The Camras School is on Mango Street. Yes, that's actually the name of a real street. It's past Kimball, past Pulaski, past Cicero, past Central. Farther than I thought I could bike on a single street and still be in Chicago. The signs were in English, then in Spanish, then Polish. Mowimy po polsku.
I arrived just as students were letting out for the day. The atmosphere, on one of the first warm spring days, was more street festival than school dismissal: The streets were closed to traffic, CPS security on standby, in black polo shirts; paletas and duros vendors readied themselves for what I can only guess was the usual afternoon rush.
I fought against a waist-high tide toward the main office, where I was directed to the third-floor cafeteria. The Common Threads chef instructor was just finishing her prep work in the kitchen — graciously vacated by overworked lunch ladies, and made available for our use — and about to introduce herself to the 20 or so kids waiting at the lunch tables to begin their culinary adventure.
We learned about American dining customs and etiquette, and reviewed the recipes were were about to prepare — and, more importantly, where the ingredients fit into our daily nutritional needs.
I moved to sit next to different kids on lunch table benches as we went through the lesson. The older kids took turns reading paragraphs in their books; a younger girl in a pink hair bow turned to me and whispered conspiratorially, "I love to cook. I made chocolate once; I locked the door and my mom never knew."
Then the kids donned logo aprons and kid-sized, Velcro-fastened toques, and we headed to the kitchen.
I spent the next two hours with a group of five wonderful and adorable elementary schoolchildren who begged for every opportunity to chop, measure and stir ingredients, even wash dishes. We built a dredging station for chicken tenders seasoned with chili powder and dried basil; the kids squealed as they touched raw chicken for the first time.
Their floppy white hats bobbled and the noise level rose to a dull but high-pitched roar; they delighted in the mess they were making as they moved their tenders from flour to egg, egg to bread crumbs, crumbs to pan.
We mixed Greek yogurt, mustard and honey to make dressing; the students obliterated heads of green leaf lettuce to make a "torn salad" with grape tomatoes, baby spinach and shredded cheese.
Even hand-washing was an event. They knew they were doing something other kids don't get a chance at; this was important. It was delicious.
And once our food was prepped and cooked, we cleaned up after ourselves and set the table beyond the kitchen doors to enjoy a meal together.
We said the Common Threads creed together before digging in:
Today we learned how people in another country live and what they eat!
Today we tasted healthy foods and practiced eating well to keep us strong.
People all over the world – and even in this room – are different!
But we all have things in common:
We can work together, share together, learn together, cook together, and then…
Together we can EAT!
The kids wolfed down the meal they'd prepared. Even the ones who gagged at the honey mustard dressing we'd made together devoured their salads and gobbled up the homemade chicken fingers. The pride on their faces as they talked about the meal they'd just prepared for themselves…it was everything.
I flew home on my bike, eager to prepare another meal for Mark and me to eat. I made orzo with salami, asparagus, spinach and farmer's cheese flavored with spring nettles; we ate freshly baked strawberry-rhubarb crisp for dessert.
Just shy of a million things have befallen me, completely by choice, since I last wrote here:
I began to doubt my love for marketing as a career.
I knew without a doubt I didn't love my job anymore.
So I quit.
I thought about where I was happiest, prompted by a life coach I ultimately couldn't afford to work with.
I imagined myself in a kitchen: forever and ever, Amen.
I signed up to volunteer with every food-related organization I could think of in Chicago. I put my recipe-related insecurities aside and starting cooking from my heart.
I made bread.
I enrolled in culinary school. Few in my world have been surprised. (Just today, a LinkedIn connection told me culinary school seemed like "a very Paige thing to do.")
A bike ride to the 5700 block of Belmont — a 19-mile round trip, once my day was over — was a long journey just to realize I've made the right choice. But I'm already itching to go back. The thought of juggling a weekly westward journey with daily train treks to Englewood for my culinary classes is daunting, but the short-term long hauls are worth it for what I feel in my heart.
Today confirmed it: Kids and cooking are my calling. What that will ultimately mean for my career, I have no idea. But all signs point me to the kitchen, to cook, to connect.