As the young students walk into the culinary classroom, they know immediately something is amiss.
“What’s different?” instructor Mary Lou Whisenand asks.
Answers come tumbling out from perplexed faces: “What happened to our treats? Where’s the hot tea? Why are the lights turned off?”
As Whisenand turns on the lights, she explains, “This is a lesson in greeting. We realized we’re pampering you all the time. We want you to know how to greet someone and how it feels to make someone feel welcome.”
Learning life skills, such as hospitality, are part of a new set of ABCs — call it adventures in baking and cooking —-that are part of an enrichment program offered to South Whidbey middle school students. Last week, chicken pot pie was on the menu using the whole bird that the class previously had learned to roast.
The class always ends at a properly set table with casual conversation and perhaps a surprise handmade dessert courtesy of co-instructor Joe Whisenand.
Every Wednesday, about a dozen seventh-and-eighth graders are bused into the old Langley Middle School that’s now a thriving hub of art studios, nonprofit services, community classes and other organizations that rent former classroom space from the school district.
Tucked in the back corner of the school are two vast vestiges from yesteryear — home economics and woodshop. Once a mainstay of high school education — and a source of perennial sunken bread and wooden cheese boards — the two classrooms hadn’t seen much action in years.
But heavenly aromas of delicious baked goods wafting down the hall signal that home ec ovens are fired up again. Same for the buzz of blades and the dust of sawdust stirring in the wood shop.
The Whisenands accomplished the renovation and rebirth of the hands-on classrooms through their nonprofit organization, Living Design Foundation Inc. Funded with private donations, the Langley couple’s goal is to provide facilities that serve as “a place to bring the community together and provide educational opportunities for all ages.”
They’re following “Living By Design,” a collaborative model that they developed with educators and used in high schools and alternative programs when they lived in Greeley, Colo.
Whidbey’s many talented cooks, woodworkers and gardeners offer Learning Lab workshops and the fees charged help support the foundation’s youth programs.
To date, the most popular two to three-hour cooking classes have been “How to Cook a Whole Chicken,” led by David Kolosta, “How to Make Breakfast” led by Jacki Stewart and how to create botanical table runners led by Tobey Nelson. Class prices range from $25 to $100.
Woodworking offerings include how to hand plane, sharpen tools, how to use a bandsaw and drill press and a two-day workshop where students make a foot stool. Class prices range from $35 to $215 and all participants are required to take a $25 shop safety class.
Sunday, Lis David, a chef who’s launching her own catering business called Magical Feast, led a special St. Patrick’s Day cooking class. After teaching students how to make Irish brown bread, minted peas and colcannon, she warmed up the corned beef she’d made at home to add to the beautifully set table.
“The work that Joe and Mary Lou Whisenand are doing at the Langley Learning Lab is just great,” she said. “They have a great vision for the community.”
James Swanson, principal of South Whidbey Middle School, added enrichment classes of cooking and wood carving; students who express genuine interest are enrolled for the weekly classes.
As Swanson recently observed pre-teens learning how to set a proper table, including why the knife blade always points toward the plate, he marveled at how much they were learning outside the normal, rigid teach-to-the-test curriculum.
“The magic is when they sit at the table and they have no devices and they learn how to communicate,” he said. “And they don’t even realize they’re learning social skills.”
Swanson also checked in with a group of students seated around a table in the wood shop led by master wood carvers Greg Thomas and Don Bundy.
“We all use these kits containing all the tools,” Lyndee Weeks told him. “They come with band-aids because you’re going to hurt yourself. We also wear these Kevlar gloves and thumb protection.”
As they carved a wooden spoon out of red oak, the youth learned how wood breathes. Using a special magnifying glass, they showed their principal how wood has tiny straw-like elements that suck in moisture.
“The structure of a tree is not solid,” Bundy said. “Trees adapt these straws and it’s just a big funnel for nutrients.”
Back in the bright and cheery kitchen lab, Joe Whisenand is getting the apprentice cooks rolling in dough for the chicken pot pie pastry.
“This is what happens when butter and flour come together — dough,” he says. Next, he shows them how to sprinkle flour on their individual cutting boards and work a rolling pin across the surface.
“Now after you work the dough, you rest the dough,” he says. A few minutes later, students scoop up the vegetables they’ve chopped, pile chicken into their small pie plates and carve their initials into their crusts.
While they wait to taste their made-by-their-own-hand scrumptious dish, students write down what they’ve learned and paste the recipe into a journal.
As they gather round the table for a meal, Mary Lou Whisenand reminds them of the importance of the ritual.
“The table is the icon for every culture in the world,” she says. “Getting a seat at the table makes a connection.”
Following the two-hour class, Whisenand comments on the adventures in cooking and eating with middle school students.
“They’re trying things they never thought they’d like,” she says. “We made caramelized roasted garlic and ate it with fairly esoteric cheese and they loved it. If they learn how to savor food and if they leave here with a better palette than when they arrived, we’ll consider that a success.”
— For more information: www.livingdesignfoundation.org