“My parents just don’t understand,” Grissel says. She’s a junior at New York’s High School for Math, Science and Engineering, but she’s not laying on the average teenage complaints about curfews and phone use. She’s talking about eating her vegetables. As in, she thinks her family should be having more of them—home-cooked—but her mother usually comes home with rice, beans and meat in takeout containers from the convenience store two blocks away.
Despite her frustration, Grissel doesn’t lay on the pouty teenager act. She’s sunny and talkative, and holds the last note of every sentence way up high, like a question. She’s learned her own way around the kitchen using How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, and as a treat she’ll trek down to the specialty food store Eataly and spend half her paycheck on fancy produce (which she keeps in a mini-fridge in her own bedroom). When Grissel made garbanzo and celery soup for her family, she proudly posted a photo of the dish to Facebook. But because it was vegetarian, no one would touch it. Being a 16-year-old girl, Grissel was heartbroken. But being a cook, she went out to buy some Tupperware and started packing her own lunches. She never did like eating at the cafeteria.
I’m in awe of Grissel. When I was a teenage vegetarian in a family of meat eaters, I wish I’d understood what she articulates to me: Cooking is equal parts pleasure and power. Because she knows how to cook, she can eat what she chooses. And lately, the choosing part has gotten a lot more complicated. In school, in a class called Gastronomy, Grissel recently read David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” and asked herself: How do you negotiate the pleasure of meat with the suffering of animals? “I just don’t know how to answer that,” says Grissel.
That’s just one of the many ways Gastronomy students take their readings and homework to heart. Started by Jennifer Boylan—a wonderful, witty English teacher—in 2007, the class nurtures thoughtful eaters, combining reading and writing on food production with after-school eating adventures. Her class has read Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry and Peter Singer. They’ve eaten stinky Camembert and Stilton, waited in line for two-hours at Di Fara for pizza and feasted on Ghanaian fufu and goat in the Bronx.
Boylan’s class is made up of about 20 teenagers, many of whom, like Grissel, have immigrant parents from Asia or the Caribbean. Towards the end of last school year, I tagged along with them to Cambridge, NY for Farm Camp, a retreat run by Flying Pigs Farm to educate food professionals on the region’s food production, both small-scale and industrial. The program packs a lot into two days, including guided farm tours, cheese tastings and chicken slaughter.
It’s the first time that teenagers are taking over camp, but Greg Plotkin, the jolly director, assures me that the schedule has not been altered for a younger crowd (with the exception of nixing the camp’s boozy after-dinner bonfire). As students crunch radishes and write in notepads, Jennifer Small, the owner of Flying Pigs Farm, says, “The food industry has a tremendous and complex problem.” (In short: growing global population, shrinking farmland.) “You guys with your math and science backgrounds, you have to be the ones to solve it because let’s face it,” Small adds, looking at me, “the English majors aren’t going to fix the food crisis.”
At the first dairy farm we visit, I notice that every student knows the lingo, lacing their conversations with words like CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations), the industry shorthand for what is often called “factory farming.” They are intense note-takers and question-askers. So many questions! To the slaughterhouse owner: Do you ever feel guilty? To the organic vegetable farmer: I’m having a hard time understanding how you actually make money, can you please explain that? While walking through pig turds: But how can farms that aren’t organic help protect New York’s unfiltered water supply?
“They’re way more educated than the food professionals we usually have at camp,” Plotkin says, and I laugh. “No.” He raises his eyebrows. “Seriously.” Though Jennifer Boylan refuses to take credit for her students’ curiosity and insight, throughout the trip I notice her smiling when they ask good questions. She makes the kids laugh with irresistible, silly food puns and the students hit back with their own (when the students divide up in teams, one names itself The Undercover Crops).
On a break, a junior named Mariela shows me photos on her phone of the intricate cakes she bakes. For her mother’s birthday, she baked a marble cake with vanilla buttercream that looked exactly like an oversize box of Newport Menthols—her mom’s favorite. I laughed at the odd juxtaposition of daughterly devotion, innocence, and cigarettes. But when I asked Mariela why she likes this class, she explains with something she learned: If you follow organic practices but treat a sick animal with antibiotics, your food is not technically “organic.” But your animals might be cared for really well, nonetheless. “I guess I thought it was more black and white, but it’s just not,” she says, and it’s clear that nuance excites her curiosity.
After dinner, when it comes time to catch and box the chickens, Earl handles the birds confidently and carefully. He’s the tallest in the class, boxes the most chickens and asks the most questions. Eight students have volunteered to kill and process these birds later, but Earl is not one of them. While the other kids tell me they mostly avoid fast food since taking this class, Earl tells me he’s realistic. His family can’t make the changes he’d like them to make because they have to eat what’s close, what’s cheap. But he wants to know where food comes from.
The next morning, Joanne squeals: “I’m so hyper!” She is tiny, bubbly and psyched to kill a bird and take it home today. Despite waking up at six, the whole class is thrilled about the slaughter experience. But when the students enter farmer Ben Shaw’s kill room, they go quiet. Shaw holds a knife in one hand and a chicken in the other. “As the blood rushes to its head, the bird will relax. And once it’s relaxed, we’ll put it in the cone.” For the first time in the whole trip, the students stop taking notes. They stop asking questions. They listen and learn and refuse to look away. Grissel stands quietly by the steel plucker as Shaw cuts the bird’s throat, and though she’s nervous, horrified, she maintains a poker face. Unlike the USDA-approved slaughterhouse we visited off-hours, this tiny room does not smell of chemical cleaners—there’s the smell of pastures and animals, of bright blood circling the drain. “We take no pleasure in this,” Shaw says firmly, “nor do we take our time.” Shaw walks the students through the plucking process. One by one, they put on their aprons and lift a white hen by its legs.
Raven—“Yeah, like the bird”— is up next. He feels strongly about chicken. A few months ago, he began relinquishing $5 of his allowance each week so his family could buy free-range birds once a month (it has since turned into a regular family trip, for which they no longer use Raven’s allowance). In the kill room, Raven’s chicken panics. It’s emotional for him, and he feels the bird throb and thrust in his hands as it dies. As he eviscerates it, the bird feels warm, tense, and though Raven knows it’s crazy, he has the feeling that the bird he killed is still alive. Finally, the chicken is chilled in ice water, then bagged up for him to take home. “I’ll probably barbecue it,” he says.
At lunch it’s confirmed that all the students still have an appetite for chicken—most of them go back for seconds of Jeannette Shaw’s rich, fragrant chicken pot pie with a crisp, whole wheat crust. (Grissel sticks with salad.) The girls want to know how Shaw makes her lemonade sweet and smooth, without any crunchy sugar at the bottom. She is delighted.
The kids who actually fell asleep last night got five hours at the most, so they’re passing out against the cold glass of the bus home. A few girls stay up and chat. “I’m seriously in love with this cheese,” says Ivanna, about her newly acquired wedge from Consider Bardwell (she also announced she was going to marry a dairy farmer after trying Battenkill’s ultra-sweet whole milk). But Grissel didn’t buy any cheese. She’s dwelling on the connection between Washington County’s dairy farms and the veal industry, “I don’t want to be a part of that but it’s complicated because I love cheese.” She sighs deeply then laughs at herself for sighing. Maybe it’s because she’s a teenager, maybe not, but Grissel thinks she will find this stuff complicated forever.
At the front of the bus, Boylan goes over her notes. Yesterday, she set up a friendly competition between her students and now it’s time to declare the winner. I assumed it was that the student who asked the most questions would win, but I misunderstood the assignment. Boylan explains that she wants to reward the student who asked the best questions, the most interesting questions. They asked so many, I realize, because they were trying to find their way to the good ones. Earl is the official winner and he does a victory dance in the aisle with his prize: a box of cookies from City Bakery. Then, like a true gastronome, he passes the good stuff around. As the sugar crystals dissolve on their tongues, the students play pop songs for each other on their iPods and sing. The bus is freezing when Raven jolts up. “Hey, wait a second!” he says, “Ms. Boylan, how come they don’t make hot ice cream?”
She smiles at him. “Good question.”