Caution! Kids in the kitchen!

by Zehorit Heilicher, Tastemaker in Residence

Cooking with twelve 14 year olds for a week at an overnight camp may sound like a prison sentence to some. But imagine the beautiful setting of the Wisconsin North Woods: pristine lake dotted with sale boats, green acreage strewn with cabins, a spacious dining room humming with young voices and sports fields ringing with the crack of a bat, the swing of a racket and the kick of a ball. What summer is all about! How do you enhance that? Maybe – learn how to cook? That’s where I come in!

Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is a Jewish summer camp, affiliated with the Conservative movement. I had been entrusted with informing young minds and expanding their culinary horizons for one deliciously exhausting week. We embarked on a culinary tour of the diverse Jewish communities around the world, their food and culture. The following is a sample of our days. Beginning with the Middle East, we made hummus, fresh pita, Israeli salad and even a babka from scratch – a wonderful chocolate filled yeasted cake. We then moved on to the Balkans and learned about feta cheese and Baharat spice mix. On the menu for that day were cheese and spinach Bourekas (similar to savory turnovers), eggplant and pepper tomato-side dish and Kurbietes (Greek cookies). Our next stop was North Africa where we simmered H’raimee – a spicy Moroccan fish, created fluffy couscous and doughy S’finge, a Moroccan sugary yeast doughnut. Are we salivating yet? And remember – these are 14 year olds!

So, they did learn how to sauté, chop, work with yeast, handle fish, be careful around hot oil – all valuable and useful skills, right? But the learning does go deeper. Campers who belong to different social groups had to work together: deciphering a recipe, assigning roles, following through and cleaning up. They were allowed to fail, try again and learn. Barriers were broken and the shared experience created an avenue for discourse and acceptance. One of the participants came from a special needs program at camp – he was treated with respect, was assigned jobs and was heard and appreciated. And last – cleaning up is a major part of cooking – messy, sticky and repetitive. Welcome to the working life, kids! All had to clean up, wash the dishes and wipe the counters. Water pitchers needed to be filled and the buffet needed to be laid out. NO ONE was allowed to eat until all was done. (Surprising how fast it all got done!)

The goal was a culinary workshop, right? However, though cooking is a very important life skill, the experience went far beyond, which is what I love about this experience. Yes, camp is about fun, but there are opportunities for learning respect, work ethics, compassion and perseverance. Along the way, what we build is community.