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?