Teaching kids to cook is always a challenge. At Jane Addams Place, a homeless shelter in West Philadelphia, the challenge is multiplied exponentially.
The kids range in age from toddler to teenager. The prep area is in one room, the oven is in another. The children are not permitted to use the stove, so a staff member must place things in the oven. There is a single-burner hot plate, which seems to take forever to heat up a pot of soup, but once it does, the soup boils like crazy.
The kids who are there one week are sometimes not there the next - if they're lucky and move to a home - so it's difficult to build on lessons from the week before.
And yet, none of that mattered the other day to the five kids, ages 4 to 13, who learned to make clam chowder and corn bread for dinner.
"The kids are just amazing," said Romy Gelles, who is working with her mom, Renee Gelles, as a volunteer. The mother-daughter duo are two of 62 volunteers around the region teaching kids how to make healthy meals as part of My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program. Perhaps no other class in the program has more challenges, and I wanted to see it in action last week.
The classes fit well with the "Hungry to Healthy" initiatives at the shelter, which include other cooking classes, nutrition education, and growing and harvesting fresh produce at an urban farm.
"The average stay of our residents is about eight months," said Kelly Davis, executive director of the Lutheran Settlement House, which runs the shelter. "So it's a wonderful opportunity to expose and introduce new ideas about nutrition and cooking that can break the habits of processed food and corner stores that are so much a part of being poor."
Rebecca Perry, the kitchen manager who helps with the classes, said it would be easier to exclude the younger kids. "But I just can't say no when they come and want to be a part of this," she said. So, they work to find jobs each child can do.
Last week, Indy Hill, 10, helped her little sister Roni Artist, 4, measure the flour and cornmeal and grate cheese for the corn bread. Plus, Roni cracked her first egg.
She timidly tapped it on the side of the bowl as her sister urged her on: "Harder, harder!"
When it finally cracked, Roni was jubilant.
"Look, look, I did it!" she cried. And with just the tiniest remnant of shell.
At another prep table, Nevaeh Rivera, 7, Isaiah Rena, 10, and Jalen Hill, 13, worked on chopping the vegetables for the chowder.
Isaiah found chopping onions quite easy - that is, until his eyes started stinging. "It really hurts," he said, wiping his eyes with his shirtsleeve. Yet he soldiered on: "It's OK. I'll fight through it."
His mom popped in for a minute and was kibitzing on his celery slicing: "Zay, they need to be smaller. Cut those in half."
"Maaahm," he said, giving her one of those "I know what I'm doing" looks, and looking for backup. To his disappointment, he was told his mom was right. He cut the celery slices in half.
Every task in the kitchen was Nevaeh's favorite, and she loved every vegetable she chopped. "This is my favorite," she said, smelling the celery leaves. "I cook with my grandmom. She makes the best arroz con gandules," she said, rice and beans.
Once the onions were chopped, Isaiah and Jalen took turns stirring them in a pot on the hot plate while they discussed more important matters - video-game strategy.
After the onions were soft and translucent, the kids made a game of carrying handfuls of chopped celery and carrots and potatoes, and dumping them into the soup. They were having so much fun, no one could bear to tell them how much easier it would be to just pick up the cutting boards and transport the veggies all at once.
Little Roni was skipping around the table, her hands brimming with chopped carrots. "We're making soup, soup, sooooup!" she sang out.
Though the conditions were far from ideal, the corn bread went into the oven on time, the roux was whisked together and nicely thickened the soup, the clams were added. Rarely have I seen such enthusiasm for a meal.
The lesson of making chowder from canned clams was meant to show the kids quality protein need not be expensive. Kelly Davis said we were right on trend with a restaurant in New York's East Village (Maiden Lane) that has built its menu around tins of seafood.
When Nevaeh tasted the soup, it may as well have been from the finest restaurant in the land. Her eyes lit up and got big and round. She tried to scrape every last drop from the tasting spoon.
"It's awesome!" she exclaimed. "It tastes, it tastes" - she searched for a superlative - "it tastes better than a toy!"
"It's delicious," Jalen said, more calmly.
"It's rich," said Indy.
Renee and Romy Gelles, the volunteers, stood as proud as parents. "We are so impressed with these children and how much they want to learn," said Renee. "They are just wonderful."
As I drove home after class, I found myself singing: "We're making soup, soup, sooooup!"