Days Of Taste

by John Shields

When I conjure a mental image of Our Common Table, I see friends and family, a whole gamut of ages and faces and backgrounds, gathered around a long beautiful table. Here we sit, forks in hand, glasses raised—stories are shared and the talk always comes back, again and again, to the food we enjoy together. It is not mindless chatter, but rather a mindful appreciation for the food of the season.

When I was a kid, the food talk at the table always intrigued me. My grandmother and aunts and uncles might talk about where the pork for the evening came from—usually from Uncle Charlie’s farm in Baltimore County. Another evening they might be excited about the succulent fried oysters—brought back from the eastern shore that very day. 

Sadly, for many children now growing up, such stories and the enjoyment of the flavors of seasonal local food are missing at their family table. In fact, often there are no family tables—just eating on the run, or in front of the television or computer. A lot of children have no taste recognition of a fresh piece of asparagus or a just-picked ear of sweet corn. Too often there is no connection made at all between the take-out, or pre-packaged fare, and the real source of our food.

Luckily, Days of Taste, is addressing this deteriorating state of the family meal and the resulting lack of understanding of what is real food. Days of Taste is a community outreach program of The American Institute of Wine & Food (a national not-for-profit founded by Julia Child, Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff). The AIWF’s Days of Taste was launched in New York City in 1995, and modeled upon a program developed by a group of French chefs who were horrified by the junk food children were eating. Last year, Days of Taste was presented in about 12 cities across the country by AIWF chapters participating in San Diego, San Francisco, Miami, Dallas, NYC, DC, Baltimore, Dayton, Milwaukee and others.

The first Days of Taste was held here in 1998, when Riva Kahn, Cynthia Glover, and Ned Atwater kicked off the project at St. James Academy. Riva is now the National Chair of Days of Taste and she continues as coordinator of the Days of Taste program in Maryland, keeping it running and on track.

Riva recounts that when they first approached local public schools, “They did not want us since they feared anything from a group with “wine” in their name. Betty Legenhausen, the head mistress of St. James, was on the Baltimore AIWF board, so she said we could do a pilot program at her school.” Once they’d proven how positive the program really was, Joan Cohen, of the Baltimore City school system, embraced the project.

Eleven years later, two dozen chefs, countless volunteers and thousands of children later, they embark on yet another season of introducing kids to the wonderful world of fresh, healthy food. In 2008, Days of Taste was taken to 15 elementary schools in Baltimore City and County, reaching about 1000 kids total. This year 16-18 schools are scheduled to participate, including expanding to at least one school in Howard County.

Last fall, I was able to experience Days of Taste first hand. A typical Days of Taste class experience occurs over a three-week period where we volunteer one morning each week and work with the students. The morning I arrived at Mt. Washington Elementary, for day one, I was feeling a bit timid and unsure of where to go—sort of like my very first day in school…I walked the halls past rows of lockers a little lost but eventually I found my classroom. Riva and her band of volunteers were already there, busy preparing little tasting cups containing all sorts of food, encompassing tastes from bitter to sweet to sour and salty.

After Riva introduced us all and explained the program, we handed out the tasting cups. Riva gave an overview of different tastes while making a drawing on the chalkboard of a tongue. Then the kids were told to try a taste from each cup and shout out what they tasted. The idea is for the kids to articulate the tastes they were experiencing and locate exactly where on the tongue that taste was experienced. It was a riot! The bitter tastes had them all screaming and making dreadful faces. When they encountered a pleasantly refreshing or sweet sensation, smiles lit up the room.

Day two involves a field trip (literally), to One Straw Farm in Baltimore County, the largest organic farm in Maryland. Here farmer Joan Norman, enthusiastically guides the kids (children, not goats that is…) around the farm. It’s a day of discovery and awe for these children; most have never visited a farm, or seen where food comes from. Joan gets the kids to pick and sample fresh lettuces and greens and shows how crops are planted and how they will be harvested. Joan insists, “You need to try a food at least TWO times before you decide you don’t like it.”

On day three we get to the final classroom lesson, preparing a salad from some of the food the kids have seen growing at Joan’s farm. Bowls, utensils, plates and forks are handed out. The magic then begins. It takes some stern looks from the teachers to keep the kids restrained from diving right into preparation. We need to do it one step at a time. No bottled dressing here! A tasty, yet simple, vinaigrette is made from olive oil, a little honey and the juice of fresh lemons. Stirring and mixing is an energetic affair, everyone wanting to get in on the action.

Lettuce and sliced veggies are placed into larger mixing bowls. Dressing is poured in and wildly tossed. Voila! A real, totally from scratch, salad is made. Some absolutely love it, while others are not so sure. I do a little investigation as to exactly what it is in the salad that makes it appealing, or not so appealing. We find that by adding or subtracting salad ingredients they can make a salad that works for them.

The smiles and laughter from the kids are amazing. Tastes and ingredients that many of us take totally for granted open a whole new world to some of these students. I could see that understanding the wide variations in tastes and texture, and learning how and where food is grown and harvested, are tremendously important lessons for our children. Days of Taste is a marvelous endeavor carried out by a like-minded group of folks dedicated to sharing the wonders of food conviviality enjoyed when we sit—or jump—around Our Common Table.

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