SAN DIEGO — “So directors, in order to get something going, you say ‘quiet on the set,’” Kristine Diekman shouts across the room to the two high school girls poring over a script. Diekman is a professor of video and new media at Cal State San Marcos.
Mics and cameras are in place; mixing bowls and perfectly-measured ingredients neatly laid out. This group is ready to film a high school cooking show.
“Sweet potato pie, scene six take one,” says Jesse Avilez, a ninth grader at Crawford High School, clapping his slate and then walking off the set.
The actors address the camera:
“Today we’re making a sweet potato and apple pie, which is our version of a traditional soul food dessert. So Dominique, can you tell us what soul food is?”
The show is called Cooking It Up. It lives as a series of webisodes along with recipes and personal stories behind those recipes.
Diekman directs the program. Her college students serve as mentors and tech support on the show.
For the Crawford High School students who participate, it is an internship where they learn video production, graphic design, nutrition and, of course, cooking.
“A lot of them just wanted to learn how to cook,” Diekman said. “So many of them come from families, very busy families and they are responsible for cooking nutritious foods within their homes.”
The students wanted to learn cooking basics, Diekman said, like how to chop an onion, how to handle and store food safely, and how to make it good for you.
Crystal Gillespie, an eleventh grader at Crawford High, co-directed the sweet potato pie episode.
“I cook a lot at home and, you know, my grandmother runs a daycare so the idea of finding healthy ways to make snacks was really great ‘cause then it’s something else I can do for the kids that’s interesting,” she said.
The students take turns working in different roles in show production: directing, manning the cameras and microphones, and for the brave ones, trying out their best Emeril or “Iron Chef” in front of the camera.
Some of the students are from families who’ve recently arrived as immigrants and refugees. They bring traditional recipes and cooking smarts to the show. And something else: a deep connection to food, through family hardships and joys.
One of the students, Nathan Yau, got the papaya salad recipe from his grandparents, who lived in Cambodia during the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge. Nathan tells their story on the Cooking It Up website.
“Their long, long friend, he became a monk because his parents were killed during that regime. ... And he really liked papaya salad, so then they just decided to start always bringing papaya salad to him because he didn’t really have nobody, except for us.”
And another thing students from immigrant families bring: generally good eating habits. Researchers have found that immigrants tend to be in better shape when they arrive in the U.S. than Americans. It’s known as the “healthy immigrant effect.”
“Healthy eating practices are still alive here but as the youth become more and more acculturated,” said Diekman, “and I can see it with this group of youth. They're starting to eat more junk food.”
This is the time to encourage them to carry on their kitchen traditions and learn from each other, Diekman said.
In one episode, Avilez, the ninth grader, shows his classmates how to make and eat ceviche — hardly a standard American teenage meal.
The skills these high schoolers are learning — like motion graphics and video editing — could lead to jobs in the digital world. Or, take Avilez, the ceviche master. He actually thinks he might want to become a chef, so he appreciates the kitchen skills he’s picked up.
“Like, you know, the putting your fingers back so you won’t chop off your finger and you know accidentally miss a finger for, probably forever,” Avilez said, demonstrating the technique.
In this fast food world, just getting young people interested in cooking seems like a small victory. In any case, it's probably better than sitting in the classroom.
“You get to cook, and then you get to eat what you cook. I mean, who doesn’t love that?” Avilez said.
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