Pharos-Tribune

March 24, 2013

Fiesta of Food

Lewis Cass Spanish students cook up a storm to kick off spring break

by Sarah Einselen
Pharos-Tribune

WALTON — “Necesito la sal,” muttered one Lewis Cass student. His teacher, Melanie Karmel, handed him a container of salt and supervised how he added it and other ingredients to a food processor. Eventually he’d end up with allioli, a garlic-based Spanish spread.

“It’s going to look like mayonnaise,” Karmel explained.

Karmel’s third-, fourth- and fifth-year Spanish classes converged on the family and consumer sciences kitchen at Lewis Cass Junior-Senior High School Friday to kick off spring break with a jumbo-sized fiesta of Spanish food.

Students cut up fresh tomatoes and garlic, sauteed chicken and slowly cooked a potato-and-egg dish called tortilla española that looked more like an omelet than it did the corn or wheat tortillas sold in local grocery stores.

As one passing math teacher commented, poking his head into the room — “I thought I smelled something.” He took Karmel up on her offer of a bite to taste.

Karmel, who herself is descended from immigrants from Spain who crossed the Atlantic in the 1930s and ‘40s, hopped from one cooking station to the next, helping students prepare appetizers — or “tapas” — as well as paella, a chicken, pork and rice dish based on her family’s recipe, and churros, a dessert pastry.

“This is our first experience with this,” said Katie Lane, a Walton 15-year-old who helped prepare the churros, deep-frying medium-sized balls of dough before rolling them in cinnamon and sugar. “I think we’re doing pretty well.”

“We’re missing math for this,” commented her friend Clair Crum, 17. “This is great.”

Karmel said she wanted to give her students a fun send-off to spring break while keeping with the Spain-themed study she’d begun.

She incorporated the cooking vocabulary and command verbs she’d been teaching most recently. The party felt like home to her — she grew up surrounded by Spanish food, thanks to her mother, Linda Peda, a Valparaiso teacher who visited Lewis Cass to help with the food fiesta.

“We got to this chapter — it was Spain and it was like, ‘yay! I’m home!’” said Karmel.

Peda’s parents immigrated from Spain to the U.S. and spoke only Spanish at home, where Peda picked up the Castilian accent as well as her family’s recipes for traditional Spanish dishes.

Peda grew up to become a Spanish teacher, which she’s done for the last 30 years. She also taught Karmel to make several of the family recipes, like paella.

“We don’t cook with recipes,” explained Karmel. Family dishes are more like heirlooms, passed down from one cook to another.

Paella “is as varied as the areas of Spain are,” Peda said. The most famous version, which includes seafood, is from Valencia, she explained, while her family’s includes chicken and pork.

Peda, who married a descendant of Polish immigrants, said she and her husband did their best to instill a love of both cultural heritages in their children, celebrating sometimes in the Spanish style and holding Polish Christmas celebrations.

“We used to get our own little virgin sangría for special occasions,” recalled Karmel.

Her students mixed their own “virgin sangría” for the spring break party, too, using grape juice and cut-up fruits.

As the sounds of sizzling chicken and a whirring food processor died down, Karmel, Peda and the students scurried from countertop to table, setting out the dishes for an oversized lunch — one hour before spring break arrived.

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at sarah.einselen@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5151.