Ask the children in my Garden to Table cooking and nutrition class why we gather together daily after school, while elsewhere in the city other kids are at home watching T.V. and hanging out with friends, and these ebullient third through fifth graders will shout with confident pride: “To get healthy, not skinny!”
For about a year, as part of the WellNest at the University of Texas Elementary School, 20 students have grown and maintained organic vegetable gardens, played games that were as much fun as MarioKart, learned about the MyPyramid groups and figured out how to read food labels. They also took away a few intangible values that should help them lead healthy, productive lives defined by good character and common sense — all while cooking their own snacks from whole grains, fruits and veggies. They just didn’t know it.
So when children’s cooking instructor and cookbook author Michelle Stern and I met at the White House last summer (we were among the chefs invited to join the First Lady’s launch of Chefs Move to Schools), and she invited Garden to Table to be part of a workshop she was planning, I jumped at the chance for these kids to show off their culinary smarts and mastery of some very basic life skills. Months later, when Bill Yosses, the White House Executive Pastry Chef agreed to join the event, my meeting Michelle seemed more than serendipitous — it was Heaven sent.
Garden to Table teaches this eager bunch that there are no good or bad foods and that balance and moderation are lifetime goals they should strive to achieve. I confess to them that I too was a fat kid with an insatiable sweet tooth. I didn’t exercise very much at all. And, yet today, I live a mostly healthy life, jogging or swimming daily, passing up foods that don’t really matter that much to me, and saving my calories for goodies that I really love — like Champagne and chocolate. We also learn to respect one another while practicing table etiquette.
The prospect of introducing them to the man whose baking talents make the President of the United States just as nervous about diet as they are was, well, delicious.
Last Spring, David Axelrod, Obama’s senior advisor, told Jay Leno that the President was forced to “separate” from the White House pastry chef to break his bad eating habits. The President’s “pie problem” story was reported in the Huffington Post.
“One of the things that happened when he came to the White House is they have a very great pastry chef. It became a big problem,” Axelrod confided on “The Tonight Show.”
President Obama isn’t the first president to be taunted by the cook’s pie. During his years in the Arkansas Governor’s mansion, President Clinton felt just the same — allured by chess pie. It was made by a woman whose image hangs in the Jemima Code’s gallery of great cooks, Liza Ashley, author of Thirty Years at the Mansion.
Growing up, Ashley developed a passion for cooking while she followed her grandmother around at work on Oldham Plantation where she was born. As she matured, habits of self-control, courtesy, confidence and time management blossomed. She even led a food service team that at one point relied on inmates to get the kitchen work done.
“Ashley is an historic figure,” wrote Bill, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton, in the Introduction to the Clinton White House edition of this Classic Cookbook of Recipes, Recollections, and Photographs from the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. “For three decades she has caused governors and their families to fight and lose battles of the bulge. Her years of service…have left their mark on history.”
Anyone who accepts the First Lady’s challenge knows that teaching kids cooking and nutrition can be rewarding and fun. It can also be a lot of work. There are bureaucracies to navigate. School budgets are limited. And, sometimes, the kids would just rather go home and play.
If Ashley could be with us on June 1 at the Kids in the Kitchen workshop, at a gathering of chefs (including Chef Bill) at the Texas State Capital, and at a fundraising Pie Social hosted by SANDE on June 4 that will honor women like Ashley, she would do more than esteem our dedication to improved lives; she would model it.
For information about Chefs Move to Schools at the Texas State Capitol, or the Kids in the Kitchen cooking workshop at the University of Texas Elementary School and Whole Foods Market, check out the Conference highlights at iacp.com.
To learn about The SANDE Youth Project’s preservation project and Peace through Pie, our fundraising social and Juneteenth celebration, see the events listing at: thesandeyouthproject.org.
Bill Clinton’s Favorite Lemon Chess Pie
1/2 cup butter or margarine
2 cups sugar
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
Grated zest of 3 lemons
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and milk. Beat well. With mixer running, add flour and cornmeal, alternating with lemon juice. Beat in lemon zest. Pour filling into pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes, or until center is set.
Number of servings: 8