By Beth Donze, Kids’ Clarion
Thinking that food might be a fun way to immerse kids in the culture, history and geography of various countries, New Orleans author Whitney Stewart decided to write her 2018 book “What’s on Your Plate? Exploring the World of Food,” a culinary tour of 14 nations featuring country-specific recipes for cooks as young as 5.
Stewart visited Christian Brothers School earlier this spring to teach second and third graders about the food cultures of five of the countries in her book.
Stewart told the students that the best part of the event was being saved for last: a tasting party of dishes from the five places prepared by Tarek Tay, a Christian Brothers parent and restaurateur.
“We are gonna cook up some fun! You’re gonna taste your way around the world today,” said Stewart, telling the youngsters that “the food we eat and how we cook it are part of our food culture.”
Stewart’s talk focused on the following countries:
- Mexico (guacamole)
Corn – or “maize” – is at the heart of Mexican food culture, Stewart said, explaining how the vegetable is boiled, then pounded into flour to make tortillas. When the Spanish began colonizing Mexico in the 16th century, they introduced foods such as wheat, pork, chicken, cheese, rice and onions to the local cuisine.
- Italy (pesto)
Students learned that “Neapolitan” pizza, featuring green basil, red tomatoes and white mozzarella, was invented 300 years ago in honor of the three colors of Italy’s new flag. The pizza was presented to Queen Margherita on a visit to Naples, hence its name.
“But in case you think Italy only has pizza, let’s look at other specialties,” Stewart said. For example, in addition to pasta, residents of Northern Italy eat a lot of risotto – “a creamy dish that’s cooked for a very long time,” Stewart said.
- Greece (tzatziki)
“Why would seafood be popular in Greece?” Stewart asked her listeners, showing them a map of the many islands and peninsulas that make up that nation.
She told the students that Greece’s dry climate and mountainous terrain are ideal for growing olives, some varieties of grapes and almonds – the latter an ingredient in baklava, a dessert many audience members had eaten at Greek Fest.
“Who likes feta cheese on their salad?” Stewart asked the youngsters, explaining that feta is made from goat’s milk. “That comes from Greece, too!” she said.
- Israel (hummus)
Wheat, citrus, grapes and olives grow well in Israel, Stewart said, noting that Israel’s location makes it a culinary intersection of Middle Eastern, North African and European influences.
“People from all those territories brought their food cultures with them,” Stewart said. “To make hummus, all you need is a few ingredients and a blender!”
- Japan (miso soup)
Sushi, the food Americans most associate with Japan, is popular there for a reason, said Stewart, again pointing to a map to make her case. Because Japan is an island-nation, fresh seafood is plentiful, she said.
Soybeans, the main ingredient in miso soup, are also grown in Japan.
“Soybeans are made into a paste, and you can use that paste to make miso soup,” Stewart explained.
During the tasting party, third grader Jude Schiro noted how the hummus he sampled “tasted like jelly pepper spice.”
“It was my first time trying hummus, but I think I might have it again,” Jude said.
The miso soup was a hit with second grader Abigail Bosch.
“I liked how it was a different taste from everything else; it tastes kind of like ocean water, but it has flavor,” Abigail observed.
Her runner-up favorite dish of the day? Pesto.
“It was just a cracker, but the (pesto) topping gave it bunch of flavor,” Abigail said. “I don’t normally like new foods, but today I liked them!”
For more on “What’s on Your Plate? Exploring the World of Food,” visit whitneystewart.com.