By Matt Benoit
Instructor Dorothy Hopkins said the idea came to her after seeing the film “Julie and Julia,” about food industry icon Julia Child.
“While contemplating the movie, I realized that the need for basic cooking skills is still apparent and that many in our culture are missing the value of preparing their own meals,” she said. “Preparing our own food helps us stay connected with ourselves, our family, and our community.”
So, Hopkins began offering a series of three cooking classes at the Cordata Community Food Co-op this fall, with priority given to Whatcom Community College students.
The classes cost $15, and I was fortunate enough to attend and, perhaps somewhat apprehensively—participate—in one of them.
The classes take place in the Roots room of the Co-op, a fairly spacious room located on the second floor of the building, and it is essentially contains a full kitchen. There are stacked plates on the counter next to the sink, a multi-burner stove covered with silver pots and pans reflecting the shine of the ceiling lights.
This particular class has few students, and when one of them fails to show, I become an involuntary participant. Today’s class will cover cutting, cooking, and safety techniques and the basics of shopping in bulk, all in preparation for the two-dish meal itself: buckwheat, potato, and spinach pilaf with a quinoa and black bean salad.
We begin the class in a normal, academic way, sitting around a rectangular table. Hopkins explains the basics of bulk shopping, including what a PLU means (price look-up), as well as advice on buying and keeping spices.
Next, Hopkins passes out recipes and other handouts, then instructs us to look at the course cookbook, “The Whole-Life Nutrition Cookbook.”
She explains what Quinoa is (an ancient Incan grain), adding that part of the focus of her classes is about experimenting with grain. At this point, I’m wondering if you can snort Quinoa or not.
Anyway, we now have to draw up a shopping list. Ashlynn Backus-Owen, a second-year WCC student working on a liberal studies degree, happily volunteers to do this.
Backus-Owen, 20, said she decided to take the classes because she simply didn’t know how to cook, possessing only baking skills. When she saw the classes advertised on a bulletin board at the college, she thought she would try it.
“I’ve always wanted to take a cooking class,” she says, adding that the fact there is more than one way to do things in cooking appeals to her. “I like the creative aspect,” she says, “mixing it up.”
Once she finishes writing up all the things we’ll need to buy (while hopefully staying on a budget of around $15, says Hopkins), we voyage downstairs and advance to the bulk section. Hopkins shows us the rows of rice, beans, lentils, salts, and other products just waiting to be scooped and poured into bags and containers.
She shows us the proper way to do this, and then shows us the ultra-cool liquid dispensers, which include maple syrup and olive oil, the latter of which we need. I get to hold the bottle, stick it underneath the pour spout, and push the magic button. While I’m doing this, I notice the big, red emergency shut-off button, no doubt there in case someone gets carried away with Vermont’s finest and sends it spraying everywhere.
We tackle the produce section next for limes, lemons, spinach, and red potatoes among other ingredients. At the checkout stand, our total comes to nearly $30. So much for the budget. Later though, Hopkins explains, we’ll have enough food for 12 servings, meaning you could eat off it for a week at $2.50 a meal.
Heading back upstairs, we go over basic kitchen safety. I’m told to remove the synthetic windbreaker I’m wearing because of it’s flammability factor—Hopkins shows us a small article from the Bellingham Herald in which women’s robes were recalled after 9 deaths occurred as a result of catching on fire; most of them were in the kitchen when it happened.
Fortunately, I don’t wear women’s robes, but, not wanting to have any chance at burning up like a gas-soaked rag, I remove my polyester jacket.
We divvy up responsibilities and go to work. I get to cut the potatoes, slice the lemons (which I accidently cut into slices instead of wedges), strain the Quinoa, check the potatoes, pour the potatoes, set timers, and generally try to stay the hell out of everyone else’s way.
Eventually, the food is cooked, and we sit down to enjoy it together. It is this sitting together for a meal, says Hopkins, that is so important. She cites the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, which created a family meal day after their research suggested that children who eat at home with their families a majority of nights during the week have lower rates of cigarette smoking, eating disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, and higher grades.
“Preparing and sharing meals creates relationships and relationships are what enrich our lives and make them worth living,” says Hopkins.
The food, I must admit, is better than I expected, and there is something about the pride of successfully cooking your own meals that make it taste just a little bit better.
For college students, Hopkins adds, the skill of cooking is a basic survival skill, especially in a world where cheap, fast food is seemingly everywhere.
“Our culture is relying on the fast food industry to nourish us, but our health is not in their best interest,” she says. “Fast food is notorious for having low nutritional value.
Our health in our later years is determined by what we eat now. When we select our ingredients for our recipes, we are taking charge of our health at a core level.”
Between the five of us, we don’t make much of a dent in the amount of food we’ve cooked. There are lots of leftovers. Hopkins sums up her impetus for the classes.
“Offering these cooking classes is my way of making the world a better place,” she says.
“This one small act has rippling effects. The students at WCC are just starting their adult lives. Soon, many of them will be marrying and starting families of their own. Their children will have to eat. If a student takes a beginning cooking class from me and is then able to prepare for his/her children healthy and nutritious meals from the start, those children will grow into the strong, happy, healthy adults we want the next generation to become. What a satisfying feeling to realize that by teaching someone how to use a knife and cook rice, I will have positively impacted another person 20 years later.”