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'If you entered heaven, this is probably a meal you would get,' one cooking student says

Pride and joy is evident in a basic cooking class at a Catholic school in the heart of Kensington.

Volunteer Barbara Brown, center, serves a plate of food to Mariah Alicea, left.
Volunteer Barbara Brown, center, serves a plate of food to Mariah Alicea, left.Read moreCharles Fox

In the heart of Kensington, nestled up against the El, stands the 134-year-old stone building that is Visitation Blessed Virgin Mary — or "Vizo," as it's known — the Catholic school founded in 1883 to educate immigrant children. That is still its mission today, serving mostly Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants in the neighborhood and beyond. A few refugees from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico were enrolled in the last few weeks.

A more recent addition to the curriculum is a healthy eating program, initiated by Sister Dolores Egner, who saw a lack of fresh and nutritious options in the neighborhood. So she started with something as simple as  fresh fruit for a mid-morning snack. "And now these kids are loving the fruit," she said. She also sought out the Health Promotion Council to do nutrition lessons.

Maria Brown had been volunteering at the school and was especially interested in the nutrition programs.

"So when I read about My Daughter's Kitchen, I thought it would perfect," she said. She has become one of the 80 volunteers involved in the My Daughter's Kitchen healthy cooking program that is now in 40 schools around the region.

Her partner in the kitchen is Barbara Brown (no relation), who was a teacher for 23 years at Saul Agricultural High School. When the first stories of My Daughter's Kitchen appeared in the Inquirer, she put a note in her phone. "This is what I'm doing when I retire," she said. "I can teach and cook and garden."

The two Browns make a formidable team. Maria's now in her third year at the school, and Barbara joined her this fall.

The students in their class race into the cafeteria after school, so excited to be there. And it's clear how much the lessons are sinking in.

"Did you have a good week? Did anyone have a cooking week?" Barbara asks.

Leanny DeLacruz, 11, shot up a hand. "I helped my mom make rice and beans," she said.

Mariah Alicea, 11, was even more excited to share: "We made the glazed salmon," the recipe from class the week before. "My mom was so interested after I told her about it."

As the two teachers introduced the recipe for this week — egg salad in pitas and kale and apple salad — Barbara began to sing the praises of the humble egg, but she didn't need much help. The kids told her it was packed with protein, didn't cost much, and could be used in many ways. Then it was on to kale, and why it was a "super" food.

"Because it's good for your heart," said Antonio Santiago, 11.

"Yes, it's got a million nutrients in it," Barbara said.

In addition to teaching nutrition lessons, the practical aspects of cooking were stressed: decide what tasks should come first, prep and line up ingredients, always go back to the recipe, and taste and season as you go. This week, the first steps were boiling the eggs, and then making the salad dressing, so the kale could be massaged and set aside to soften. Then they could get going peeling and chopping the rest of the ingredients.

"I love this job," Alvaro Sierra, 11, said as he rubbed the salad dressing into the kale leaves. "Why is this so satisfying?"

"Look, here's the bridge!" Leanny called as she instinctively held both sides of a celery stalk with one hand and pulled the knife between to split it, demonstrating a technique she had learned. And then, to no one in particular, she said: "Cooking is my happy place."

Once the meal was assembled and they all sat down to eat, their pride was more than could be expected for something as simple as egg salad.

"If you entered heaven, this is probably a meal you would get," Leanny said.

"My egg salad is the best," said Antonio, who had boiled and peeled the eggs, and shared a bite with his little brother, at the end of class.

After so much exuberance, the children were asked what was the worst part of cooking classes. And their answers said it all.
"There is no worst part," Alvaro said.

"The worst part is when no there is no food left," Antonio said.

"The worst part,"  Leanny said, "is all the other days of the week besides Wednesday, when we don't have cooking class."