Stephanie and The Purple Garlic

purple garlic

When Stephanie joins the kids (from East Fremantle Primary and Singleton Primary schools) in front of the gathered audience at Garden Week, everyone is a little nervous. After all, she is a legend. Her program is responsible for teaching some 35 000 Australian primary school kids how to grow food and cook it. She has earned her reputation through hard work.

She is more silver than silver. She has her large beads. Her expressive eyebrows.

She talks to the audience while the kids around her cook. She knows she can leave them to it. She hovers behind, but not obtrusively. She says she tries not to be bossy. As mothers, we all know how hard that can be. She compliments a child on his knife skills. She shows some others how to cut the rib out of the silver beet, but also has suggestions on how to use it. She crisps up the sage in the butter because it can’t be merely wilted, it needs to crack like dry leaf. I am pleased to think that kids are learning this.

The Singleton Primary students must be as nervous as the East Freo kids are – they wash their silver beet twice. No one would want Stephanie to taste sand or grit in their dish. It’s hard to get the temperature just right on the fancy outdoor kitchen. She says you could call her primitive, but she prefers to see the flame over which she is cooking.

While the zucchini colours she expounds the virtues of local extra virgin olive oil and one of our students tells her of how we made it ourselves last year. We know, first-hand, from our own experience of pressing the fruit, that there is nothing added to the final product. It doesn’t require chemistry or a factory. No emulsifiers. No animal has suffered in the process. Stephanie describes it as as simple as fruit juice.

While the kids rub the toasted bread with the raw garlic, Stephanie tells us how we must avoid the bleached and imported kind. Buy locally grown Australian garlic – purple – not bleached or sprayed to stop it sprouting. Its papery mauve skin like tissue paper – veined like spider webs through ageing skin. Each clove so moist that when it is crushed beneath the blade of a knife, garlic juice wets your palm. Try growing it your school gardens, she says, as borders to the other plants.

Our students pick some edible flowers to decorate the plate and Stephanie says how important it is to serve the food at the table. Zucchini Bruschetta with preserved lemon, goats cheese, garlic and sage. Have a bit of time to admire it for yourself in the kitchen and then take it to the table for everyone else to feast their eyes on. Don’t dish it out in the kitchen. Let it be seen, complimented on and finally enjoyed. She opens her arms out wide to the audience. See what these kids can do…




Pomegranate Jewels in The Kitchen Garden


The glistening beads pop in your mouth. Melded with tomato and herbs they add sweetness and a firm texture. Little bursts. No one can quite believe the little red gems are as delicious as they are. They are an ancient fruit. They seem the kind of thing you might search for in the desert. The saviour that you stumble upon when, blistered and thirsty, you finally make it to the oasis. They come from a hard-shelled case. Of course it is fiction that each and every pomegranate holds the exact same number of seeds. But still, imagine. Its brittle matte surface defies the beauty underneath. It is a fruit I remember from my childhood garden too. Sometimes we cracked one on the red cement path, or used a tool from the many hanging on the wall in the garage – when Mum wouldn’t let us inside because she was vacuuming, or mopping or just because. And so we were outside and we were hungry. We could eat Gooseberries too – cocooned in their lacy lantern. The kind of fruit you don’t buy. Like lemons and figs and passionfruit – every good garden needs to supply its own.

In the Kitchen Garden it is time to cook. Long crusty baguettes are sliced on an angle and toasted in a frying pan. Then they are rubbed with a crushed garlic clove. Five times is the agreed number of rubs for each slice. The zucchini is sliced and cooked in a little extra virgin olive oil till it takes on some colour. Each crispy piece of bread is spread with the mixture of cream cheese and sheep feta cheese (our budget version of goat’s cheese). The zucchini slices are laid on, like fish scales, and topped with a sprinkle of diced preserved lemon rind and a crumbling of crisp sage leaves cooked in butter.


Our tasty main is Risotto with leek and yellow capsicum. A fearless mother takes on the task – despite it being the Death Dish on Masterchef. She’s unfazed. She gets her students in a preparatory huddle – they will make the best Risotto ever! It is a winner. A truck load of parmesan. Very cheesy. When not enough jobs remain the students find ways to garnish the dish with slices of radish.

At the communal table a child seeks my permission to lay his healing hands on my broken spine. He has the class reputation for healing headaches. Why not? Give it a whirl, I say.

When all the dishes and washing up is done – there are biscuits with raisins squirrelled back to the playground – turning to blur and dust in a pocket when a game of soccer rounders seems more pressing.

These days the year 6/7 group move around the kitchen with precision and speed. They know their work space. They have yet to work out the ovens, but either have I. Mostly they know where stuff is, although there is always a contingent of boys who need to ask for the item right before their eyes. Today I am about the clumsiest in our group as I nearly lose my grip on a slippery bottle of olive oil and send it to the floor. I save it in the nick of time. Kids are beginning to be confident around sharp knives and have mastered the skills meal-making requires. They no longer avoid the messy or tedious jobs. Well mostly. They work as a team to get the food on the table. Then they enjoy it mixed with conversation and pride. They know there is cleaning up to be done. They know the scraps need to be recycled and sent to the compost. If only we had some chooks. There are girls so keen on tomatoes that they scoop up the leftovers. The kitchen is ready for the next group. There might even be time for a cup of tea between classes. Funny how they think the tea towels might dry in a wet pile…


Leunig in the Kitchen

Michael Leunig

Leunig asks himself, “What is this?”

It is his way in to everything.

He describes his childhood as one of benign neglect. He grew up in a working class family with four other siblings. He played in paddocks on the suburban fringe. His playground was the rubbish tip. As a child he started a fire and burnt himself severely enough that it took him six months to recover and learn to walk again. He nearly lost some toes. His playthings were a dog and shanghai. He pinged at tin cans. He says it taught him much; trajectory, velocity…I can imagine him. A mop of wavy hair, poking a stick at rubbish, asking himself, “What is this?”

He had a duck, bought as a fluffy yellow duckling. It imprinted on him. It followed him. He likes ducks. He likes their rounded beak. He likes that it is does not peck but rather dabbles. Non-threatening. To him ducks provide the way forward.

He doesn’t look for meaning. He admires the musician, who, in making music is not asked to explain its meaning. They are free from that kind of scrutiny. To the musician mystery is allowed.

He has been able to stay in a childhood state of wonder, asking, as he looks at the world, “What is this?”

People in the audience are hanging on every word. They lean forward on their lecture theatre seats, tipping towards him, craning. The man in the row in front lifts his glasses and wipes his eyes. People are hungry for his simple wisdoms, given like small morsels. We are the ducks and he throws us satisfying crumbs. He tells us “hang on to your childhoods.” All the aged people in the audience murmur in agreement. But their childhoods may already be lost to them. How to get them back? He talks of wonder, dreaming, mindfulness. It is what a child does without thought. He needs no courses on how to do it. No meditation retreats. A rubbish tip, a duck, a pencil and a piece of paper will do.

Leunig sees the pathos in things. This is what attracts him. As a child he saw two men engaged in a fistfight. A drunken brawl. It filled him with shock and sadness. Again he asked, “What is this?”

“Love your enemy,” he tells the audience. War doesn’t end on the battlefield. Deaf in one ear, he could not be conscripted to go to the Vietnam War. He had been prepared to go to gaol as a conscientious objector, but in the end his disability prevented him from having to make a stand. “They took the wind from my sails,” he says.

He failed Year 12 twice, he tells us. The second time he did worse than the first time. Someone asks him why he continued at school if it was so hard for him. Wouldn’t he rather have stayed home? He says he wanted to be with his friends and that he had some worthwhile teachers along the way. He liked being there. It didn’t matter to him that in the end he hadn’t passed the exams.

It is a hot sticky day before the crossing of Cyclone Rusty. I have returned from Kitchen Garden where eggs were marbled in a pot of black goo – star anise, soy, cassia bark, black tea and more. The hard-boiled eggs were cracked and peeled and inside the egg white had turned beige and brown filament veins mapped the ovoid. Like wonderfully cracked porcelain. Like terrazzo. I felt like Leunig might on viewing the beautiful eggs. What is this?

marbled eggs

And how much Leunig would have loved the sago pudding?  The minature white balls are like miniature stuffing for a bean bag. The kids can’t help but let them run through their fingers, over and over again. They are white and hard, but cooked they turn into translucent beads. They are sticky and gooey and have no flavour – not until mulberry syrup and coconut milk are added. The mulberry syrup is a deep dark purple liquid. Viscous. As it gets added to the sago it turns it mauve. It is the colour of the storm cloud, the one that is heading our way. It still isn’t flavoursome, but it is delicate and strange in the mouth and everyone has an opinion. It is a bead. The tapioca is more about texture than taste. It awakens another sense. To the children who made it it is magical. The artist-child holds one between a finger and thumb and says to the little glasslike ball – I call you Nemo.

Back In the Kitchen…


It is the second week of a new school year and we are back in the kitchen garden. The kids shirts are still stunningly white.

It is February weather in Perth. That means hot. Heat wave hot. Four days over forty in a row. No breeze at night. Withering gardens, brown lawns, windscreens that shimmer with heat. Hot bitumen basketball courts. So hot that recess sees kids choose to sit under the shade of an ancient gum rather than run about.

For this first week back in the kitchen there is a review of how to safely use a sharp knife. Claw grip, making a bridge across a vegetable. I must get Lee to show me first before I can instruct the children. I realise I am not a good example. How have I kept all my fingers? That mastered, we push on to halving and de-stoning the nectarines for our tomato and nectarine salad. The nectarines hang onto their hearts like drowning sailors to a life buoy. In the end we macerate a few and think of various creative ways to get the flesh from the sticky stones, all the while remembering to use our knives safely. Some nectarine flesh is consumed in the process. I warn too much stone fruit will find you on the toilet.

We need basil;  two students are sent to collect the herb from the blisteringly hot garden. There, cherry tomatoes are soaking in the sun, turning sweet. Salad leaves are wishing for some respite. I imagine the girls returning with their aprons, used like a basket, carrying the pungent leaves. Instead they come back with the prescribed twenty-four leaves, each individually plucked from the stem, in the palm of their hot hands.

Another child, sent to get a herb, comes back with a thumb pinch of the stuff. Yes I think we need more. Lots more. Go again. Yes I know it’s hot.

What is it with the kids and the picking of herbs? Like they are bringing back gold. Sometimes they are sent back three or four times.

Today every dish is about the fresh produce we have in season. We have tarts – puff pastry base topped with sliced figs, caramelised onions and grated cheese. Fig trees grow like weeds around Fremantle. Their gnarly tree trunks burst from limestone walls and rubble cliffs. This is their time – the beginning of the school year, as if designed to give sustenance to a tired child on a hot walk to and from school. The branches arch earthwards, making their fruit accessible to even the shortest of fruit-pickers. The purple, green fruit drop from the trees and are splattered on local footpaths. Soles are sticky with their juice. The white sap from the picked fruit stains your hands brown. If you have a fig nearby you know to break them open and check for bugs before you pop it in your mouth. Broken open, a fig’s flesh quivers like it is a nest of squirming larvae. Its warm, sticky flesh dissolves into sweetness. Figs; fruit of the Gods. But remember Lorikeets and rats feast on them too.

We have a salad of green with the added crunch of parsnip chips grown from our garden. Planted too close together, the roots grew deformed and twisted, and yet they still add a yummy texture and flavour to the salad. And besides, not many kids are partial to parsnips before they’ve tried them this way. In a purple plastic bucket, like the sacrificed tails of piglets, they wait to be sliced and then shallow fried. The humble parsnip turns into something especially delicious.

We eat our lunch under the shade of gum trees. The garden workers have been allowed to spray themselves with the hose since it has been that hot. A bee dying for a sip of water gets the table all riled up. Ravens wait for the food that will surely drop beneath the chairs. The table has been set with its checkered red and white cloth. After a year of kitchen garden there is already tradition and knowing. The children have collected flowers to decorate the table. The parent helpers and head cook are thanked and then we begin. Bon appetito.

Newbie parents are baptised in the ways of the kitchen. The cleaning group students have disappeared at the crucial moment when there are dishes to stack in the dishwasher and mountains of plastic glasses to stack away.

But success in the kitchen garden is measured not by how well we tidy away. ( Although it is appreciated and noticed.) It is about tasting, trying new flavours and making magical discoveries such as fig and feta, tomato and nectarine.




13 Things the Kitchen Garden teaches kids….

Bloggers do lists. And, although I don’t think thechookhouse fits the mould of most blogs, I am doing a list because it occurred to me that way. Not in the usual way, where an idea seems to drift down like a falling leaf, but in an arrow-fired-at-a-target kind of way. I am doing a list.

Thirteen things the Kitchen Garden teaches Kids

1. to wash their hands before preparing food

2. that produce from the garden comes attached to dirt that doesn’t taste good

3. to work together, or else end up with no meal

4. to clean up after themselves, instead of leaving it for someone else

5. to try new things – like strange tastes and vegetables

6. to use sharp implements and not hurt themselves

7. to have fun while preparing food

8. to create something that is shared

9. that tasting is one of the perks of cooking

10. to create a meal requires time, and work, and commitment, especially if you grow the produce first, but the end result is worth it

11. that making something from scratch has real value

12. to create, even something as simple as a meal, is the one of life’s great pleasures

13. you have permission to get dirty

The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Big Lunch…

It is the day before the Big Lunch and there are only a couple of volunteers in the kitchen with a handful of kids doing the mise en place. Lee explains to the kids this is what restaurants do to prepare. Today they are sous chefs. How grand. We mothers are kitchen hands once more. We are hosting a Big Lunch tomorrow for around fifty people who are coming to see the progress of our kitchen garden. We are on display. Our food will be on show. Our kids will be too.

Just as when you are hosting a dinner party, there are a few nerves. But we have been practicing all term. The kids really know how to make pasta dough now. They have it kneaded into their souls. They have been baptised with flour. They are pros at passing the dough through the rollers of the macchina per pasta and getting the tagliatelli just the millimetre-perfect thinness. They know how, after, they must use a pastry brush to cleanse the machine of flour. Never using water. Like old Italian Mammas they have mastered a soft touch and Lee has taught them not to overwork it, and trust me, it’s not easy for kids to stop themselves from pawing the finished product, or even the unfinished product.

Because being in the kitchen is about being tactile. It is about using all your senses. It is about trying new flavours. It is about experiencing strange textures. It is about using your hands and seeing what can come from them. Transforming the simple lettuce and peas into a silky smooth, green soup seems somewhat miraculous to all involved. The lettuce is sourced from the garden and heavily laden with rich soil. It is crunchy and fresh but not all that interesting straight from the plot. It is washed and washed again. The heart of the lettuce is removed and the leaves fall about in a sink full of water. One boy picks out the older leaves and they will go in the compost bin. Lettuce in soup? and a scrunched up expression.

After sweating down the spring onions and finely diced garlic in our own home pressed olive oil the lettuce and peas are added and allowed to wilt down. Finally the veggie stock is poured in. Once it has simmered for fifteen minutes we need to blend it and then pass it through sieves to strain it and get it truly silken. It is a long, slow process made sweet and meditative by conversation and the warmth of being involved in a shared task. But eleven-year-old boys are not meditative for long. They wander off to something that looks more entertaining – like the job of popping from their pods the broad beans.  They need to be herded back to their bench. Always there seems a scarcity of help when there is washing up to be done. Where is my Chef de plonge? But reeled in they can clean as good as the rest of us. The benches need to be clean! I need my lasso.

On the day of the mise en place there is not the usual sit down and eat for the kids at the end of the cooking session. Imagine not eating after all that work. They have a dejected look. Welcome to our world. That is how mothers feel often, I think. All that work and it is eaten by someone else. So they make the most of their tasting opportunities. Just checking the seasoning one more time! Another spoonful of peas goes missing from the pot. If they were chipmunks they would be filling their cheeks for the winter.

On the day of the Big Lunch many volunteers have come to help, along with a handful of children from Grade Six. These kids will be the waiters and the representatives of the school. You can see their chests puff up a little as they are told this. As they are given their instructions from Lee, just as the head chef would give her front of house staff the run down of the menu, they are all ears. Pony tails are retied. Hair clips repositioned. Dirty aprons are swapped for clean ones. Girls adjust theirs to be just the right (cool) length.

The art room has been transformed into an Italian cantina with red and white checked table cloths, jugs of water with added sprigs of fresh mint and recycled Italian tomato cans hold the serviettes and cutlery. It looks a treat. There is even a guitarist.

It is an impressive menu – dips three ways with crostini, pea and lettuce soup served in a shot glass, mountains of homemade tagliatelli with zucchini and thyme sauce, a green salad with pumpkin seeds and ending on sweet strawberry tarts with vanilla whipped cream. All served and made by children around the age of eleven. The guests were struck by the well-mannered children, the spanking stainless steel kitchen, the fact that such a small school had a hive of volunteers and, that in the space of six months, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden experience at East Fremantle Primary has grown into a beloved and integral part of the school experience.


Once upon…a kitchen

Once upon a kitchen….start of the stormy season. The yard is awash with decaying brown leaves. The verges are all tatty. The already very messy Australian landscape is even more dishevelled. Eucalypts with a bad hair day. Wind has wreaked havoc on the saplings that were valiantly growing beside the house. Its top is knocked off in the 120km/hour winds that has gotten hold of its canopy and whisked it.

I am on at the Stephanie Kitchen Garden at school. Cooking can happen despite the weather. Maybe because of it apple pie sounds the perfect choice. The white board tells us we are cooking melanzane parmigiana, bagno cauda, preserving lemons and finishing up with apple pie. The season is right for preserving lemons. They are given away for free outside neighbour’s houses and in fish shops. So much better than the store-bought kind whose waxy skins cannot be grated and whose flesh does not deliver juice. Atop the bench the fresh ingredients spill from the wicker. Fancy eleven years olds that know that strange purple gourd = eggplant = aubergine = melanzane.

I have three lads to corral. A bit like dogs with storm phobia, they are feeling the barometric pressure fall, and are all fidgety. But perhaps they are just eleven year old boys needing to stay on the hop. One has braces, another lanky and thin, and the last with a crew cut, except for the rat’s tail strand of hair that tickles the back of his neck. Wash and dry the lemons. Cut them to their bases in quarters but not all the way through. Fill their centres with salt. Pound the coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle. Rat’s tail wants to taste everything despite it just being salt, or coriander, or lemon juice. I tell him all the salt he is consuming is not good for him. He continues grinding it into the cupped palm of his hand and tasting it with the tip of his tongue, like a horse on a salt lick. Delicious, he says. Braces measures the quarter cup of honey and places it on the bench. He is keen to do everything. He will not miss out on life. Rat’s tail picks up the honey-laden cup, with goo spilling down its sides and then drops it on the floor. Meanwhile Lanky is squeezing the lemon juice we need. Braces is quick to get a cloth. The honey is wiped up. Don’t tread in it, I warn. I notice the largeness and puffiness of their sneakers, their feet already the size of men. Rat’s tail is still busy testing and tasting everything. He wants to know if he can eat the cinnamon quill. The large jar is stuffed full of the lemons and salt, coriander, cinnamon, honey, juice and water and set in a large stock pot to bring to the boil. They must fill the pot and then lift it out of the sink together. Rat’s tail keeps testing the temperature of the water with his finger. He is a real poker and prodder. A finger in the pie of life. The type to open the oven door too early. The type to discover something new because of his curiosity. He could also be the type to jump into a murky pool, not knowing its depth or what lay at the bottom. Lanky is the one to do most of the cleaning up. When the other two have skedaddled, he is still at the sink, scrubber in hand.

Meanwhile the eggplant has been sliced and crumbed and the homemade tomato sauce spooned over it and then the grated cheese is placed on top. It is under the grill. Another group is covering the wedges of apple with cinnamon and sugar to make the filling for the pie. The pastry has been rolled and cut. Another group has dissolved the anchovies in the warm olive oil, previously crushed and pressed at school. They have steamed the cauliflower and potatoes and cut the other vegetables into dipping sticks that will be plunged into the sauce.

We will eat at the long table under cover on the stage of the assembly area. The weather is not allowing us to eat at our usual table in the sun. Kids who have previously thought they don’t like eggplant or anchovies are finding it not as bad as they thought. But Rat’s tail still holds his nose while he consumes his melanzane, just incase. But finishes it, he does. Of course there has never been a kid who does not like apple pie fresh from the oven. Has anyone ever had an allergy to sugar?

At the end of the day, as the storm front approaches, again the wind picks up. Jasper and his mate give out notices to take home to parents, saying the school could be closed tomorrow, if the storm results in building damage or loss of power. There is general excitement and joy at the prospect of this. Literally leaping. On twitter the storm is brewing fear. Someone retweets that the university is evacuating at five. I think I will move my car from its position under the widow maker. In our cottage, over a hundred years old, we feel very protected from the elements. Knowing it has stood so long gives us great confidence in its strength. It has hundreds of years ahead of it, if it is to become like the homes of the Europeans. In Spain we once lived in a 600 year old house on a street barely wide enough to drive a car. The walls were constantly being plastered over so they grew thicker and thicker. Damp made the plaster periodically fall away and crumble, but there was always more whitewash to be found. So in my Fremantle house I feel safe from the storm. My limestone walls move not an inch. I hear the rain on the tin. The dog positions himself bang in front of the gas heater; legs splayed heater-hog style. I hear the wind outside and see it across the oval whipping up the trees. Once upon…a storm.


Crushing and Pressing

It is nearing the end of Autumn and the weather should be turning cold but it is Fremantle, Western Australia. The sun does not disappoint. We need the rain. We will have to wait. So in the mean time…

Lee has been out collecting olives. With the help of children and parents, the orchard at Booyeembarra has been raked. These trees are only a few years old. To think they can live for centuries, even thousands of years. Their trunks will become gnarled, their branches thick. For now they are mere babies, but already they are bountiful. Despite the sandy soil or perhaps because of it. The branches have been rattled and the olives have been collected in large, colourful plastic tubs. Kilos and kilos of them. Aubergine purple. Firm fleshed. Tips of green.

In the schoolyard they will be soaked in a large wheelbarrow filled with water. Children will sort the sticks and leaves from the olive fruit and, washed clean, they are poured into the crusher.

Taste if you dare; the raw olive is unbearably bitter. I bite into an olive. It has soft white flesh with a pale buttery look, but its flavour is acrid and foul. How the ancient civilizations decided something tasting as smooth and fine as olive oil could be extracted from something so utterly rank is a mystery.

From the community enter Pete – he who has an olive oil making machine. He brings it to the school and sets it up on the sun drenched bitumen. He has a bushman’s hat. And a big smile. He instructs the children on the process. He has taken time out of his life to volunteer at the school and, in his giving, he is getting too. Afterwards he says how much he had enjoyed the day, was heartened to see the children so enthralled in learning, and how the experience has made him feel the planet is in good hands. All this; just by being with the kids.

From John Curtin Secondary College two interested teachers have crossed the road to help. Perhaps it is a chance to be away from the pimple-faced teenagers and relax in the easiness of the bright-skinned pre teens. To less grunts. Where boys are still happier in shorts. Girls still content with tied blue ribbons in ponytails. No lip piercings or tongue studded students giving them hell. Here in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden project they are learning too. In the sun to boot. Everyone is keen to unravel the secret of the olive.

Encircling the old cement troughs the children huddle around to hear how it’s done. The boys are perched on the window ledge peering down into the small vat. They are all eager to see what the small machine can do. They jostle and push to keep their space. They are jammed up close to one another. There is no personal space. It could be a nit field day. First the washed olives will be crushed, seeds and all, by the grinding machine. Like gravel in a mixer. It is noisy. The resultant pulp is given a tasting. Pete encourages everyone to have a try and cheerfully they do. Ohh man. Spitting. Screwed up faces. Gross. Next, the resultant paste must be mixed for forty minutes. This malaxing the paste, allows the small oil droplets to combine to form bigger droplets and is an indispensable phase. Waiting must be learned too. And outside in the sun with your mates, it is not a bad thing to do. Good things take time. Creating requires patience. Next the pulp is pressed, squeezed till its oil is set free. It is a slow process. The children imagine doing it by hand as once it must have been done. In large containers this liquid is then left to settle and to the surface rises the oil. Green and golden. This is scooped off by the spoonful and tipped into the coffee filter paper lined-funnels to collect the first press oil drip by slow drip. Into brown glass bottles the first spoonfuls of oil slowly collect. Maybe at the next kitchen garden the oil they use will be the one they have crushed and pressed today.

Okay so it isn’t fast and it isn’t easy, but it is completely magical. The oil came from the inedible tasting olive collected free from a park down the road and washed only an hour or so before.

Last week’s gardening crew is in the kitchen making the simple pasta that will be eaten for lunch. Today it is Linguine with lemon, basil leaves and Parmesan. They have zested and grated and squeezed. They have been surprised by the deliciousness of a combination of simple, peasant ingredients. It is earthy. It is fresh. Of course olive oil stars here too.

Then again seated at the long table, the sun ever-present, elbows tucked at their sides, more because of the tight confines than the request for good manners, linguine is eaten and olive oil runs down chins…



Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden

This is my first day as a parent helper in the Primary School Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden project. I have signed the declaration assuring the school I have no criminal convictions against children. I am allowed in their vicinity. I arrive early. Sun is flooding the north facing verandah and striking the stainless steel bench tops. I read from the white board the menu for today. I am thrilled to think this can happen at school.

Lee is in charge. First names are the norm in the kitchen. We are three mothers and the school Chaplin – about to instruct 29 or so children from the grade 5/6 class on how to get the meal on the table. Jasper is in the group but I can sense he wishes his mother was not volunteering. I remember the embarrassment I felt at my mother signalling across to me when she was on canteen. I remember wishing I could sink through the bitumen to not have her see me and blow me kisses. Luckily for both of us he is not assigned to my group. The menu consists of soda bread, green salad with fennel, broccoli and potato soup, and for dessert, apple sponge pudding.

The kitchen bench has a wicker tray overflowing with the fresh produce. Wonderfully green and fragrant. Fennel bulbs will be shaved with a mandolin slicer. Something even I am afraid of. More greens than most kids see in a week. As yet the produce isn’t grown from the school garden but purchased from the Fremantle Markets. Behind the kitchen, the elaborate garden beds constructed from limestone have been completed and a small section of the class will be assigned to work in it, while the others cook. Then at the end we will all come back together to eat.

The long narrow kitchen has four workstations, colour coded.  The deceptively colourful plastic-looking scanpan knives are not plastic at all and are indeed very sharp. Lucky their first lesson is in how to chop safely. Part of me, that overly anxious bit, imagines cut fingers, bleeding hands, burnt skin, scalds…There is a lesson for mothers here too. One helper will be assigned to work with 5-6 children on one dish.  So in effect there are little hives of kitchen activity huddled around each workstation. Someone has never peeled the tight brown paper-like skin of an onion before. For the first time a girl realises, with tears in her eyes, why she sees her mother crying at the sink whenever she slices onions.

I have been given the job of the soda bread. I have six boys. One makes pizza dough at home. One is keen to do the weighing of the flour. We divide into two groups of three and a couple go off to bring back to our area the utensils we need. You need to know what a sifter is. You need to bring back baking trays and baking paper. Can someone get the bicarb soda? What about the salt? There is commotion. But it is good commotion. A bustle of activity, of sorting how we will do this and who will do what. There is excitement at the idea of producing edible stuff.

For a good while we cannot work the electronic scales to weigh the required 500 grams of flour, until a teacher’s assistant goes off to get an old-fashioned scale from the classroom. Pushing the buttons less often may have helped.  Eventually we have two bowls of 500g flour, 2 tsp. of bicarb and 1 tsp. of salt and the boys have sifted the dry ingredients together. Get your hands in it, I suggest. They are amazed at the texture of the flour. It’s so soft. Do you remember the first time you felt flour? It is finer than sand. It is light like air. It is clean. Now we need 400mls of buttermilk. Ewh it stinks, says one. Make a well and pour it in and then mix. What with? Your fingers. Get in there. That is my instruction. It is a god-awful mess of sticky goo. They have their hands in it and they have almost as much on their hands as in the bowl. There is laughter. There is flour. How this goop will turn into bread is something none of us can believe is possible. But somehow two loaves are constructed. They are very different in consistency and look despite the supposed measuring. They go into a hot oven and then the boys must clean up.

This is new to them. They need a bit of help to work out how to get the caked on flour mixture off the bench. Wetting a cloth is not something they have done before, it seems. They need prodding to wash the bowls. Come back here. This isn’t clean. But the mothers are not to do it.

There is something quite liberating about standing back. Lee has instructed us that it is their job to do the cooking and the cleaning. We are simply their guides. We can leave it to them. Some are setting the long table outside with the cups and plates and bowls. Others are filling jugs of water. Others are still working on their dishes. I look across at Jasper, on task at the  apple sponge making. He has a navy blue apron on. His hair stands on end. He catches me looking and smiles despite himself. A group of three girls stand around the saucepan of soup, each with a wooden spoon watching it cook.

Our soda bread slowly transforms itself from a pile of gloopy slop to a browning rustic loaf. The kitchen now has an aroma; of bakery, of country kitchen, of Grandma’s. The boys are outside and are called back to come check on their loaf; to tap its brown underside and hear whether it sounds hollow. We all agree it is done. It has been some kind of magic. It must be cut while it is hot and it is a difficult job for the boy who does it, but he manages and carries a board of steaming bread outside to the long table.

Lee serves the soup. They love their food. The food they cooked. They love the compliments their friends are giving about their part of the meal. You can see a sense of pride and achievement for something created and then enjoyed as a group. The boys are eating green leaves and saying  – leave us some salad! Some people want more soup. Everyone wants the dessert. It is sooo yummy. It is a small but delicious meal and healthy too.

One group is also assigned the cleanup but everyone must deliver their own used bowls and utensils back to the kitchen and help stack the dirty dishes. The dishwasher is used for almost all of the washing up and the job is over quickly and the kitchen spanking again ready for the next group.

There is time for a cup of tea and then the Year 7 group will arrive and we will make it all again.

And what have the children learned? They have learned to work cooperatively, to create a dish that from its raw ingredients is nothing like the end result. It is chemistry at work. It is biology. It is maths. They have learned about healthy eating and even some table manners. They have talked about the memories that the sharing of special food evokes. They have learned to get their hands dirty and then to clean up again. It is culture and it is fun. Perhaps it will create a happy memory of childhood that later an adult can remember; and what could be better than that?