This is the story of how I cooked a four-course meal on a farm for 13 people on two butane burners with six kids as my sous chefs.
Conventional wisdom holds that when children cook their own meals, they will eat anything—lima beans, Brussels sprouts, sweetbreads (which, my 6-year-old was horrified to discover, are not sticky buns). The magic of transforming many ingredients into one dish means children glom on to food preparation in a primal way; the under-eighteen crowd is a significant Food Network audience. But children tend to view cooking as separate from eating, which is actually pretty logical.
The act of cooking—imagining, creation, presentation—is something children are primed to do. Sit a kid down with a box of Legos and ten minutes later his creativity has physically manifested. He has fabricated the car with three steering wheels he’s been talking about all these years. (Which is one reason why I soured on Legos for marketing Lego sets that make an airplane or fire station or motorcycle, the block equivalent of a boxed cake mix.)
Children are not however generally primed for the act of adventurous eating, which requires vulnerability, risking displeasure, and being different from a peer group. So in teaching food literacy to children, I’ve separated cooking literacy from eating literacy. In fact, some of the most literate eaters don’t know a thing about cooking, particularly in today’s restaurant culture. It’s better to have people who can both cook well and eat well, of course. But they are different things.
Agriculture literacy is different even from cooking or eating. Certainly if you can get a kid to eat a green vegetable once a day, you’re on the winning side of the equation. But if we are seeking to better acquaint people with food so the world can meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion by 2050, we must get some of those 9 billion people interested in agriculture now. After all, we can’t solve any other problems unless we solve the food problem first.
So on what was the loveliest afternoon of the year, six children, ages four to eight, joined me at Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture where the Center’s Executive Director Pam Hess and I helped them gather eggs and harvest fruits and vegetables. We turned them into a Big Tomato and Nectarine Sandwich, Corn Fritters, and Zucchini Frittata (which we realized fit perfectly into the tune of “Hakuna Matata” from the Lion King, which I will now never get out of my head).
We harvested and cooked for hours, the kids roaming and playing with bugs in between shaking cream into lavender butter in a jar and zipping thyme of stems for the herbed ricotta cheese. They hated shucking corn (but shrieked with excitement when they “found it!”) and loved balling yellow watermelons. When their parents joined us right before dinner, thekids proudly read off a menu they created, including “chopped up little things” for the baby in attendance, who couldn’t get enough peaches—most of which I had pureed for the adults’ cocktail. And we all sat down for dinner.
This doesn’t end in the same idyllic way it began. The kids did not eat, nor did some (read: mine) even try, everything on their plates. They had cooked and harvested everything, but the act of eating was still a bridge too far. But the act of harvesting and cooking, although not directly related to eating, was by no means a bust. The wonder of picking and preparing food, of pouring cream into a jar and shaking it into a ball of butter, of picking tomatoes and peppers and putting them in a blender and having fresh sauce, of gathering chickens’ eggs and whisking bright orange yolks into frittata was not lost. It germinates.
In 2050, the kids I cooked with will be the age I am now. I will be at or close to the end of my life, hopefully leaving behind a few people who view agriculture, or cooking, or eating a little differently. Government education programs may unfortunately need to show immediate results to justify their existence but individuals can run our own programs knowing that childhood lessons sometimes take years to be learned.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.