When was the last time you watched a bunch of three- and four-year-olds cook? I got the chance to do just that a couple of mornings last week, when I accompanied Kingston to the Outback Farm, a five-acre place of wonderment (wooded wetlands! chickens! bees! apple trees! an amphiteatre!) located on the Western Washington University campus.
It was the first week of Spring Break and I had signed Kingston up for one of the camps being run at The Outback by Common Threads Farm, an organization here in town that provides seed to table education for kids.
On Monday morning, Cassidy was waiting for us with a pile of felt hearts which had the kids' names written on them. After matching the correct heart to each child, everyone walked together down a narrow path leading to a small valley. There, the kids were introduced to various herbs and tender greens such as lemon balm, mint and mouth-puckering sorrel. They touched and picked, sniffed and tasted. Along the way, they also discovered plenty of earthworms and leopard slugs, to everyone's delight.
I will admit it: I loved it. Joining in, I felt like a child again. We got to stomp over little bridges. Pluck leaves from last year's plants, taste honey from Michael the Bee Keeper's apiary on the farm. What could be better than that?
Watching the teachers and kids cooking together at a picnic table was one of my favorite experiences. When I make food with Kingston at home, we typically end up with huge messes, flour and stickiness everywhere. Though I chalk it up to being part of the fun, it's the opposite of that when it comes to clean up. I can end up getting anxious, or dare I say, controlling, like when I take a breath then say, "Keep everything in the bowl when you stir!"
But what can you expect when you cook with a preschooler? They're going to stir with enthusiasm. They squish stuff together with joy. Because that's how they roll, as Kingston's dad says.
These teachers! Annika was especially kind and generous with them. I watched as she and the other "big friends" helped the kids take turns in different kitchen roles. Annika guided the kids through using a mortar and pestle to mash chickpeas, tahini, olive oil and a little salt. The result? A simple, rustic hummus. At the other end of the table, another group used peelers to make strips of cucumbers and rainbow carrots. Then, they took turns going to pick their own kale leaves before coming back to put everything together into healthy and delicious wraps.
It was surprisngly inspiring. I went home wanting to make good, flavorful food without worrying about whether we were following our recipe "correctly," or if a dish had enough salt. In the end, you can adjust as you go or when it's close to the finish. You clean up together, simple as that.
Watching the kids cook on the farm reminded me that making food should be above all, a joyful experience, one where everyone takes part and the meal is eaten together. That's exactly what the teachers taught the children. In doing so, they also helped them to make real meaning out of the process of cooking -- a profound lesson, through and through.
Back at home, Kingston and I ended up "freestyling" some simple snacks and dishes this week. I let go of my worries about making a mess and embraced the simplicity of joining together through food. It was fun and a way to expand on what the Common Threads teachers had so open-heartedly taught and shared with us.
Our gratitude to them: Annika, Abby, Alexa, Cassidy, Connor, Jaden, Jessie and Sarah, as well as Michael the Bee Keeper and others we didn't meet who made the week possible. You guys rock.
Freestyle Trail Mix
Use equal parts of each ingredient, or more or less as you see fit. Hate peanuts? Use almonds. Don't like cranberries? Try another dried fruit that has some tartness, maybe cherries. This is the version that we ended up liking most but improvise as you will. The main thing to remember is it's nice to have a bit of saltiness, sweetness, tartness and (for me) chocolate richness. The way it balances out is up to you. The other thing to keep in mind is that if you are eating this while out and about, it's better to have ingredients that aren't too small. You want to be able to pick each piece up between your fingers (so for me, no tiny seeds). That's my preference, anyway.
Makes as much as you want. Just adjust quantities.
Roasted and lightly salted peanuts
Golden raisins (sultanas)
Raw pumpkin seeds
*other optional add-ins: coconut flakes, sunflower seeds, almonds, banana chips, etc.
Mix ingredients together. Pack into an airtight container. Take this on walks, hikes or put some in your lunch box. Don't forget to laugh and hold your face up to the sun.