The Heinz History Center on Tuesday kicked off the Healthy Heritage Cooking Series, a three-month pilot program designed to introduce students to Italian, Syrian and Bulgarian cooking and connect health to history.
Viviana Altieri, who directed an Italian cooking demonstration, is the executive director of Mondo Italiano, a local meet-up organization that promotes Italian language and culture. She said food traditions have always been important to mankind and that the Healthy Heritage series will broaden students’ cultural horizons.
“It gives the kids exposure to other nationalities, other environments or recipes that otherwise they would not have come close to,” Altieri said.
Sixth-grade students from Pittsburgh Arlington PreK-8, having helped make and shape their own risotto balls — called supplì — looked on as Altieri took the final step of frying them in batches.
“The secret about frying,” Altieri said, “is that you don’t want to overcrowd your pan. Otherwise the temperature is going to go down and it’s not going to make it crispy.”
The students watched intently. In homage to supplì’s birthplace in Rome, some of the class wore costume centurion helmets.
“That smells really good,” one girl whispered.
Lauren Uhl, the Heinz History Center’s curator of food and fitness, said the cooking demonstrations serve as a vehicle for teaching children about more than just cuisine.
“Food is such an accessible way to get to things like history and geography, so we thought this would really be great for kids,” Uhl said.
She hopes the series will introduce students to personal histories as well as national histories.
“This seemed like a perfect thing to get generations together, not only for us and for school kids, but hopefully they go home and ask their mom what their favorite recipe is or cook with their grandmother or something like that,” Uhl said, “start asking them family stories, ‘Where did you come from?’ ‘What were your family traditions?’ ‘What did you eat when you were growing up?’ Those are the kinds of things we’re hoping to spur.”
Sarah Simko-Zeminski, the class’s teacher, said the Healthy Heritage Cooking Series allowed her to connect the history of the Pittsburgh region to something concrete.
“As a history teacher I get, ‘That class is boring,’ you know, ‘We’re always reading,’" Simko-Zeminski said, "and this is a really good way for my kids to see that history is real and that these things exist, and there’s a reason why we learn about this stuff.”
The room’s noise level ebbed as the class tried their handiwork. Supplì were deemed delicious, and some even ventured to say they were going to try to make them at home.
As the class gathered for a photo, Altieri asked, “What do we say in Italian before we eat?”
“Bon appetito!” the class roared back.