I stopped by to visit with Kumar Wickramasingha at the Elliott Test Kitchen on Monday after Sunday night’s heavy snow storm. He was in back shoveling about six inches of snow off the small sidewalk that leads to the north alley behind the storefront.
“How much you think we got, brother,” he said.
“About 4 inches,” I guessed.
I didn’t really care, I had the Beast in 4-wheel drive and had just done a drive around the county to assess the damage from the storm Monday night. Not much. Kudos to the State Department of Transportation and county officials for keeping roadways passable and getting people’s vehicles out of ditches in a timely fashion. A great job was done by all.
Wickramasingha came back in after I had taken a seat at the counter near the front kitchen. I wanted to talk about the new cookbooks he was peddling for the test kitchen. He’s had some nice press on these books that are scripted out by students in the program. The book also features the smiling faces of each student who scripted out the recipe, in most cases showcasing the food, as well.
During our conversation, Kumar’s cell phone kept ringing with people from around the state calling and ordering the cookbook.
It’s no surprise. I’ve been in the Test Kitchen on many occasions watching the kids put together meals for this event or that study session.
They shy away from the camera for the most part, but you can’t resist taking pictures of these kids in the kitchen. They aren’t on cell phones… they’re not posting to social media or texting.
They’re cooking… and sampling…and working recipes and opening their young minds to something other than a sandwich and chips.
It’s a different tact for the Test Kitchen as preparing meals has always been part of the instruction, kind of in the background, because the focus here is on grades, academic retention, and standardized test preparation. But food has always been a part of each program. Kids study and then get to eat a meal prepared by other students under the watchful eye of Wickramasingha. Students from all three school districts have worked the kitchen (front and back) including Holy Trinity Catholic, Fort Madison, and Central Lee, and Ss. Peter and Paul schools.
“That is something that I was able to accomplish, getting these kids to try the recipes. I tell them they have to try a spoonful or they’ll hurt my feelings. They may not like it, but they can say they tried it. That’s a sense of pride for me.”
He said in today’s culture the kids’ eating habits are limited. He said it’s surprising and almost shocking how many kids are not trying meals they’re not familiar with, but when the students at the test kitchen prepare the meal, the students are more apt to try the food. The students also have a sense of pride in cooking and that’s where the cookbook idea came from.
He gives credit for the idea of the book to Libby Laughlin, a retired area educator, who said the cookbook would be a good way to showcase the students’ other talents.
Kumar said one of his greatest senses of prides is when parents send him messages and pictures of food the students prepare at home where families are enjoying the fruits of what their children have learned at the Test Kitchen.
He said the food is an attraction that brings the students in, but the education is the emphasis.
The Test Kitchen is a wonderment of sorts when you walk in and see the different activities going on. Students working on academic programming on the right and preparing meals on the left in the kitchen.
I’ve said before that without true leadership, the education loan “bubble” has no direction to go but out with the cost of a year at a four-year state university approaching $25,000 all in. Most universities are pushing programs to five years and staring at tuition increases as, at least Iowa, pulls back on contributions.
These students are working toward scholarships triggered by strong performances on ACTs and SATs. Many of the scholarships that come with strong performances surpass the amounts given to athletes who get the lion’s share of the press. There’s something to be said for the extra time athletes put in and finding a way to strike a balance between education and sports. But that’s not always the case. College itself is not for everyone and Wickramasingha and the volunteers that put this program on are exposing students to other things including cooking, robotics, and STEM activities.
What’s somewhat lost in the whole operation is the connection to the couple that took in the 20-year-old Sri Lankan who came to America looking for a dream back in 1986.
Jean and George Alton took Kumar into when he came to the country and at the time, Jean was a home economics teacher and George was a local educator. The couple is now deceased, but Wickramasingha dedicated the cookbooks to the two, and writes a forward of how their influence inspired him to put cooking and education together for the betterment of area students.
“Jean Alton was a home economics teacher who took great pride in teaching cooking to her students. Her passion inspired me to bring that love of nutritious, great cooking to students. George’s compassion to provide education to less fortunate students inspired me and allowed me to pursue my higher education… They truly became my mother and father figures.”
The recipes are all recipes that Kumar has created and those that remember the Alpha’s days will be reminded of the award-winning fried strawberries.
Other recipes include a roasted pork loin, salads, desserts, vegetables, and pastas. The 70 pages are filled with photos taken by Wickramasingha during the past year and was assembled by Molly Dillon.
You can pick one up for 20 bucks at the Test Kitchen at 807 Avenue G. He’s had book signings where kids sign the books and he’s having another one on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The book showcases 31 students and recipes in 70 pages put together by Matt Hayes at Dodd Printing and Stationery just down the road a block or so to the east. Or just stop by the signing on Saturday. There’s sure to be some on hand.