It's only 11 a.m. but dinner preparations are well under way in Laura Burden's kitchen -- bells are ringing, water is running, vegetables are being rinsed, hamburger is cooking, pots are being stirred, cheese is being grated, tomatoes and onions are being chopped, and someone is doing a little dance. . .
What's most surprising, however, is not the hour, but the fact that all this activity is being generated by a group of kids. Six girls, ages 6 to 9, are deep into their third lesson in preparing family meals -- from choosing a menu, to setting the table, to kitchen safety, to cooking and cleaning up.
Under Ms. Burden's patient direction, the students in "Laura's Kidchen" learn how to buy chicken, what kitchen terms mean ("What does boiling mean? How can you tell if something's boiling? That's right, it has bubbles."), how to wash lettuce, peel garlic and chop tomatoes, how to stir liquids ("In a figure eight, remember? A figure eight."), how to serve and pass plates, how to eat in company. ("Close your mouth when you chew. No one wants to see that food.")
Along the way, the girls provide a little information, too, about such things as how pervasive convenience foods are (when Ms. Burden asked, "The best way to buy chicken is . . . ?" all six chorused, "Skinned and boned!"); and how to avoid the terror of monsters in the closet. ("I said, 'OK, you big fat hairy monster, your mother wears Army boots.' And he didn't come out. So it was OK.")
Throughout it all, Ms. Burden moves with the grace and precision of an orchestra conductor, adjusting a child's hand on the knife, reminding another to turn the handles of pots and pans, checking the progress of food in the oven. She is prepared for just about any eventuality: a broken plate; a sudden sick-out ("No dessert then, sweets are bad for sick tummies.") followed by a miraculous recovery; a scattering of corn flake crumbs on the floor; a pile of sea salt in the sink where three children tried to fill a 1/4 -teaspoon measure by hold-ing it under the salt grinder.
This is the last class session of the summer. Like all the summer sessions, it lasts a week, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday. The first class covers safety, table-setting and kitchen basics; the next four days include an activity. Every day has a different theme (among them, Italian, Hawaiian, Mexican, All-American, "Animal Day," a picnic). During the school year, classes are one day a week for 8 weeks, Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, or after school on Mondays or Tuesdays from 4:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. Sessions cost $110 per child. Even though the first class of each session covers the basics, children who take a class repeatedly will not get the same recipes. And, of course, each class concludes with a meal.
"What are we going to do with the food?" asks Meredith Suelau, 9, at the first class.
"We're going to eat it," says Ms. Burden.
"That's why we set the table," says Laura Waters, 6.
The menus are fairly sophisticated. The Mexican meal included shaped, baked taco shells with a chicken and kidney bean filling and half a dozen condiments to dress them, including salsa, lemon-limeade (made with ice and festively served in margarita glasses), and fried ice cream. There are printed recipes the kids can take home.
"I don't want to cook things I know they can do at home," Ms. Burden says, citing hotdogs, brownies and French toast among things youngsters commonly know how to make. "I give the kids recipes they can take home and fix for their parents. And the parents will like it." She explains that to the children: "Even if you don't like salsa, the people you'll be cooking for, your parents, they like salsa."
"You do it for them," says Kirsten Smith, 9.
"There are different ways I try to get them to think a little," Ms. Burden says. She tells them how recipes might be changed ("You could take the bean and chicken mixture and serve it over noodles. Or over rice."), how food can be stretched and how to make economical meals. ("Skinned and boned is the most expensive way to buy chicken. The best way to buy it is to buy a whole chicken and cut it up yourself. Does everyone know what a whole chicken looks like?")
She won't allow a child to refuse food without tasting it. "Always try your food before you decide if you like it or not. . . . You worked so hard to make it, don't you want to taste it?" she asks, reasonably, and they usually do. And she doesn't allow them to disparage food.
"Don't give me any of that, I don't like that," says Laura Suelau, 6, turning up her nose at the chicken and bean sauce that goes in the taco shells.
"How do you know?" Ms. Burden asks.
"I don't like tomato."
This is the chicken sauce, not the salsa, Ms. Burden tells her.
Natalie Waters, 9, breaks in, "There's no tomato in it."
Ms. Burden begins ladling sauce into Laura's bowl.
"Don't give me any beans," says Laura, "I hate them."