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Learning to cook builds lifelong skills for work, home
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Culinary arts teacher Anita Hairston stirs a pot of food in the Bassett High School classroom kitchen. Hairston, who cooks for one at home , teaches cooking to groups of students at work. (Bulletin photo by Vicky Morrison)
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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

By VICKY MORRISON - Bulletin Accent Writer

For Anita Hairston, culinary arts is more than just teaching how to cook. It is an opportunity to help students in life.

Knowing how to cook “helps you to take care of yourself,” she said.

This is Hairston’s 18th year teaching subjects in the family and consumer sciences (FACS) curriculum and her second year teaching culinary arts.

If it hadn’t been for a home economics course she took as a student at Laurel Park High School, Hairston may not have ever had the life she has today. She said she loved home economics and everyone told her it would be an ideal career path.

However, school was postponed for her. It wasn’t until those voices from her former fellow students and other well-wishers chimed in again that she returned to school. “The community helped me a lot,” said Hairston, to enroll at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore at age 21.

Ever since, Hairston, 57, has taught home economics and FACS courses. These days, Hairston tries to inform her students about the many facets of cooking, with attention to food service careers and the fundamental role of food in everyday life.

Hairston sees the content as practical knowledge. She speculates that most kids either go to college and wait tables or find a job at a fast food restaurant. So she teaches them information from the Serve Safe lessons, such as explanations of germs, bacteria and the attitude one should have in the field. That attitude, says Hairston, is an openmindedness and a willingness to work long, hard hours making all varieties of food.

This is crucial, in Hairston’s opinion, because people “take a lot of food stuff for granted,” she said. She focuses on real world application by discussing and comparing prepared foods at restaurants and menu pricing.

Hairston also helps the students understand what it means to work with the public and to have to take all customers’ tastes into account. “There’s always an opening in food (services),” said Hairston. Anyone can end up working there.

Years before her home economics courses, Hairston began learning from her mother and grandmother.

Memories of her mother’s biscuits still make Hairston smile. She recalled that she and her brother would hide biscuits from one another to save to eat later. She used to love watching her mother make them, as well as various dishes from apples.

Hairston’s initial experience with cooking, when she was 6, came from watching her grandmother Anna Bell Gilbert cook.

In general, Hairston said, she was a “latch-key kid” and started cooking regularly while her parents finished up late work shifts. “We would wake up early and eat breakfast with them before they left” for work, explained Hairston, and then she would come home from school to an empty house.

At the beginning, Hairston “couldn’t fool with gas and wood stoves,” she said, so she learned how to make sandwiches. During the summer breaks, her mother, Ollie Marie Hairston, taught her the rules of the stoves.

These days, Hairston cooks mostly just with her students. Her son, Nicholas Hairston, now lives in Manassas.

Once she finishes a work day, the last thing Hairston wants to do, she says, is cook. Hairston said that growing up she learned to cook in a large pot for her big, extended family but when she left home, she had to learn to cook for one.

Still, she likes cooking for its relaxing nature, she said. “If you get in your kitchen, it’s only you, and you open your cabinets and you’re looking into glory,” she says, laughing. “It’s you and the pots and the music the stove makes.”

Cooking is better than baking, said Hairston, because it’s easier to see the food as it is coming together. “You can modify as you go along while you’re cooking.”

For Hairston, the simpler the food, the better. “I like plain and not a lot of spicy” food, she said. “I want to taste the food” not have her palette overwhelmed by other flavors.

Hairston often prepares casseroles because of their simplicity and flexibility.

She believes there are certain ingredients that everyone ought to have in their cabinets. “I always have marshmallows, Rice Krispies (cereal), chocolate chips, sugar, flour and two cake mix boxes,” said Hairston. If a sweet tooth is coming on, Hairston says its a good idea to have these quick easy foods around.

Hairston tries to have students leave with a basic knowledge of cooking fundamentals. “If nothing else, (students) should know how to use the stove, oven, wash dishes, know how scramble eggs or cook up a burger.” Hairston thinks students should opt for the simple home cooking options because they can know what is in the food and how it was made.

Another fundamental aspect Hairston highlights is the importance of knowing how to measure and understanding cooking terminology, such as chop, slice, dice and julliene.

Even though having a cooking occupation has gotten in the way of time to cook at home, cooking still is something she values greatly.

“Home economics is wherever the heat is,” said Hairston, “All of it synchs together.”

Hairston recalls one instance of life and cooking tying together when she showed students how to save money by making baby food. They were shocked with the simplicity, she said, and amazed by the low cost. These lessons are what Hairston aims to share.


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