Snowstorms had already canceled two weeks of cooking classes at Cramer Elementary School in Camden, and it was looking as though class might be canceled again when the school was evacuated at midday because of a strange odor.

Once the school was checked out and deemed safe, some students thought the after-school programs had been canceled. But three students who had been looking forward to class were not giving up that easily. They made their way to the teachers' lounge kitchen and were happy to find that cooking class was on.

"Oh, good! What are we making today?"  Star Marie Rodriguez, 10, asked when she burst into the room.

"Wedding soup," said Nyzir Jackson, 10, who had already found this week's recipe.

Each week, we try to include nutrition lessons as part of the My Daughter's Kitchen program, a healthy cooking class being taught by 70 volunteers at 35 urban schools in Philadelphia and Camden. This week's lessons: how easy and inexpensive it is to make soup from scratch, how much better it tastes when the flavor is built from fresh carrots and onions and celery, and how much healthier it is — when made with far less salt and no artificial ingredients — than soup in a can.

But the true goal each week is to inspire in these children the love of cooking, the magic of taking fresh ingredients, touching them, tasting them, and transforming them into something completely different. And I do believe we see that happening week after week at the schools around the region.

"Wow! The veggies smell really good!" said Pooja Patel, a student who was making wedding soup with her class at Comly Elementary in the Northeast. "Can't wait to eat this!"

At Cramer, Janaiyah English, 10, and Star found great joy in a job that is often dreaded, mixing the ground beef, bread crumbs, and raw egg for the meatballs.

"I just love doing this," said Star, her fingers deep in the beef mixture, squishing the ingredients together. "It just feels so good."

"It's like slime, but better," Janaiyah said, referring to the homemade gooey glue mixture that has become the rage among elementary students.

Like their schoolmates around the region, they were not the least bit intimidated by the number of meatballs that needed to be rolled: 72. Indeed, wrote Joyce Dean, a volunteer teaching the class at Hunter Elementary School in North Philadelphia: "The highlight of the project for everyone was rolling the tiny meatballs."

Another interesting observation is to see how much more appealing vegetables become when the children are peeling and dicing them. At Cramer, Nyzir was joined in chopping by Dwayne Jackson, 12, who arrived late, as well as by the girls once they finished with the meatballs. After peeling and chopping an onion, three carrots, and three celery stalks, they begged for more, happily snacking on them and even making "spa water" by adding celery and carrots to their water and garnishing a glass with a slice of carrot, cut with a slit and balanced on the glass.

Camden School District officer Paul Jones, a former chef, assists in opening our can of broth.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Camden School District officer Paul Jones, a former chef, assists in opening our can of broth.

When it was time to open a can of chicken broth, the can opener was nowhere to be found. An announcement was made over the loudspeaker,  prompting school police officer Paul Jones to stop in. "No problem," he said when we showed him the can. He took a knife and expertly popped it into the rim of the can and worked it around the edge. "I used to work as a chef," he said. "You learn to improvise."

"You really saved the day," Nyzir said admiringly.

"Yes, he did, but please don't try that at home," I warned the kids.

We were ready to use bouillon cubes and water before the day was saved, and even after we got the can open, we decided to add more water and a bouillon cube to make more soup, adding the rest of the pasta, as well.

As it turned out, it was a good thing we stretched the recipe. Just as we were just starting to ladle out the soup, Danielle Phillips, principal of the school, stopped in see how the class was going, and the kids were excited to have her try a bowl. Elvin Martinez, the school operations manager, was with her and also sampled a bowl. Nyzir had also invited his teacher Lisette Roberts to join us for dinner. And the kids wanted to take some soup to teacher Marjorie Cutler, who was running another after-school program.

It was then that the students learned another wonderful part of cooking: how rewarding it is to cook a meal and see how much it is enjoyed.

"It felt so good to hear that so many people liked our soup," Star said. "Miss Cutler shared with the after-school class and they said it was the best soup ever. They gave it a 10 plus 10," she said. "It made me feel so proud."

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