Oxford high school students master culinary skills with help from local chefs in Good Food for Oxford Schools cooking class.
Written by Ginny McCarley | Photographed by Joe Worthem
The only thing Trey Brower knew how to cook before signing up to take a five-week cooking class at Oxford High School was chicken alfredo. But after just one class, he was cooking dinner for his mom.
“I made her the tomato basil soup, and she loved it,” Trey said. “She wanted me to cook it again.”
Ten students enrolled in the Good Food for Oxford Schools Cooking Class, which was offered for the third year at Oxford High School. The course has been well-received and will be offered again in the spring of 2020.
“One of the reasons we started doing this is because we have a lot of college volunteers who work with us, and a lot of them don’t know how to cook,” Good Food for Oxford Schools program director Eleanor Green said. “We want to expose our kids to cooking because the more they can cook the more they can make healthy choices and cook for themselves and their families at home.”
For Trey Brower, learning to cook for himself in anticipation of college was a primary reason he took the class. Now, with a repertoire of recipes from five successful chefs, Trey feels more prepared.
“I wanted to take the class so I could learn how to cook, just for future knowledge so I could have something that I won’t have to stress over when I’m in college and when I graduate,” Trey said. “I’m so glad I took the class because it helped me learn new techniques for cooking, and it provided me with some amazing recipes from different chefs.”
Elizabeth Heiskell, who taught the first class, is an experienced cooking instructor. As lead culinary instructor at the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, she taught cooking classes daily, primarily for adults but also for younger students, and she has noticed some differences between the two groups.
“Kids are pretty fearless when it comes to cooking,” Heiskell said. “Adults are under a time constraint and are worried about messing up or wasting ingredients, but kids just want to have fun. They want to throw their passion into it and experiment and feel it when it comes to cooking. They don’t need to feed a family of five, they just want to have fun in the kitchen. These kids were super positive and super excited.”
Heiskell’s choice of recipe for the first class was strategic: tomato soup is universally loved, very nutritious, can be made any season with canned tomatoes, and isn’t too difficult.
“It was a simple enough recipe that these students could really find success with pretty easily, and I was hoping that would give them the confidence to try more things,” Heiskell said.
Heiskell’s daughter, OHS senior Mary Paxton Heiskell, sat in on her mom’s class and ended up enjoying the process so much she stayed for the entire course. For Mary Paxton, who wants to study event planning and management, the most interesting aspect of the class was seeing the different personalities of each cooking instructor.
“It was really fun, and it was really nice to get different chefs’ perspectives,” Mary Paxton said. “I’ve always been around my mom, so getting to be around different chefs was cool. My mom takes her time and she makes jokes, but a lot of other chefs moved a little bit faster. Seeing how they moved through different situations was really interesting.”
As the semester wore on, the students in the OHS cooking classed moved through all stages of a four-course meal. Following the class with Heiskell, chef Tim Woodward from Littlejohn’s Quick Shop taught students to make his special spaghetti, and chef Lupe Moreno walked the students through the multiple steps of making tamales.
However, the class that was most popular with both Mary Paxton Heiskell and Trey Brower was was City Grocery chef Austin Agent’s course on desserts, where the students made from-scratch pecan pie and homemade vanilla ice cream.
“My mom is not a baker, so it’s really interesting to see people baking,” Mary Paxton said. “I usually like to cook more savory foods, but I loved learning new techniques for baking.”
When the course ended, students showed off their skills, preparing an elaborate dinner for family, friends and Oxford School District administration, held in the OHS cafeteria. University of Mississippi nutrition and health students helped serve, so the cooking class students could sit down and enjoy the meal with their families.
Trey Brower’s mom, Amy, attended the final dinner and was amazed by the skills her son and his friends developed over the course of the semester.
“(The final dinner) really showed a lot of different variety in what they had cooked, and it was good. I think they did a fabulous job,” Amy said. “It was really special seeing (Trey) focused on what he needed to do. They all did a really good job.”
Elizabeth Sneed, a former FoodCorps service member with Good Food for Oxford Schools, helped coordinate the class. Sneed said the course was a chance for the students to learn valuable life skills before they begin living and cooking on their own.
“I think cooking classes are really important to all kids, but especially with high school kids,” Sneed said. “They’re getting ready to move out on their own, and I think it’s important for them to be able to cook for themselves or their friends or their family. Cereal and ramen noodles is fine every once in a while, but it’s nice to be able to cook for yourself as well.”
Amy Brower saw firsthand how that goal was achieved through her son’s participation in the class.
“It’s like the old adage, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ If you teach these kids how to cook, they’ll always be able to survive and fix something themselves,” Amy said. “In four years, (Trey) will probably be out on his own. Not only can he help out some now, but (when he is on his own) he can put together something with vegetables in it.”
For more recipes from the class, including Elizabeth Heiskell’s Parmesan Tomato Basil Soup and Austin Agent’s Pecan Pie, visit invitationoxford.com/food-blog this month.
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