Just when I was starting to believe that more and more kids were eating vegetables and were willing to try something new, I visited a class last week where there was more than a little resistance to both.
"I don't eat vegetables," said Jailee Caba, 13. "The only vegetable I like is corn."
"That doesn't even count," said Chrismeilin Acosta, 13. "Everyone loves corn."
The students in the cooking class at Camden's Promise charter school hail from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Cambodia.
They love chicken and rice and beans and noodles and curry — in other words, their parents' cooking. "We're Hispanic," said Elanny Caba, 13. "We like to cook."
They are also enthusiastic about chopping vegetables, sauteing at the stove, and even doing the dishes.
But many of them weren't too excited about the vegetables and flavor profile in this week's beef stir fry.
Camden's Promise is one of 40 classes being taught by volunteers at urban schools across the region as part of the My Daughter's Kitchen healthy cooking program.
Frank Iannuzzi, a sixth-grade math teacher, is their instructor, and he has an impressive background for the job. A culinary school graduate, he worked as a chef before he felt the call to teach middle school kids. And he looks the part, donning a purple chef jacket and a matching bandanna before setting up a tidy prep station with cutting boards and an assortment of knives that he maintains in tip-top shape and stores in a tool kit.
He brings a schoolteacher's patience and a chef's experience to the lesson, guiding students through the chopping — "Remember the proper knife grip, you're pinching the blade, right?" — and reminding them to chop all the ingredients to the same size.
"Do you know why everything needs to be the same?" he asked.
"So nothing is overcooked or undercooked," Chrismeilin said.
"Exactly!" he said.
As the girls settled into a rhythm, it was clear, in their third week, they had already come to enjoy the routine.
"I love cutting things up," said Kayla Kim, 13. "I don't know why. It's just relaxing."
It also seemed that perhaps even more, they loved the chance to chat and be together. "We love doing dishes together at the end," Elanny said.
"Last week, I was standing at the sink with a dish towel over my shoulder, and I was like, 'I feel like such a housewife,' " Chrismeilin said. She wasn't sure whether that was a good or a bad thing.
They also rallied together when it was time to get the rice going, as they were taken aback.
"Aren't you going to wash the rice?" asked Karina Mairena Petthyng, 13.
"Well, no. We don't even have a strainer," Mr. Iannuzzi said.
The girls were having none of it.
"We never do rice without washing!" Elanny said.
She measured the rice into a large plastic bowl and filled it with water. It was clear they were all used to this job, a routine custom in Asian and Hispanic cultures. Elanny drained the water from the bowl, using her other hand to make sure none of the rice flowed out. And then she filled the bowl and rinsed the rice again.
"This is how we do it at home," she said. "You can tell when the color comes to the top."
More than once, as the beef was browning on the stove, as the rice was cooking, as the vegetables were sauteing, the girls suggested their favorite spice blend: "We need adobo," they said repeatedly and sometimes in unison, requesting the spice blend that comes in many variations but that usually contains garlic and onion powder, and a hint of citrus. Many of the commercial blends contain more salt than any other ingredient.
They were not filled with excitement over the sauce the recipe called for, made with sugar, soy sauce, and vinegar.
"It smells like medicine," Karina said.
Mr. Iannuzzi told them that the recipe should be only a guide, and that he had added onions to the stir fry because he thought it would improve the flavor. He added a green pepper for the same reason.
As the vegetables and beef finished cooking in the pan with the sauce, the girls quickly assembled a folding table and chairs and set the table for the meal.
Once they sat down to eat, the beef and the rice went fast. But the vegetables were another story, and a demonstration of how hard it is to unlearn taste expectations once learned.
"It needs adobo," came the cry. And soon the popular Hispanic spice blend — this one mostly salt, but also with garlic, onion, and turmeric powder — was being sprinkled over all the dinners.
"You need to try it without it," said Mr. Iannuzzi, half-heartedly.
"You said a recipe is just a guide," one student insisted.
Alas, the adobo won. And it did mean that more vegetables were eaten.