ST. LOUIS — The food was Asian. The hands that made it were small.
Fontbonne University’s Camp F.R.E.S.H. — that’s Family, Recreation, Education, Sharing, Health — is a way for children from fourth through seventh grades to learn about the people and culture in other lands.
It’s a summer camp, so naturally they have fun while they learn. And part of that fun is cooking.
A few weeks ago, the 20 or so day campers were learning about Asia (each of the four weeks was devoted to a different continent; the campers could attend anywhere from one to all four weeks).
They played a Chinese outdoor came called Moon Cake, learned Indian and Chinese folk dances and made koi fish watercolors in arts and crafts.
Lunch throughout the week reflected the cuisine of countries throughout the continent: Chicken banh mi sandwiches from Vietnam, rendered into kid-friendly sloppy joes; ramen noodle bowls from Japan; butter chicken, naan and tandoori roast vegetables from India.
Tuesday was China’s day, mostly. The kids feasted on beef stir fry, baked tofu nuggets and rainbow-colored spring rolls with a spicy dipping sauce.
And they made it all themselves.
They had supervisory help, of course, in the form of Chef April (April Dalton, who teaches family and consumer science — what we used to call home ec — at Ladue High School), Chef Mariah (Mariah Singler, a junior in the dietitian program at Fontbonne) and Mr. Issac (Isaac Cherry, a local musician and music teacher at Gateway Science Academy South).
But the prep work and cooking was done by the children, from the chopping (with real knives for the youngsters who can work with them) to the stir-frying to the rolling up of the spring rolls.
Kelsea McBride, 12, was given the task of slicing, then cubing five pounds of top round for the beef stir fry. She quickly discovered that it was harder than it looks.
“My dad usually cuts it,” she said, adding that she had a newfound appreciation for the work he puts into cooking.
One of 11-year-old Nylah Saffold’s jobs was to cut bell peppers into thin julienne slices. She demonstrated proper knife protocol, conscientiously holding it at her side with the blade facing back while walking.
They were taught how to do that, she said, “in case somebody turns and so you don’t poke them with the knife.”
Meanwhile, Adela Gingrich, 11, was struggling with two mangoes. Between the thick skin and the oddly shaped pit that the fruit stubbornly adheres to, mangoes can be the most frustrating of fruits. But she persevered and managed to produce plenty of mango to enhance the spring rolls.
Melia Saffold (she’s Nylah’s sister) has done some cooking in her nine years, including sweets, eggs, bacon and waffles. But she couldn’t quite identify what was in the sauce she was stirring on the stove.
“I don’t know what it smells like,” she said. “It smells a little sweet, like the sauce they put on orange chicken, but a little different,” she said.
She was right on the money. Made from hoisin sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, rice vinegar and other ingredients, the sauce needed only orange peel to be perfect for orange chicken.
Zack Killion, 11, handled several jobs in the kitchen. He was excited to try lunch: “I’ve never had most of this stuff, but I love Asian food,” he said.
The meal was a success with (most of) the children. Sloan Gingrich, 9, was particularly taken with the baked tofu nuggets.
“It was the first time I ever tried tofu in my entire life,” she said.
But not everyone was as happy with the results. Throwing away most of the food on her plate, Kelsea McBride said, “That’s the only bad thing about kids cooking. Sometimes they overcook or undercook things.”