Day 5: Dream Come True

A morning that starts with the sunrise may not always be easy, but today it could not have been any more exciting.

CulinaryCorps has fostered a tremendous partnership with Slowfood Gulf Coast since 2007, and when they asked us to develop a cooking and gardening club curriculum for school-aged children in the Ocean Springs School District of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, we jumped at the opportunity.  CulinaryCorps had been searching for a way to make longer lasting impacts on the communities we serve; a program that would live on well after we left seemed like a dream opportunity.

Many months of curriculum development later, we found ourselves taking over the halls of the “Mary C” (the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center of Arts and Education) in Ocean Springs, crafting culinary work stations from fold-up tables, electric burners and plastic cut mats.  We were officially launching the “GROW.COOK.DINE.” curriculum for over 90 Taconi Elementary 5th grade students.  Showcasing five days of the ten-day curriculum, this launch event was a chance for teachers, administrators, funders and media to get excited about the project.

Set to launch in the Fall of 2009, GROW.COOK.DINE. is an after-school cooking and gardening club that aims to get school-aged children familiar with growing their food in a garden, cooking their food from scratch, and sharing their food around a communal table.  The ten-week curriculum culminates in a communal dining experience where the students cook “Top Chef” style and invite families and friends to enjoy their creations!

By 10:30am, the first 45 students had arrived.  The giddy, unrestrained anticipation of a “day with the chefs” was our first clue that we were on to something big.  The second was when one young girl turned to her chef-teacher and said “this is a dream come true.  I’m in heaven.”

The CulinaryCorps chefs were able to take the 2-D class handouts and turn them into unforgettable 3-D experiences; creating good food and amazing memories in the process. The ease upon which the students fell into the curriculum and started tasting, chopping, flipping, folding and most Fake Oakleys importantly, learning, was astounding.   The second group of 45 students proved to be just as successful and they happily consumed their creations including whole-wheat flapjacks with blueberry compote, quesadillas with salsa, homemade granola and yogurt parfaits, strawberry and chocolate fondue, and spinach wonton soup.

By raise of hand, all but 2 of the more than 90 participating students said they would participate in the program if launched.  When asked what they would like to see improved we had many say “nothing!” but several asked for “more time” and “more recipes.”  One chocolate lover did say that adding a “swimming pool filled with chocolate pudding” would be a nice addition to the coursework.  We said that might be a target for 2010.

It was hard not to be touched by the earnest learning that was happening in those rooms.  The students and the chefs were so engaged, so happily lost in the small miracles of making simple but delicious food, you could not help but feel that there was magic at work.  It was amazing to watch a creation on paper spring vigorously to life.  We wish the citizens of Ocean Springs the best of luck with the ongoing launch of the program, and we hope to have many more contributions to help support its growth and success.

By the time the final group wrapped, the team was joyously exhausted.  But not too tired to make our way to Pappa Roni’s in Vancleave, Mississippi, where Chef Dani cooked an amazing Sicilian meal.  The vibe was so warm, so welcoming, we couldn’t help but fall into relaxed chatter and happy laughter.  Chef Dani believes in making things from scratch with a sign proclaiming:  “this isn’t fast food.  this is good food.”  We cannot agree more and thank her for giving us a small respite after a very long, and rewarding, day.

[UPDATE:  A news story in the Mississippi Sun Herald provides another perspective on yesterday’s events.]

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