How do you teach knife skills over the internet? How do you lead a cooking class without providing the ingredients, or the tools, to make the recipe? And how do you cultivate a sense of community via a computer screen?

Those were the challenges presented to the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Culinary Literacy Center, a cooking school/learning hub established at the Parkway Central Library in 2014. It’s guided by the idea that not everyone learns best by reading or listening to lectures. “There are all different ways to learn,” says CLC library supervisor Caity Rietzen. “You can learn through a book, or by a fork and a spoon.”

When the pandemic forced the CLC’s extensive programming — 30-plus events per month for adults and students alike — online, Rietzen did what any librarian would do: She brushed up on her digital skills by diving into library resources like Lynda.com, taking Zoom classes on Zoom itself, and learning more about best practices on social media.

“It really was a real fast learning experience,” she says.

In a 2015 photo, Dejenaba Gordon demonstrates her twist on traditional collard greens at the Free Library in Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center, part of a course on African heritage cooking and diet. LAURENCE KESTERSON
In a 2015 photo, Dejenaba Gordon demonstrates her twist on traditional collard greens at the Free Library in Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center, part of a course on African heritage cooking and diet. LAURENCE KESTERSON

Today, Rietzen is a pro. Since May, the library has hosted more than 60 virtual events, including chef-led cook-alongs covering everything from homemade hot chocolate and marshmallows to Syrian cuisine and summer galettes. In some ways the transition to digital programming has even expanded the library’s reach, allowing learners to log in from near and far — sometimes with long-distance company.

“We have a couple [participants], I believe the mom is from the Philadelphia area and the daughter’s in California. And they can make a meal together, virtually. It’s lovely,” Rietzen says.

We spoke to her about the CLC’s work throughout the pandemic and what its plans are for the new year.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you give us a sense of what goes into running the CLC?

We have a core set of audiences, a ton of youth. Prior to library’s closure, we were welcoming about 5,000 students per year into our classroom. It’s K-12, so you have everything from the kindergarteners coming in and ripping up vegetables to create confetti noodles and learning all about math and science by creating pasta, to high schoolers learning history lessons by creating a meal themselves. So it was a very, very loud and vibrant office to have.

We also work with English-language learners in our Edible Alphabet program, which is about establishing community and making people feel more comfortable speaking English together by creating a meal. And we have a ton of programs in our neighborhood library locations to teach healthy cooking and eating.

In a 2018 photo, Christina Duckett-Brooker, left, adds grated cheddar to a pot of macaroni and cheese crafted by students in Cooking with Confidence, a program created in partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center and the Philadelphia Autism Project designed to teach basic cooking skills to adults with autism.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
In a 2018 photo, Christina Duckett-Brooker, left, adds grated cheddar to a pot of macaroni and cheese crafted by students in Cooking with Confidence, a program created in partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center and the Philadelphia Autism Project designed to teach basic cooking skills to adults with autism.
You also have cooking classes for adults, right?

Oh yes, we were hosting about 30 programs per month prior to our closure, anything from cookbook authors coming in to knife skills classes. It’s a great way to learn about other cultural heritages, so we would always welcome chefs throughout Philadelphia to come in and teach classes that relate to their culture.

That requires pretty specific ingredients sometimes that you can’t always find in Whole Foods or Acme or wherever you might order groceries from, right?

It definitely takes some research, and you go and visit local markets. That’s one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned since we switched to a virtual classroom, because it was one thing to welcome people into a commercial kitchen — we have all the equipment, food processors, Vitamix [blenders], bench scrapers; and we can take the time to go find all these ingredients. In a virtual class, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, we have to make sure that everything we do is totally accessible.” We don’t want people to have to go visit various markets if they can’t, and we have to make sure that we’re using equipment that the everyday home cook will have readily available. I know I personally didn’t have a bench scraper in my house.

Let’s get into that. When did you make the switch to virtual programs? Had you done them before?

No. And honestly even on our social media we weren’t very active. We were posting a few times a week or a month, but we were really focused on in-person classes. At first, we were mostly doing Instagram, IGTV, and Facebook Live for basic pantry cooking. We spent a while creating static videos and learning the best way to host virtual classroom programs. We had how to make pancakes from scratch. We had how to make fake ice cream with berries and yogurt — just really basic, fun things you can do with items that you can find around the house without having to worry about getting groceries. And then we had a bread-baking class as our first cook-along in May.

In a 2018 photo, (left to right) Mamadou Hady Barry from Guinea, Ivana Guidelli from Brazil, Jiyun Li from China, Gloria Conchola from Mexico, and Yu Qi from China, make pancakes with the help of instructor Jameson O'Donnell during a program at the Free Library that teaches English to newcomers through cooking, at the Culinary Literacy Center at the Central Library.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
In a 2018 photo, (left to right) Mamadou Hady Barry from Guinea, Ivana Guidelli from Brazil, Jiyun Li from China, Gloria Conchola from Mexico, and Yu Qi from China, make pancakes with the help of instructor Jameson O'Donnell during a program at the Free Library that teaches English to newcomers through cooking, at the Culinary Literacy Center at the Central Library.
How many other cook-along classes have you done since?

Probably 60. We found that our classes were a really fun way for people to learn something new from their home kitchen, and also give them the sense of community and engagement a lot of people were missing. We had a family class creating Halloween treats, we made graveyard pudding and everyone wore costumes. We hosted a Korean cooking class — the greatest hits of Korean cuisine — with one of our favorite local chefs, Clara Park. We’ve hosted a number of free classes for the A Taste of African Heritage series, which teaches healthy cooking from the African diaspora.

And we’ve hosted a lot of Edible Alphabet classes as well; they’ve transitioned to a virtual environment very, very well. They sort of combine cooking with traditional English-language learning, so we would have the language lesson and then people would create an item together, then they show the final product on screen. And you could just see how much more comfortable they were talking about the dish they just created.

What are some of the challenges of teaching and administrating and also fostering connection virtually?

I think our greatest challenge was making sure that our classes were as accessible as possible, so making sure the groceries were a manageable cost for some classes. And for some of our free classes, like Edible Alphabet, we actually provided free grocery kits for the classes that people could come pick up at the library with preregistration. But for our other classes, [we were] making sure they were using equipment that was readily accessible, making sure we weren’t trying to pack too much in, and figuring out how to best moderate the classes online.

Not just me, but for many of our instructors, [we’ve had to] find creative solutions for a home filming setup with our personal phones or our library-issued laptops. It’s been fun to sort of take a break from what we were doing, because after six years of operating, we had pretty much everything locked and loaded.

In terms of engagement, we try to make sure that we’re talking to people and creating an opportunity for conversations, just asking basic questions, like “Where are you logging in from?” And many of our classes actually have families participate who can’t be together due to distance or other restrictions. We’ll see them waving to each other, talking, and showing their meals to their mom or their sister.

Caity Rietzen, library supervisor for the Free Library of Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center, stands for a portrait outside her South Philadelphia home on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Caity Rietzen, library supervisor for the Free Library of Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center, stands for a portrait outside her South Philadelphia home on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
What’s your outlook on 2021, whether it’s post-pandemic or just the immediate future?

We’re going to stay with virtual program for at least through June. Perhaps we’ll be able to do some outdoor programs in the spring when the weather’s nicer.

I think [virtual classes are] going to continue for a while. This way you can sign on from anywhere in Philadelphia and attend a program that you might not be able to otherwise. It is a very different experience to attending an in-person class. [But] by the time you’re finished, you’re not just tasting in a classroom, you’re sharing a meal you created with the people in your household.

Could you tell us about an upcoming event?

On Jan. 25, Chef Gaby Melian will be teaching us how to make pastel de papa, which is a traditional Argentinian dish that’s like a shepherd’s pie. It’s this beautiful customizable recipe where you can use any kind of potato, any sort of meat or meat substitute. It’ll be hearty but vibrant.

To sign up for classes at the Culinary Literacy Center, visit its websitefreelibrary.org/cook or Eventbrite.