At the table, from left to right: Sophia Rose (assistant), Laura Miller (teacher), Naomi Michalson, Kailamae Sands, Merry Kalila Griffith-Stout, Matilde Aranda, and Capri Hall. Photos by Melissa Casado

Cooking is an Act of Kindness

A Teacher’s Story

By Laura E. Miller

The best cookbooks and recipes are messy: food-stained, dog-eared, drawn-on, and annotated. Cooks write all sorts of things on their recipes, like what substitutes they used when they didn’t have an ingredient, who they fed and when, what other dishes they served on the menu, and how everyone liked the meal. Cooks will even draw ideas for how to arrange the food on the plate.

Food brings people together and sets the stage for sharing thoughts and making or deepening friendships. Cooking for people is an act of kindness, and when you cook with others, you are a crew of kindness. It’s an event and a story. I hope you write about it sometimes.

This Kitchen Note was written for a group of eight young homeschoolers, all connected to Alameda’s Hickman Charter School, who recently came together for a cooking and social studies class called Global Eats. The eight two-hour sessions, held at the Berkeley Society of Friends meetinghouse, were occasions to cook together, eat together, and talk about food and family. The kids helped choose recipes. Other teachers assisted me with
the class. 

Merry Kalila and Kailamae pickle vegetables; Matilde enjoys an Ethiopean cabbage stew.

Half the kids have foreign-born parents—from Russia, the Philippines, Guatemala, and Mexico—so when I asked the students to bring their favorite recipes from home, I anticipated adventures into palates of other lands. As it turned out, we created our own world based on the realities of food allergies and time limitations. I also refused to turn the class into a dessert-baking course. The kids enjoyed making apple tarts and chocolate cupcakes, but seemed happiest on Valentine’s Day when we made a simple meal of lentil soup and cornbread, did napkin origami, set a gorgeous table, and sat together discussing dining etiquette and playing
conversation games.

The kitchen was not well stocked, so I hauled in equipment and ingredients each week, and sometimes we had to improvise, like when we juiced lemons with a fork or when Elizabeth Strain, the school’s office manager, borrowed baking powder from the gracious staff at the nearby Juice Bar. We omitted the mint from the pastitsio when it fell all over the floor, and we turned frijoles con todo into bean dip because the concoction was
too salty.

I often lay awake planning how to satiate a youngster’s sweet tooth while fostering healthy eating habits. I wondered if tracing the spice route would be dull. I worried that I’d forget something from my kitchen or the grocery store. I still worry about a student traumatized at an early age by gun violence: Yet, he loves to cook and to tell stories.

Naomi prepares butternut squash for roasting; Jackson Hartline, Matilde, Kailamae, and Michael Mazin prep vegetables.

I encouraged the kids to write because many of them were full of stories. They told stories at the kitchen counter while their hands were busy chopping, at the sink while scrubbing vegetables, and at the stove while stirring soup. But I saw little evidence that they were doing any writing other than scribbling notes on recipes.

As the class drew to a close, I put together memory books for the kids with all the recipes we used, short histories of some ingredients, a glossary of cooking terms, a list of sources, my Kitchen Note to encourage writing, and personalized photos. I hope they look at the books years from now, remember what fun they had together, and feel moved to put pen to paper.

Thank you, students, for being part of my crew. Cook on with love and courage!

Laura E. Miller is an Oakland-based writer, editor, and writing coach. Reach her at
laura(at)thosemillers.com.