GASTROLITERACY: Food For Thought

gastroliteracy

Ross School teaches from farm to table.

Da Vinci’s Kitchen, Taste of Romania, The Pizza Cookbook, The Art of Dining, A Passion for Vegetables and Classic Indian Cooking. These are just a few of the books that line the bookshelves as you enter the Treetop Café at Ross School in East Hampton. The Café, under the supervision of Liz Dobbs, chef de cuisine, serves 420 meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) to 347 upper-school students, their teachers (yes, they eat together) and staff. No shoes allowed. It’s quieter than a typical lunchroom. There’s Fiestaware and there’s also clear-your-plate composting. Photographs on the wall above the composting station show where your leftover lunch is going: back to Quail Hill Farm, where quite a few of those lunch ingredients were grown. “And then it comes back and you are eating it again,” says Marie Smith as she flies by, ministering to the dining room. The cycle of life in a nutshell.

Back in the dining room, there’s a reminder on a big board that changes daily. Waste Watch: 48 pounds of food disowned today. “The verb changes,” Dobbs tells me as we tour the dining room, which indeed is like a treetop, a very elegant one, or to my mind a burnished teak boat suspended in the sky. “The food left over on any given day
has also been ‘thrown away,’ ‘forsaken,’ ‘deep-sixed,’ ‘lost,’ ‘chucked,’ ‘dispensed’ and ‘relinquished.’ ” Oh, the power of a verb. In this dining room there is indeed, “respect for food, that things don’t just go away,” as Dobbs completes her thought. “Although on pizza day, it’s usually only 18 pounds,” she adds as a postscript. The school’s lunch menu on this particular day (printed and presented daily on top of those nicely lined bookshelves) offers chicken soup, a farmers market salad bar, maque choux bean stew, tempeh with teriyaki sauce and side dishes of roasted eggplant, sautéed greens and brown rice.

These are not the white on white chicken a la king days of our childhoods. The Treetop Café kitchen (with a staff of 15), sources food primarily from local providers: Quail Hill, Early Girl Farms, Satur Farms, Golden Earthworm, Balsam and Wesnofske, to name a few. The kitchen preps and freezes local corn and other produce for use in the winter and this past fall processed 3,000 pounds of local tomatoes into sauce.

The Café and its kitchen is a classroom, not only in its etiquette, its conscious diners, but in its inclusion into Ross School’s curriculum, which is organized around an integrated view of cultural history. Each year, students study thematically linked periods of history starting with Neolithic, Indus Valley civilizations, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, on up to the present day era of Globalization. And what explorations into the world of culture, agriculture and food history does Dobbs’s kitchen dream up to escort the students from 3500 BC to 2009 AD? Students cook with wild grains (the actual crops of the Fertile Crescent), watch yeast grow, knead it into baked bread, cook a Roman menu of gnocchi with pesto and a sage sauce and make foods from Crete (omelets, frittatas,
tzatziki). They study the Mayans’ contribution to astronomy, math and sciences, but also their myriad uses of corn. “The Mayans worshiped, cultivated and mastered corn,” says Dobbs. (More on the glories of the tamale, soon.) In Dobbs’s kitchen, food is agriculture and nutrition, but also fodder for understanding culture, gender, politics, nationality, religion and class. That’s quite a hot lunch.

Ross School’s commitment to integrated learning starts early, right in the four beautifully raised beds of the lower school’s organic garden, currently over-wintering with a cover crop of rye. Six-foot-tall milkweeds provide a backdrop to this bucolic spot in Bridgehampton on Butter Lane, as well as an invitation to Monarch butterflies
to be fruitful and multiply. The garden produces snap peas, turnips, summer squash, zucchini, early lettuce and late green beans, and can be found tucked away behind the school’s main building (a nice old barn), the sheds where Pancho the donkey and Cisco the pony live, and the other barnyard domiciles, Picasso’s pig pen and the rabbit hutch. Things are growing all over on Butter Lane.

One hundred of the 140 students in the lower school spend time in the garden, planting, weeding and learning about growing cycles and why rye is a good cover crop (and what exactly is a cover crop). They are also responsible for the care of Pancho and Cisco and their friends. The school’s literature says, “The emphasis in kindergarten through fourth grade is on hands-on, real-life learning experiences that allow students to connect to the natural world and their local community while learning about the rest of the globe.” When Elka Rifkin (director of lower school) and Kimberly Borsack (science teacher) talk about putting these words into action, their enthusiasm is boundless, their ideas bountiful, their commitment joyful. “Working in the garden, they see the process, the problems, ” says Borsack.
“They see the plants grow, they see the weeds, they learn what to do.” “Ideas that start out in the lab become real in the garden,” Rifkin adds. “The four elements? What better place to learn about air, water, heat and earth than in a garden?” And then there’s the Lasagna Garden where, under the supervision of Borsack, students create a six-by-six-foot lasagna in the science lab, composed of alternating layers of old newspaper, peat moss and organic material. If you had a peach for lunch, you can pop your pit in the soil and watch it grow. The produce grown in the organic garden out back is distributed to local food pantries. These young students have even been known to propose new recycling projects directly to fellow classmates at weekly assemblies, without teacher translation or intervention.

“Potatoes, Potatoes, Potatoes!” The cries of happy fifth-graders ring out across the long field at Quail Hill Farm, where they are harvesting little golden spuds under the beneficent eye of Scott Chaskey, his field workers and their cultural history teacher, Barbara Raeder. This morning is all about taking the room out of the classroom, seeing cultural history “in the field.” Raeder’s class is studying the history of East Hampton, its maps, indigenous tribes, the first
settlers, their farming practices, up to the present moment, which finds students picking potatoes in a field that has probably seen one crop or another since the 1600s. We cheer as the students get their hands (one set of hot pink fingernails) in the dirt and pull up small beautiful spuds, tossing them into large green buckets. It’s like mining
for gold. Actually, they do turn up a pearl necklace (faux), and small frog (plastic) and deer bones (calcified), along with quite a few pounds of potatoes. One picker, named Henry, tells me he likes to “boil potatoes, then take them out and eat them with some salt and pepper.” Another picker, Angelo, says he likes to “wash them, put them on the grill, then add salt and pepper and eat them.” Two good simple recipes. And, yes, these potatoes will find their way
back to the Treetop Café. In addition, Raeder says, “they are learning how to relate to nature in a different way. This is not nature as seen on a hiking trail, this is nature at work.”

And sometimes nature doesn’t work. Touring Quail Hill, one student wants to know why one row of edamame is dead while its fellow row is lively and productive. Vivian Stein, our tour guide, tells the student, “We don’t spray, we don’t use pesticides, so some crops do well, others don’t. There are organic solutions, but they don’t
always work.” Sometimes life thrives, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s quite a lesson right there, and there’s lots to be said for spending time in the fields picking potatoes rather than looking at pictures of them in a textbook. During the tour, students stop to pick raspberries: “I like them because they are both sweet and sour AND juicy,”
one explains. They see the compost tallied under Waste Watch back in the Treetop Café. They ponder chickens. They point at beehives, and one asks, “I wonder what it would be like to be right IN the hive?” They finish the morning by sampling watermelon radishes (“Definitely sweet at the beginning, then not.”) Learning about a
few of the 300 different varieties of fruits and vegetables grown at Quail Hill has made one student get to thinking about lunch. “I’m so hungry,” he says, “I think I could eat a salad.”

Which brings us full circle back to the Treetop Café and the tamale. The Mayan Day celebration at Ross is around the corner, and there are tamales to be made. Liz Dobbs has set a long table out for the students. Corn husks, masa, cooked corn, chipotle and ancho chiles, sweet potato masa and bowls of raisins soaked in honey adorn the table. But first a few questions from the chef. What is a staple food? What was the significance of corn in the Mayan culture? What does the word sustainable mean? What were the diverse uses of corn in Mayan society? Why do cultures dry food? Which one is the mortar, which one is the pestle? These bright seventh-graders roll their masa into small balls, flatten them and add corn, or for the sweet tamales, roll the sweet potato masa in with honey-soaked raisins. They pack them into corn-husk parcels and tie them up, some trim, some not. The tamales end up looking just like the students, all different, all charming. Juan Ruiz, tamale maker supreme, tells tales of his grandmother
making tamales on her knees using a griddle. Tamales are made, tortillas are tossed and we learn the meaning of a tamalade: it’s a “tamale-making party.” We have just attended one. Last question from Dobbs, “Who could do this for another eight hours?” No takers.

Ensalada de quinoa, aguagate y frijoles negros and tacos de maiz con cebello, chile dulce y maiz (avocado, quinoa and black bean salad and corn tacos with onions, pepper and corn). These dishes top the menu for Mayan Day. The Treetop Café is decorated with Mayan art and Mayan mugs, all made by the seventh-graders. There are glyphs of the nine Mayan gods and Mayan maps. There are all things Mayan, but mostly there are students loading up their lunch trays, talking, laughing and eating the way students do. I should mention that no one can graduate from Ross School without being able to plan and cook a healthy meal.

Miranda Beeson is a poet and writes from her home in Greenport.

Newsletter