One of the great things about being such a highly respected food writer is that I get offered so many fabulous food-related opportunities.
Oh wait. I’m sure you are imagining Thomas Keller pleading with me to come to The French Laundry to see his new kitchen and enjoy a 20-course meal, or the Michelin folks wooing me to be one of their anonymous raters.
Unfortunately, Thomas and the Michelin folks apparently are not among the elite group of wonderful, intelligent and well-informed folks who read and appreciate this column. (Though if any of you wonderful and intelligent folks happen to have an in with them, please feel free to put my name forward. I won’t mind. Honest.)
Alas, as you know, I write about cooking (and oak trees, leaf-raking and my late, lamented cat Eddie), but not generally about restaurants. So I don’t get wined and dined a lot.
However, occasionally someone recognizes my considerable food expertise and my exalted status as a Register columnist, and I am asked to judge a prestigious competition.
For example, I was once a judge at the Napa chile cook-off downtown. And my delicately calibrated palate has twice had the honor of judging cocktails at the Napa Valley Museum’s annual competition.
And last week, I had the most impressive gig yet.
I was invited to be one of the judges tasting the “healthy breads” concocted by students in several classes at nearby River Middle School.
Don’t be jealous, though I know it’s hard. My life is just so darn cool.
When I arrived at the school, I experienced some déjà vu. I don’t think I have set foot in a middle school classroom since I was in middle school myself, but I would have recognized it anywhere from the fact that the chairs were connected to the desks. (What is with that?) And of course, because the room was filled with bright young seventh- and eighth-graders, eagerly offering up their team’s concoctions.
Which, I hate to say, were mostly pretty godawful.
It wasn’t the kids’ fault. Making bread is easy, but making good bread is hard. Especially in an hour, which is how much time they had to figure out their ingredients and prepare their dough. In addition, the lesson plan called for the students to take recipes that I assume they had never cooked before and then change them to make them “healthier,” by swapping out ingredients.
The ones I sampled had substituted in whole wheat and oat flours, whey powder, honey or agave syrup and olive oil, along with other random additions and subtractions. Sadly, none of the changes improved the taste or texture, or made the results better in any discernible way.
Despite that, I thought the kids did a stellar job. Nearly all of their results closely resembled something you might recognize as bread, and were somewhat edible.
However, I got the feeling the students were as fuzzy as I was about what they were supposedly learning with the exercise.
I’m pretty sure figuring out how to bake mediocre bread was beside the point, as this wasn’t a home ec class (do they even have those anymore?). I suppose one could see the breads as an exercise in applying the scientific method, where the experimental process mattered more than the actual results. (If so, phew. Nobody flunked because of my taste evaluations.)
When she invited me, the teacher mentioned nutrition, so maybe that was the main lesson topic. I’m assuming she had prepped the students with information about the stuff they kneaded into their concoctions, so I think they were supposed to be learning things to help them make better food choices in the future.
If so, I kind of hope they weren’t paying attention.
Normally, I would encourage all kids to study hard and succeed in school. But maybe zoning out that day would have been a safer choice for their futures.
Because after tasting their “improved” products, the main lesson I took away was to shun any bread described as “healthy” for the rest of my life.
Unless, of course, it is offered to me at The French Laundry.
I was inspired by the kids to tackle a bread project myself this week, as I have been craving real bagels (as opposed to the squishy monstrosities of the same name that they sell at the supermarket). However, unlike the kids, I don’t want to subject you to a less-than-perfected experiment. So I’m skipping the recipe this time. I’ll report back once I have a version worthy of repeating.