Amanda Segarra, 12, had a simple explanation for why she came to cooking class: "We get to eat."

Eric Duong, 12, had more nuanced reasoning: "You know how math has endless numbers? Well, I see cooking class as endless food. There are so many foods I haven't gotten to see or taste yet."

Both students hit on reasons that cooking should be a part of everyone's life. You can feed yourself and learn to make countless varieties of cuisine, for a fraction of the cost of having someone else prepare them.

Those two aspiring cooks attend Feltonville School of the Arts in Kensington, one of 35 schools where volunteers are teaching students how to make simple, affordable, healthy meals as part of the My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program.

Tijuana Riddick and Jess Connelly, both English teachers at Feltonville, have been leading the after-school cooking classes for the last two years.

"I feel like the kids are learning lifelong skills," Riddick said.

Connelly said she was also taking the cooking lessons home. "I have a 4-year-old," she said. "I end up making these recipes at home, and I can have him help."

This week's recipe was salmon cakes and sweet potato fries, and though  Riddick loves salmon cakes and grew up making them with her mom, none of the students at Feltonville and few of the students in the classes across the region had ever had canned salmon before.

The bonus of canned salmon is that most of it is caught wild in Alaska, but it is significantly cheaper than the same fresh fish, which can cost more than $20 a pound. (The canned version ranges from about $4 to $7 per pound, depending on the size of the can, and can be even less on sale.)

Not surprisingly, some students were less than enthusiastic about the canned fish.

Teacher Tijuana Riddick, helps Julius Sullivan (center), and Eric Duong prepare salmon cakes at Feltonville School of the Arts in Kensington.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Teacher Tijuana Riddick, helps Julius Sullivan (center), and Eric Duong prepare salmon cakes at Feltonville School of the Arts in Kensington.

"When we opened the can, it smelled like cat food to me," Julius Sullivan, 11, wrote in his journal at Feltonville. Thankfully, he kept that to himself. His classmate Eric Duong, who said he was branching out from his family's Vietnamese cooking, had recently tried salmon and found it to be one of his favorites.  So he was excited to try it prepared in a different way, as a fish cake.

The kids at Comly Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia were mesmerized and curious to be eating fish from Alaska, according to teacher Lorrie Craley.  "It actually smells pretty good," said student Philip Neatu, while his classmate Peter Olson was surprised to see actual bones in with the fish. Arielle Kosty thought that, "in Alaska, they must just shove the fish right into the can."

Yet they all soldiered on. Most student cooks were pretty comfortable chopping peppers and celery and onions for the fish cakes in this, the fifth week of cooking class. But the sweet potatoes were another story.

"They're so huge!" said Nyisha Amill, 11, as she struggled to get the knife to penetrate the potato at Feltonville. Her teacher helped her cut the potato in half lengthwise and then turn it face down to create a flat surface that made it cutting it into half-moon slices much easier.

"These potatoes are too hard," cried Rani Mistry at Loesche School in Northeast Philadelphia. "We needed our sharpest knife and our muscles to go through them," reported volunteer Susan Munafo.

Students at Bayard Taylor in North Philadelphia "were skeptical that these rock-hard potatoes could be made edible, even with 20 minutes of 400-degree heat," said volunteer Peter Landry.

Their experiences echoed what Eric Duong, a big fan of television cooking shows, had been learning since he started cooking: "It's so much harder than it looks on TV!"

Yet what is so wonderful about these cooking classes is that even though it is not always easy, and the students are not always excited about the recipes, they keep coming back. Each week, they are developing new skills, trying new foods, enjoying the process.

"I never cooked before, and I feel like I have really learned stuff," said Julius Sullivan at Feltonville. "I was picky about the food that I wanted to eat, but now I eat more things."

His classmate Nyisha Amill signed up because she had nothing to do after school. "After we made the breakfast burritos that first week, they were amazing and I wanted to come every day," she said.  She dragged her friend Amanda Segarra, who didn't expect to like it but who said, "It's actually fun."

And what was the verdict on the salmon this week?

The kids at Comly who were so intrigued with the Alaskan fish? They were not fans of the salmon cakes. But they loved the sweet potato fries. And they were in the minority about the salmon. A few classes said it was their favorite meal.

"The salmon cakes were a hit," wrote volunteer Lara Griffith at Olney Elementary.

"The taste was spectacular," wrote Julius Sullivan,  who one hour earlier had associated the canned fish with cat food.

"Amazing," said classmate Amanda Segarra.

"They tasted like a spicy burger," said Vlad Lapunka at Loesche.

And what did the Bayard Taylor skeptics think of the sweet potato fries?

"I want to take some home!" said Shy-Janay Turner. So did all of her classmates.

Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at mydaughterskitchen@gmail.com.