Monday, October 10, 2011


One afternoon last week when there was a warning for a hard frost overnight, this is what I saw when I went in the teacher's room after school:

A parent/co-worker had brought in heaps of tomatoes from her garden. All varieties, all colors, all shapes. A few teachers took a couple, but largely they were just sitting there.

The tomatoes must be used. The tomatoes could not be allowed to sit in those containers and rot. So I started scheming.

I had many ideas, all with reasons not to follow through on them.

Take them home and try oven-drying them to use later? The kids wouldn't get to see them shrivel up and change, so all I'd be gaining was free ingredients to use at a later date.

Make sauce? An ungodly mess anytime I've tried this before.

Freeze them whole to use later? They take up more space than I have in my freezer.

Someone suggested salsa. This seemed like the most practical way to use the tomatoes, but there was a volume issue. We had been gifted A Whole Lotta Tomatoes. How much salsa could we eat? Should I try freezing it to use a little bit at a time?

Then, the moment of inspiration, which I am more and more relying on to help guide me through planning these cooking adventures.

I went to Emily our food services coodinator. “If we made salsa Monday afternoon, could we serve it as part of the hot lunch program?”

“We're having tacos Tuesday, so yes.”

These are the stars-are-aligned moments that give me confidence I'm on some version of the right track. Sometimes you choose the recipe; but sometimes the recipe chooses you.

Emily gathered the other ingredients, gave me a loose starting point kind of a recipe, and let our class take over the kitchen this afternoon after she and her crew had cleaned up for the day. We spread out by using a table in the main part of the gym outside the serving window. Cutting boards were borrowed from several of my co-workers; knives and mixing bowls came from the kitchen.

A Whole Lotta Tomatoes means there was A Whole Lotta Tomato Goop all over the place in the thick of it. As kids finished chopping I just grabbed whoever was closest for whichever task needed doing: rinsing dishes and getting them racked up for the dishwasher, wiping down counters, taking out the compost.

Once the kitchen was back under control, I let everyone know we'd have a quick taste test. I asked them to think about whether the salsa needed more salt, more lime juice, more something else. Many brows were wrinkled in concentration as they tasted their concoction. Overall it got a thumbs up, but the suggestions for improvement ran the gamut from “too salty” (I, of course, thought it needed more salt), to too chunky, to “I couldn't really taste the lime.” And of course there were a bunch of tough guy and gals who insisted it needed more heat in one form or another.

“Remember,” I told them, “this salsa is for everyone in the school. We don't want to blast the kindergarteners with too much heat.” It is interesting, as our whole school focuses on the social skill of empathy this month (as we do every October) that one or two kids couldn't get past what they wanted the salsa to taste like instead of thinking about what others might need. But the wonderful thing about school is that there's always room for growth...

Speaking of which: One area we need to work on as a class is each individual making responsible choices (i.e. if you're done with your job and not sure what to do, ask a teacher instead of running across the gym like a wild person). There was no way to assign all the jobs ahead of time because there was no telling who would finish which task when; each child needs to demonstrate responsibility and some modicum of good judgement to participate in whole class cooking activities. As it is, I sent three kids to take a break in the office because even with a timeout quick discussion with the whole group about this concept, three chose to goof around to an extreme. I am hopeful that as I better learn how to frame these cooking explorations, my students will also improve in this area.

We left the salsa wrapped up in the fridge for tomorrow. Students will have the option to help serving it tomorrow at lunch and I hope that at mid-morning snack, someone is willing to make a small sign naming our class as the producers of this fine salsa. Wednesday we'll also talk about how it felt to prepare food for others and then see them eat it.

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