Imagine, if you will, an improvisation spectacle or performance in which everything that could ever go wrong usually does and where (usually) capable adult hands are replaced by the jittery fingers of a 6 year-old who is more concentrated on establishing her role as Chief Gossiper than on her role as Onion Dicer. Bienvenue to Camp Cooking Classes Summer 2013, or the Summer of Culinary Wizardry and Mayhem.
Over the span of eight weeks, I taught various cooking classes to campers whose skills ranged from not understanding the concept of wiping down a table to saucière extraordinaire. At times, I was in genuine awe of the remarkable capabilities of a ten-year-old to conceive of a reverse cookie from a mosaic he had seen on the way to class or the concoction of a savory stew made from random ingredients pulled from the depths of the supply cabinets. Other times, I found myself left with a sink full of dishes and only a modicum of patience to spare.
More often than not, I found myself in the role of culinary circus director, grabbing ghost pepper out of devious little fingers that just wanted “to put one more drop in please, please, please!” Ghost pepper, mind you, is one of the hottest spices in the world: your mouth will burn, your taste buds will holler incessantly, and you will end the whole debacle by drinking at least half a gallon of milk in an attempt to douse the sensory pain of self-mutilation and to quaff your un-quaffable thirst. Of course there was that one 11-year old boy who snuck by my peripheral vision and added a dash of ghost pepper to a ghastly concoction-of-a-smoothie that almost slayed everyone’s digestive systems. But after that I hid the ghost pepper behind some spoiled milk in the fridge and that was the last of that ghastly sauce.
Curiously, and thankfully, I only had to deal with one finger-scathing incident all of those eight weeks. And compared to my own past cooking blunders, which include, among other things, burning my hand in a 400 degree oven, spilling boiling hot water on the same hand, and almost slicing my thumb nail off while chopping watermelon, the minor scratch on one camper’s finger was blessedly and miraculously cured with a small Band-Aid and a big hug.
Overall though, the campers had the bizarre power of observing and saying things that most grown-ups would never say, or might just be too tall and entrenched in their day-to-day lives and would therefore never notice, in a million years. Take Alexii for example, an 11-year old camper from Russia who has a mild to severe sugar addiction as well as a penchant for fortune telling:
One day he announced to me, “Well, I am just going to grow-up and eat all of the pastries and there will be none left in the world but you will make all of them for me because you will be living in Parees and will be making lots and lots of pastries just for me, and maybe the llamas too because I like llamas and they get really hungry and in my country, there are no llamas so I need to bring one with me as a pet and I think they’d really like pastries, especially Nutella.”
And so he walked away with a bounce in his step, confident that someday in his future, I would be leading his own personal cohort of Parisian-trained pastry chefs alongside a whole caravan of wooly llamas. I had enough restraint to not break his heart completely and started guffawing only a few moments after he left and was slightly out of sight. But realistically, it’s a future that made me walk away a few moments later with a bounce in my own step as well.
Mishaps and adventures aside, the campers were, in general and for the most part, small bundles of joy who relished their time concocting creations in the kitchen. Their faces would light up with pride at the end of class as they dipped their forks into their projects: they had created this, they were the ones who conjured up, as if they were pulling ingredients from the clouds, these mysterious delicacies that made us all giggle and hoot and holler with delight and/or disgust at the end of the hour.
In all honesty, I ended up learning more from them than they did from me. They reminded me of the moments when I would blanket everything around me in a huge mess in the name of Creativity, with the only repercussion being that I had to clean it up at the end. They also reminded me of the necessity of doing things just for fun; they taught me the meaning of improvisation not only in the kitchen, but also in my day-to-day life. So carpe diem as those old guys would say, and doo-wop-wop as my campers would say, dancing off into their cabins. Carpe-wop-wop and à la prochaine.