Bits 'n' Pieces: Kids have appetite for culture

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian staff writer

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Sunset Elementary School teacher Rachelle Matheson knew kids love to eat, but she was surprised at how hungry they were to learn.

The fifth-grade teacher is celebrating the impending release of “The Cultured Chef: An International Cookbook for Kids,” which she helped create with writer Nicholas Beatty and illustrator Coleen McIntyre. Throughout the yearlong process of making the educational cookbook, Matheson polled her students about what they would like to see included. She said their enthusiastic and candid responses played a big role in finding the right mix of fun and food.

“They’ve been a sounding board for me,” Matheson said.

The cookbook offers a look at diversity and the myriad cultures across the globe through the lens of cuisine. The pages are anchored by recipes from many countries, which are surrounded by facts and illustrations representing those areas. A two-page spread on Greece not only shows how to make cucumber-wrapped tzatziki rolls but also includes tidbits on ancient Greece and Aesop’s fables.

“The thing that was most surprising to me was that, at least with my students, they were fascinated with the culture before they said, ‘I would try that food,’ ” Matheson said. “The whole point of the book is to engage children in cultural diversity.

“The food gives kids a chance to really get involved (in learning about the world), because kids like to eat.”

The cookbook was funded by contributions on www.kickstarter.com. During the fundraising period last year, 178 people donated $10,725, surpassing the $8,500 goal.

Once the book was financially backed last summer, Beatty and McIntyre got to work. The Portlanders had first collaborated in 2007 on another children’s cookbook called “Baking with Friends: Recipes, Tips and Fun Facts for Teaching Kids How to Bake.” The duo soon brought Matheson on board as their contributing educational editor, someone to help bring a youth perspective to the project, which is aimed at kids ages 3 to 9.

Matheson involved her students in the project by asking them for input throughout the school year. The kids played a first-hand role in helping guide the direction of the colorful cookbook, and Matheson shared their helpful opinions with Beatty and McIntyre as the trio shaped the book into its final form. It’s due for commercial release Aug. 1, but Matheson’s class got a sneak peek Tuesday at a special book release party just for them.

During the celebration, kids made caprese salad skewers — one of the kid-friendly dishes in the book — and each got a signed copy. Matheson said her students were thrilled to see the final product, especially considering they helped make it all happen.

Matheson used to live next to Beatty, and the two bonded over their shared loves of literature and cooking.

“It was a lot of fun,” Matheson said about teaming with her friend. “Cookbook writing is something I’ve always thought would be really interesting and fun to do, because I absolutely love to teach writing and I love to cook. This was a dream come true for me.”

Learn more about the cookbook at www.culturedchef.com.


Bits ’n’ Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you’d like to share, email bits@columbian.com.