Last week, while many of the local schools had a holiday, Growing Chefs hosted a Culinary Kids Food Festival at The New York Botanical Garden. A large white tent behind the Conservatory Garden was the setting for a series of chef demonstrations and several interactive booths where children and their parents could learn how the foods that they enjoy eating start off as plants in the ground and the steps that it takes to get those foods to the table.
Upon entering the tent, the participants each received a booklet (or passport) that detailed each of the activity stations and some questions about each of them as well as some takeaway things that they could do at home. The first day I helped out, I was assigned to the Bakery. Here, we had samples of wheatberries that could be ground into whole wheat flour or planted to grow wheatgrass.
At the table, we had a mortar and pestle so that guests could try smashing and grinding the berries just by shear force. With lots of extra hands and quite a few minutes of effort, we came up with a small amount of flour.
The less labor-intensive flour grinding method that the children could try at this table was to use a hand-cranked mill. This took somewhat less time to convert the berries into flour, but none of the participants seemed to want to continue to work the mill long enough to have to grind the several cups of flour it would take to make a loaf. All the children (and quite a few of the adults) seemed drawn into the display and the discussions that we had with them about how this grass gives us the fruit that makes our daily bread.
The next day I was able to work there, I was at the Spices table. Here, there were sachets of various spices with cards of the photos of the plants from which they are derived. On the back of each card was the name of the spice as well as information about where it originated from and where it can be found now. It was quite interesting to see how many participants could identify the spices by their smell and the associations that the different aromas triggered for folks. For me, I love the smell of nutmeg. The hot pepper, however, just kept making me sneeze!
Pickling and preserving are two of the oldest known forms of food preservation, participants were taught at this station. Using various liquids, they were able to test the PH level in them, finding out how highly acidic foods can be stored and eaten over longer periods of time, as with cucumbers and other foods that are often pickled.
A favorite table of many of the participants was the Cheesemongers one. Here, each day, the person running the station would whip up a batch of freshly-made ricotta cheese, using milk and an acid component and then straining the mixture to show everyone just how easy it is to make this cheese at home. It was also a chance to discover the role of bacteria in making this foodstuff and in how milk is transformed from its liquid state to one that is more solid and to learn how the different kinds of herbs and grasses that cows, sheep, and goats eat make the cheese take on different flavors.
Every day during the festival, culinary demonstrations took place during the early afternoon. Guest chefs talked about different plants and their uses in cooking, like corn being used to make tortillas. The added benefit was that samples of the dishes that the chefs prepared were handed out to audience members and sometimes even a few of us worker bees.
It was a pleasure to be able to help out with this event and to share my love of food and cooking and ingredients with the attendees. I even had a chance to roll out my Italian language skills when a group of children came up to the spice table. Adults as well as children who participated in this commented to me and to the other workers that they walked away learning something new about what they eat and from where it comes and where it grows.
The next Culinary Kids Food Festival at The New York Botanical Garden will take place April 14-20, 2014.