ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald
Don’t let language teacher Joy O’Neil hear you say she’s teaching a cooking class.
She’ll correct you.
Cook to Learn Japanese is not about learning to cook. It is about cooking to learn.
On a recent evening, 10 eager boys were all over the Animas Grange kitchen, fanning rice, tossing noodles, rolling sushi and carrying platters of yaki soba. That night, their parents were guests at the last of four classes – a culinary show-and-tell that was more fun than a final and tastier than a piano recital.
But boys are boys, so aproned or not, there was lots of laughter, shouting and running about, as parents filed through the kitchen past a counter heaped with bottles of soy sauce, miso paste, rice vinegar and sesame seeds.
Colorful art, books and maps signaled to parents they were walking into a makeshift restaurant, tables draped with print cloths, rolled napkins and Japanese-style porcelain bowls and cups.
One of the lessons was about sustainability. No paper products made their way into the kitchen trash can. Instead, O’Neil, a former Montessori Spanish and Japanese teacher, hauled the authentic table settings back to her own kitchen to be washed and set aside for a future meal.
Another lesson – guests are seated firs
“Oi de!” O’Neil shouted, calling the boys to gather and share what they learned with their parents. “You are the hosts for your parents!”
The class is not just about kitchen culture and counting miso cubes to practice Japanese. O’Neil teaches etiquette, some cross-cultural and some specific to Japan, lessons she also has taught in an after-school program she started at Animas Valley Elementary School.
Cups were filled with pours of chai or green tea, beverages that the young waiters learned to make during the four-class program, which O’Neil hopes to expand.
“When you want a refill, hold your glass up,” one of the boys suggested to the parents seated and waiting for the performance to begin.
A second student shared more eating tips: “It’s OK to lift the bowls to your mouth – and you don’t have to use chopsticks to pick up your food.”
Slurping of noodles is OK, because this is Japan, where slurping – but not sucking – noodles is a custom. All the boys have notebook binders with recipes and hints on the customs associated with each of the foods.
Jai Fallows, son of Isa and Scott Fallows, never missed a class, his mother said.
“The cooking is just a vehicle to learn about the culture,” Isa Fallows said, describing how her son brims with enthusiasm after each class.
The boys do not roll maki without taking home serious skills they can use in their parents’ kitchens, Liv Mackenzie said.
“Ben had a sushi-making class for three friends at his July 7th birthday party,” Mackenzie said of her son. “He’s an artist, open to tradition, who appreciates the food of other cultures.”
Parents complimented the creamy goma dressing that was dispensed from a squeeze bottle to season a light cabbage and carrot salad. Recipes took the place of textbooks to offer vocabulary opportunities and a chance for students to use full phrases and sentences as they experimented with utensils including a rice cooker and a soy-milk maker.
Most recipes are basic, but with plenty of room for creative adaptation.
In the notes about how one can add daikon radishes, thin slices of pork, carrots or potatoes to the traditional tofu and miso Japanese soup base: “Nan de mo ii desu!!” (Anything is okay).
Cooperation, respect and tolerance are practiced and valued among class participants. Opportunities for leadership emerged during the after-dinner lesson, a simulated shopping trip that gave students a chance to talk with shopkeepers. The boys exchanged play “yen” for souvenirs sent from one of O’Neil’s contacts in Japan, where she and her husband studied and taught English.
Students earned their yen as rewards for completing homework and arriving to class ready to participate, O’Neil said. Later, they traded wrapped surprise packages of treats, purchased in the store simulation exercise.
Kitchen-based learning can happen anywhere there’s access to an affordable kitchen, O’Neil said, grateful to her community-minded neighbors at the Animas Grange.
“(Classes such as Cook to Learn Japanese) engage all the senses and include multiple ways of knowing, such as sensory and embodiment. It’s an approach to experiential learning – or learning by doing.”
ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald - DURANGO