A group of 5th graders cutting with scalpel-sharp, six-inch kitchen knives and cooking on gas-fired burners? A scene inconceivable in our litigation-addled society. But this was a classroom in a Kyoto, Japan, public school, where I was invited to watch four top chefs teach the kids about city's rich culinary history and introduce them to kyo yasai, Kyoto heirloom vegetables. This city is not only Japan's cultural heart but its own agricultural district as well, where family farmers still tend urban plots. The vegetables -- 38 varieties protected by law -- are grown with seeds handed down through the generations.
The chefs prepared six dishes, each featuring one of these pristine ingredients simmering in a different dashi, or stock. The dashi were made from combinations of dried ingredients like seaweed and dried scallops, seaweed and dried shiitake and seaweed and dried bonito.
Now it was the students' turn. I watched the kids do "rock-paper-scissors" to decide who did what, then start chopping and preparing. As they cooked the chefs walked around the classroom, offering advice and tasting the students' cooking. The students also tasted the chefs' dishes to compare and understand. The result? Twenty one 5th graders who touched, cooked, tasted these historic vegetables, twenty one 5th graders who gained a sense of taste, flavor and a food memory to carry with them though their lives.
Where do we have programs like this here in the USA? (sans the knives and burners, of course)