Women in Food: ‘Kid Chef’ Cookbook Author Offers Food and Life Lessons for Chefs of All Ages
July 6, 2016 | Annamarie Sysling
Photographer, food stylist, cook, and author Melina Hammer is on a mission to change the way people treat and think about food. In her debut cookbook, “Kid Chef: The Foodie Kids Cookbook: Healthy Recipes and Culinary Skills for the New Cook in the Kitchen,” aimed at aspiring eight to 13 year old chefs, Hammer offers more than 70 recipes, drool-worthy photographs, and helpful tips. Seedstock recently caught up with Hammer during a visit to her hometown of Detroit to discuss her inspirations, her strategies for changing the food system through teaching, and the challenge of eating healthily in an area with limited access to fresh food.
Seedstock: What is your goal with this cookbook?
Melina Hammer: The current landscape of seduction in food advertising makes it more important than ever to clarify what good eating really is. Creating a book with the skills to empower kids seemed like the perfect place to begin. My goal is to provide the tools and confidence for kids to take the reigns in the kitchen. I want to empower kids – and adults! – to make good food: from developing a discerning eye in sourcing quality ingredients, to refining and mastering various culinary skills.
Seedstock: Were you a Kid Chef?
Melina Hammer: Growing up, the kitchen and time spent at the kitchen table were a focal point. I remember my mama teaching me how to section a whole chicken; watching her tease meringue into peaks, the finishing touch to her famous lemon meringue pie, before its last moments in the oven; harvesting vegetables from our little backyard garden; and countless meals eaten together as a family. These elaborate feasts with family friends from places around the world, and my grandmother’s beautifully laid-out meals inspired by travel and her European roots, were my foundation in food.
Seedstock: For parents who might want to see if their child is interested in cooking, how would you recommend they start out?
Melina Hammer: The first thing I’d do would be to pick a favorite cookbook and invite your child to choose a recipe to make together. Create space for the learning to happen, which means not being in a rush. A good idea may be to plan it as a weekend adventure, for starters, and take the recipe line-by-line, breaking it into its elements, and sharing the tasks to make the final dish.
The earlier you involve kids in the kitchen, the more ownership they have in the food that gets made, and likely, what they’ll eat. Even if it is measuring beans, stirring batter, or rinsing salad greens, involving your children in daily kitchen activities is educational and creates a clear relationship to the food they eat. Start them young and gradually shift the tasks to correspond with their ability. Kids will beam with a sense of accomplishment at successfully completing these projects. There is much atmospheric learning which occurs while doing this work, from measuring and math skills, to safety and common sense, to tools and techniques they will use their whole lives.
Seedstock: As a Detroit native, did you consider the impact that preexisting food access issues might have on readers’ ability to complete the recipes in your book?
Melina Hammer: It’s something I’ve been grappling with: [having] roots here, and yet a life that has grown in so many directions since; coming to the food desert that is Detroit and trying to reconcile the availability of processed food products that are much more readily available than actual fresh food.
Coming to a place like Eastern Market is an immediate way to connect with the farmers who do the hard, hard work everyday to grow real food and the more that we connect to the people who grow our food and develop those personal relationships, the more we’re going to understand what good eating really is about. And in there there is a potential conflict because everyone is working with their own budget, but I want to emphasize that spending more on food is important because there is an unfair suppression in prices made by the great corporations and that doesn’t give family farmers an honest living, nor in some cases a means to live at all. So understanding that is built into our current food landscape is an important first step even though we have to reconcile our own budgets. So it’s something that is a process, and the more you take those steps forward the more that you will connect to your own world of good eating and community and ultimately love, which is a good thing.
Seedstock: Where do local, seasonal ingredients fit into your cooking?
Melina Hammer: It is very important that I support my local farmers. That means eating with the seasons. There is a special joy in working with foods at the height of their ripeness, and looking forward to produce as its turn on the calendar comes. There are assignments I get as a food photographer – my day-to-day work – which may call for out-of-season ingredients, and when that happens, I still work to source from small, conscientious, and organic producers, and enforce a zero waste policy on set. All the food used is real food, and gets eaten by someone. Even the scraps go to compost or to chickens!