From Farm to Food: The Life of a Strawberry Pie and Other Delicious Dishes
by Christel Greiner, Carolina Friends School
Kids love to eat. Most kids even love to cook, when you give them the chance. At Carolina Friends Middle School, we offer mini-courses each spring, called Exploratorium. I wanted to offer an Exploratorium based on the benefits of eating local foods. In the end it was a perfect union of exploratory learning, hands on experiences, and in-depth study of food culture, sustainability, and local economy. The students ended the Exploratorium begging for more. They asked us to teach a year-long course and, most definitely, teach the Exploratorium again next spring. They were invested and excited, my favorite combination when working with Middle School students.
In order to teach a “Farm to Food” Exploratorium, I began by considering what was in season and available locally. Rachel, my great friend and guest teacher for the week, and I thought about our resources. I knew the Exploratorium would be held at the end of May, prime time for strawberries here in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Maple View Farm, a beloved Dairy, could supply us with milk, cream, butter, eggs, and of course, ice cream. Chapel Hill Creamery and Celebrity Dairy could provide a variety of delicious cheeses. We knew our local farmers market would carry a range of spring vegetables; onions, garlic, scallions, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, spinach, arugula, and maybe even a zucchini or two. We could find flour and grains from Lindley Mills, a local organic mill. Herbs and spices would also be available locally, in our own gardens. We knew we could make at least a quiche and a strawberry pie. We’d also let the kids generate some ideas for dishes based on what we found throughout the week.
I knew that I wanted the kids to gain an appreciation for eating fresh, local foods. Not only is it good for our local economy and sustainability, it’s also healthier. We worked backwards. On the first day of the Exploratorium, I brought in, for their eating pleasure, two frozen strawberry pies from the local grocery store. We ate the pies. The kids liked them. Rachel and I didn’t finish our portions. I tasted artificial strawberry and that’s about it. I asked the kids to list the ingredients they thought would be in the pies. This is where things got interesting and kicked off a great week. The students listed the main ingredients: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, strawberries, etc. They missed about 25 different ingredients, none of which I expected them to guess since they sounded more like a chemistry exam than an edible dessert. The preservatives were vast tongue twisters. When they heard each one read aloud, the students began to see why this pie, maybe, wasn’t quite as good as they had thought. Our next step was investigation. In pairs, students used a laptop to research an ingredient from the list of “I have no idea what this is”. The results were amazing. Kids found that their sweet, juicy strawberry pie had chemicals most often found in makeup and prosthetics, as well as preservatives which, if left standing in large enough quantities at room temperature, would spontaneously boil. Yum.
After that morning, the kids were hooked.
Throughout the week, we had two running themes. The first was to visit local farms, gardens, and markets to see where our food comes from and meet the folks who work those farms and gardens. The second theme was to prepare a feast of local food on our final day. We developed a menu of chilled carrot soup, vegetable quiche, strawberry popsicles, a Moroccan feta and mint salad, garden salad, homemade baked bread with hand-whipped butter, and of course, strawberry pie with homemade whipped cream. Our menu became so big that we feasted both Thursday and Friday for lunch. We also decided that we should plan to make two strawberry pies. We had a feeling they were going to be really good.
Throughout our week the visits to the local farms became a highlight for the kids. They were emerged in an environment for experiential learning. They asked big questions and developed a sense of appreciation for the work that goes into the hamburgers they eat for dinner. On Monday afternoon we visited the dairy. Maple View Farms consists of acres and acres of family owned farmland. Students toured the farm and petted the cows that would soon give the milk for their favorite ice cream flavors. On Tuesday we visited Fickle Creek Farms, a local farm that uses their livestock to till the land, fertilize, and pack the soil for vegetable farming. Fickle Creek Farms is as close to fully sustainable as you can get. Using rotational grazing, agro-forestry, nutrient cycling, and biodiesel fuel they are passionate about organic farming “off the grid”. On Wednesday we visited Pickards Mountain, an eco-institute specializing in teaching students of all ages, pre-school through college, about sustainability and gardening. At Pickards Mountain the students milked a goat, held chickens, picked strawberries, and explored the student-friendly gardens. The day began with our facilitator for the day, Margaret Krome-Lukens, asking the students why this was important to study. The student’s answers ranged from health and their parents’ poor eating habits, to a desire for a more sustainable planet. Some students were already beginning to question food justice, and the availability of food to folks who can’t afford fresh, local ingredients. I heard depth and maturity in their responses, as well as an air of leadership and importance. Hearing these twelve adolescents in the middle of their experience gave me tremendous hope for our shared future. Wednesday after school was an optional field trip to the farmers market to buy produce. My friend Rachel and I drove 8 kids who were excited to go food shopping. Imagine that. Our field trips concluded on Thursday morning with a trip to Waller Farm, a u-pick strawberry patch less than four miles away from our school. The kids happily ate almost as many berries as they picked. Local and delicious.
Our week concluded with, of course, the feast. Students teamed up to prepare each dish. The kitchen was busy with cream being whipped, crusts being rolled, vegetables being chopped, and bread beginning to rise. We needed to use just a few ingredients that couldn’t be found locally: olive oil, brewer’s yeast for the bread, cornstarch, salt, and pepper. Aside from those five, all ingredients came from less than 30 miles away. When we sat down to eat our Strawberry Pie on Friday, we dished out each massive slice. We waited for the moment when we would all take our first bite together. The anticipation looking at the perfect balance of fresh cooked strawberries, fluffy whipped cream, and a golden homemade crust was almost too much to bear. Just as we were about to dig in, Rachel said, “Wait! Before you take a bite I want each of you to think about that frozen grocery store pie we ate on Monday.” The kids erupted with disbelief at how just a few days ago they had no idea how good a pie could be. Finally, we took our first, big bite. A collective mmm… of satisfaction hummed around our circle.