Cooking with the Library

Cooking with the Library

If it doesn’t seem logical to connect cooking with libraries, we have some news for you: Not only is it logical, it’s popular, even during the pandemic. Libraries across the country offered in-person cooking classes before COVID, and many of those have gone digital, providing much-needed fun, distraction, and camaraderie during lockdowns. Garden City Public Library in New York has Summer Recipes with Chef Rob Scott, a series of cooking demonstrations complete with recipes; St. Louis County Library combined book groups with mocktail recipes; The Verona library system in New Jersey has virtual kids’ cooking classes; and in Springfield, Massachusetts, the library coordinates an email-based cooking club. These are only a few examples of what’s out there.

To learn more, we spoke with Stacie Larson, director and CEO of the Maitland Public Library in Florida, and Kami Bumgardner, youth services assistant in Maitland, about the cooking programs they offer and why they’re important.

Maitland had an active roster of cooking classes long before the pandemic arrived. “They were in person, and in a very makeshift way,” said Larson. “We have these six-foot resin tables, and at their very highest level, they’re kitchen-counter height. We would put two of those together at the front of the room. We’ve improved since then. But in 2013 we had a three-burner hotplate, variable heat, an electric skillet, two toaster ovens and microwaves. In 2014, we got a grant to build a proper demonstration kitchen. It’s got a two-burner induction range built into the counter. We set the tables up facing into the kitchen, but it’s got an actual oven and an actual range. it doesn’t wobble when you chop vegetables.”

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She noted that themes for the cooking classes range widely, from the American South to Caribbean to Italian to Ghanaian to gluten-free. They had a series called Healthy Chefs with Maitland, in which local restaurant chefs and owners would do a demonstration at the library, focusing on healthy recipes or how to make an existing recipe healthier.

Bumgardner picked up the concept and ran it with kids in a series called Fresh for Kids. Leading a children’s cooking class, especially in-person and hands-on, was not without challenges. “We had 75 or 100 [children] at one time,” she said. “Through the course of time, we made tweaks to it to try to get a more manageable scenario. And we put a cap on how many people would come because we were running out of supplies, and there wasn’t enough food for everyone to be able to try it. Once we put a cap on it, everybody would get something and everybody would get a turn at pushing a button on the food processor, or chopping the vegetables, whatever the recipes happened to be. And a lot of times it was whatever was in season, and when you’re using fresh veggies or produce, you don’t have to do a lot of cooking..”

Challenges and tweaking aside, Bumgardner said it was great fun, and a learning experience both for the kids and the adults in their lives. “I remember one time I wanted to do cabbage and everybody said, ‘Oh, no kids are never going to eat that.’ And I’m telling you, every single bite of food got eaten. If they make it with their own hands, they will definitely try it. And often, they realize they like it a lot more than they thought they did.”

Switching from in-person to digital took some trial-and-error. “We tried one Facebook Live cooking program, and the answer that came out of that was please never make me do that again,” said Larson, who works on cooking programs for adults. “It worked okay, but you need to have more than one person for Facebook Live. It’s very hard to do all the prep while also responding to the chatting with the Facebook Live aspect. So the others we’ve done have all been pre-recorded.”

The videos for adults are more sophisticated. The week before Valentine’s, Larson recorded a special dinner comprised of filet mignon, braised vegetables, and strawberry shortcake. “We’re not going out to fancy restaurants right now, but you still want to celebrate with your loved one,” she said. “Here’s something that sounds ridiculously fancy. But in fact, every piece of that was super easy to make. It looks good on a plate, it sounds romantic.”

How to proceed in the post-pandemic future is already under discussion. “It’s a question we’re asking for all of our programming right now, not just the cooking classes, because we have several book clubs as well that have picked up attendees that don’t live here,” Larson said. “We’ve got one where somebody remotes in from Baltimore. In my mystery book club, one of our regulars just moved away. She’s not very far, but she doesn’t drive at night, and that one meets in the evening. We’re looking at how can we make more of our programming, maybe not all of it, but more of it, hybrid. Some people will Zoom in, and some people will be in person.”

Regardless of the format, one focus that will continue is healthy eating. “The Winter Park, Eatonville, Maitland areas have very high rates of heart disease and diabetes, and one way to combat that is better eating,” said Bumgardner. “If we can get them eating better when they’re five, that’s a lifelong habit that they can take with them.”

And of course, when it comes to cooking with children, safety is an especially important factor. “We’ve got 20 sets of child-safe knives, where they’re not going to cut off their own finger. They all get a chance to learn to chop a carrot. And honestly, if you’re going to chop a lot of vegetables, and you have small children doing it, clean craft scissors is a lot easier than knives. They’re easy for kids to control, especially when you’re doing something like a carrot. There’s not a right and wrong way, as long as nobody’s finger gets chopped off. If you get your carrot into pieces, you’ve succeeded.”

Bumgardner noted that it’s not just healthy eating that’s learned in the process, but self-confidence and confidence in a kitchen setting. “The way to build confidence is just to practice basic skills. That’s definitely one of the things that I like to focus on and make it fun and not scary. Cooking is science-based, and kids love science. I try to pepper in facts as well, and sneak in some math, because measuring cups are just fractions. But they’re practical fractions. They’re not annoying fractions. They’re worthwhile, measuring cups. Suddenly, math makes more sense.”

Maitland has gone so far as to produce a video with handouts to teach other librarians what they need to know to start a cooking program in their own library. If you’d like your library to consider this, send this link: Adult Cooking Programs in the Library.