Cooking days are good days. There's not much doubt about that for Jill Bopp, especially when she catches the reaction of her students as they are hit by the wafting aroma in her Family and Consumer Sciences classroom at Crews Lake Middle School.
"Oooh, it smells so good in here," 12-year-old Jarvis Brown said as he sidled up to the sink to wash his hands before embarking on his assignment for the day — preparing a dish of pasta and Italian meat sauce, or "gravy" as some Italian culinary connoisseurs might argue.
The making of the dish is a collaborative effort in Bopp's classroom, one that had Jarvis and classmates Steven Kipfer and Austin Postlethwaite, both 12, taking turns browning beef over a burner and mixing cans of tomato paste with garlic and shakes of oregano and basil while other students worked in separate kitchen stations on their own ethnic delights.
Also on the menu: Cuban sandwiches, chocolate chip layered cake and French crepes stuffed with blueberries, raspberries and strawberries all topped with a dollop of whipped cream.
When the cooking is done and the kitchen is cleaned well enough to meet Bopp's approval, the table is set with an eclectic offering, some of it created from scratch by seventh-graders who have spent the past weeks learning their way around a kitchen and, in a way, the world.
Then comes the enjoyment of sharing a student-made meal.
Quite an accomplishment.
Most students enter Bopp's classroom with scant culinary skills. An early indicator are the results of an exercise Bopp conducts at the beginning of the school year.
"Most of my students come in here not knowing how to measure ingredients," Bopp said. "So I ask them to go to one of the (kitchen) stations and bring me back a teaspoon. You would not believe how many of them go right to the silverware draw and come back with a regular spoon. But look how far they've come. Now we're just a few months in and they're already cooking from scratch."
Along the way, students are learning and putting to use other important skills.
"It's great — it's a learning experience, not just cooking," Jarvis said. "A lot of times you have to measure things, and sometimes we didn't and things didn't come out right."
That would be a little lesson in the workings of chemistry. And then there's all that math.
"The kids didn't realize that measuring (ingredients), or doubling or halving a recipe was math," Bopp said, adding that they also learn about kitchen safety, healthy food choices and food-borne illnesses as well as the various career opportunities in the culinary industry.
"I like it a lot," said Honesty Scott, 12, as she gingerly slid a newly made Cuban sandwich onto a panini press to heat up. "I'm learning how to cook, how to use sharp knives. And I'll be able to cook for myself in the future."
For the past month, students have been melding history and geography lessons with their culinary studies. They were required to research the cultural heritage of a foreign country to learn about the traditional food, music, art and festivals. They wrote research papers and gave oral reports on what they had learned. They also shared their knowledge with children in younger grades at the K-12 school, inviting kindergartners and first-graders to join them in drawing and coloring the flags of various countries.
"It's been really cool," Bopp said. "The minute I said we were going to do this project they were all excited."
The next project is for kids to learn more about where their food comes from with the creation of a kitchen garden that is being funded by a teaching grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The idea, Bopp said, is to install vertical grow towers to organically cultivate herbs and vegetables on the school campus, and then have students prepare and eat what is harvested.
"We're going to grow all kinds of stuff — fresh produce, fresh herbs," Bopp said. "It's going to be so much fun."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]