Time to create your own Corona Cooking Club as families gather in kitchens

When the coronavirus melee fizzles, will we find our menus changed forever? Denied easy access to restaurant cuisine, evolving home cooks are trading in standard steak for Duck a la Orange. Preschoolers kneading homemade dough may never accept Wonder Bread sandwiches in those lunchboxes again. There’s even evidence of college-aged students having an epiphany: There’s more to dorm food than pizza!

During this time of social isolation and uncertainty, Tampa Bay residents are spending extra time in that fragrant spot full of possibility: the kitchen. Different age groups are turning virus lockdown into opportunities for culinary magic -- with a lesson or two thrown in for good measure. 

Wee cuisine

It’s a Monday in Tampa, and school is canceled because of the coronavirus. A different type of classroom experience is happening in Muller Elementary Magnet teacher Kallie Freiner’s kitchen, where she’s instructing her five-year-old to sort vibrant chopped peppers. 

“See,” she tells Teagin, who carefully arranges the vegetables by color, “We can do skip counting too; let’s separate them by fours.”

The two set a timer. Freiner, a veteran teacher, points out the minutes and seconds. Today’s goal: A pot of hard-boiled eggs. In between learning the new virtual requirements for her fifth-grade Muller students, she is embracing kitchen time with Teagin, a towhead who loves playing with textures and tastes. 

“There are so many opportunities to teach children through cooking,” Freiner says. 

She has plenty of advice for parents looking to do the same. Making cookies for friends? Double the recipe and teach multiplication. Compare amounts: Which is larger, 1/3 or 1 cup? Discuss heat as a form of energy. How does dough change into a loaf of bread? What happens when we add extra chocolate to a recipe? Spoiler alert: It’s likely always a good idea. 

Change a variable (is salt really necessary) and taste the outcome. For older children, Freiner suggests using baking and corresponding ingredient measurements to teach the four operations of fractions. Talking about the different types of changes (physical versus chemical, for example) can spark a dialogue.

Following directions is a solid skill to learn as well.

On my own home front, I gave my son, 11-year-old Fletcher, carte blanche to whip up a batch of stovetop play dough with one caveat: He had to do exactly what the recipe on Pinterest said. Fletcher cooks like his mother, meaning he’s always tossing ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’ into the batter and hoping for the best. His delight when the recipe actually yielded an impressive green blog was palpable.

“It worked! It actually worked!” I’m not sure who was more shocked: him or me. Lesson learned.

Also beneficial: A treatise regarding why we can’t devour the extra-chocolatey cookies for lunch. Cue a lesson surrounding nutritional recommendations. Examine MyPlate and discuss what foods fuel the body. Of course, take your child’s age and kitchen experience into account when supervising. Find suggested modifications here. 

“Overall, let them have fun,” Freiner says. “If they want to play with the dough or different ingredients, that’s great!

Home harvest

By the time kids head back to school, the tiny green tomatoes sprouting from the Thompson family’s St. Petersburg garden should be red and juicy. The Thompson girls, Paige and Haley, slipped seeds into the rich soil of the outdoor planters just before the social distancing mandates began. With the help of neighbor Lucy Hammond and friend Anna Renner, they carefully plotted the landscape of future cucumbers, peppers, lettuce and more.

“Teaching the kids where their food comes from is important,” says Jennifer Thompson, Paige and Haley’s mother. “This way, they can watch it sprout in real-time.”

Perhaps when the veggies are ripe, the girls will all sample them -- with a side of ranch dressing, of course.

Operation 'More than Ramen'

I remember tasting St. Petersburg resident Deann Coop’s blue cheese pecan balls at an event for the Museum of Fine Arts Food + Art Cookbook in 2015 and swooning. The self-taught cook’s Maytag delights were so memorable, I remember that salty/sweet tang a full half-decade later.

Today, Coop’s three boys are grown or nearly so -- and one, in particular, is following in his mother’s ‘cooksteps.’ The family enjoys cooking together. Brandon attends USF St. Petersburg; Connor is excited to move into an apartment near the Tampa campus at USF next year -- precisely because he wants to cook for himself. Fourteen-year-old Carson joins in on occasion.

The order to stay close to home has widened the menu scope for the Coop clan.

“We have plans to make homemade pasta as a family,” Coop says of their upcoming meals. “And my neighbor is going to give us a sourdough starter that we’re going to experiment with.”

Weekday menu experimentation

Throw the excuse 'I have no time' out the window, and it’s amazing what people will whip up. Randy Mason Lang finished the family’s marinated lamb with Dijon and Cotes du Rhone on the Green Egg smoker. Michelle Schorsch perfected the aforementioned Duck a la Orange.

“It’s nice not being so pressed for time and being able to focus on nourishing my family and making dinner a family time we look forward to,” Schorsch says.

Those choosing to stay home and flatten the curve are trying new recipes, like Ann Hathorn’s raspberry ricotta scones. I recently basted romaine hearts with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and put them not in the salad bowl, but on the grill. 

No, not every recipe is a winner. But for those who are taking the term social distancing as an opportunity to teach their children basic skills or to add more sophistication to the family culinary repertoire, this time may be viewed as well spent. And, in some cases, absolutely delicious.

Bon appetit, Corona Cooking Club.

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Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a freelance writer and author of children’s books that encourage the next generation to attend college. When not indoctrinating youth about the necessity of higher education, she enjoys exploring the paradise that is her St. Petersburg home. She holds a degree in Public Relations from the University of Florida and a Masters in Secondary English Education from the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in such venues as the Tampa Bay Times. Children’s Book Titles by Amy Hammond include: When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Gator; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a ‘Nole; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Bull; When I Grow Up, I’m Bama Bound; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Tiger.