I suffer … My sickness came out of nowhere and I’m the only one in my family who has these problems, so they are still trying to figure it out. But the one thing I can do is eat right.
“Since this program, cooking has become my passion,” she said. “The first time I made my grandparents something to eat, they loved it. I was hooked. Now, I cook all the time. My boyfriend loves my cooking. I make a chicken dinner with mushrooms and spinach and garlic, I make roast chicken, I make corn bread. I want to go to cooking school at Johnson & Wales. I really think that this is what I am called to do,” she said.
Maliyah was the meat lover and the veggie-phobe in the group. We all remembered her spitting out the broccoli in the vegetable soup, pronouncing it the “worst soup ever.” She was the one who begged to eat only the bacon in the spinach and bacon salad, the one who spat out the grape tomato because it didn’t taste like a grape.
Did she eat any more vegetables, she was asked.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Now I eat cauliflower, broccoli, string beans …”
“Oh, you progressed,” Mariah said with pride.
“And I do eat onions,” said Maliyah, “because they do give the meat a little bit of flavor.”
My eyes filled up and I gave her a high-five: “That one sentence alone made my day,” I said. “It tells me you really are a cook.”
The visit with these girls only reinforced my commitment, underscoring how transformational the program can be — especially for a 10-year-old with a strong aversion to vegetables.
“This class taught me to change the way I thought about things,” Maliyah said. “It taught me to take chances and not to be afraid of risks. It taught me to be courageous. “
Makes 6 servings
1 1/2 pounds ground turkey
1 medium onion, chopped, small dice
3 celery stalks, chopped, small dice
1/3 cup ketchup
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon red pepper sauce like Tabasco (or more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 whole-wheat potato slider rolls
Quick pickled cucumbers (see note)
1. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add ground turkey, onion, and celery and cook, stirring frequently.
2. Once the turkey is light brown and no pink remains, stir in ketchup, water, Worcestershire sauce, red pepper sauce, and salt.
3. Cover and cook over low heat until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, toast slider rolls in the oven, if desired.
4. To serve, spoon turkey mixture onto the bottom of a roll and top with quick pickled cucumbers. Cover with the top of the roll and serve.
Note: To make quick pickled cucumber, combine 1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup white vinegar, 3 tablespoons water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. Add 2 medium cucumbers, peeled and sliced thin. Let stand at least 15 minutes at room temperature.