VILONIA — It might be hard to convince first-graders at Vilonia Primary School that there can be too many cooks in the kitchen.
About 125 first-graders Monday participated in making turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn bread, cranberries, green beans and pumpkin pie — traditional items served at a Thanksgiving dinner.
With a plastic knife and a potato peeler, the students sliced, diced and chopped. They measured. They learned about the harvesting of each product. They learned about recipes. They helped, with the aid of teachers, to prepare six turkeys with stuffing, six pies, 15 pounds of potatoes, four pounds of cranberries and 140 green beans. And, of course, they ate.
"We built a lot of academics into this project," said teacher Jeanne Harvey, who spearheaded the event, along with the help of the other first grade teachers. "We incorporated math, social studies, science and reading — actually all the curriculum. Really though, this is about so much more. Each one of these kids will have a Thanksgiving meal. This looks like an affluent school on the outside but there’s a lot of needy families with kids here."
Harvey talked about her own childhood memories of Thanksgiving. She awoke to the smell of turkey cooking in the oven. And, from a young age, she was assigned kitchen duty including unwrapping the butter and mixing the stuffing.
"Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday," Harvey said. "The sense of smell promises to bring up those memories. When they (the children) smell a turkey cooking, I want them to have fond memories of this school and their first grade forever."
As the students waited patiently in their rooms for their turn to go through the make-shift buffet line, teachers quizzed them on topics. Teacher Virginia Pratt asked the students if they remembered the five states that grew the most cranberries. Hands in the air, students named off Oregon, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
Plates full, the students returned to their classrooms to devour their fixings. Some parents were on hand for the event and were also helping out. Between bites, students shared the woes of working hard to accomplish their mission. A couple of them also showed some wear on their fingers. The students, however, didn’t want to take credit for more than they had earned. They confessed their part of the preparation actually only involved cutting up one bean each, chopping a small piece of celery and taking a turn at peeling a potato.
While the going was tough, some students said they learned a lot of facts and plan to share them during conversation around the table on Thanksgiving Day. They now know about the harvesting of cranberries as well as the difference between dressing and stuffing. Dressing is out and stuffing is in, one student said. Also, students learned about recipes and were entrusted to keep one regarding the secret ingredient in stuffing.
The majority of the students declined to divulge any secret ingredients in the fixing, even with some prodding. However, one anonymous source whispered that the secret ingredient in his teacher’s dressing is eggs.
"You weren’t suppose to tell," student Destiny McCarty said. "That is what a secret is all about."
It’s no secret though regarding the directions to cooking a good bird, they said. All you have to do, they said, is put it in the oven for five hours. There were some disagreements, though, as to the degrees it should be cooked at.
One little girl said 500 degrees. One little boy said 130 degrees. That’s just one thing, another little boy said, he couldn’t remember so he would rely on the help of his grandmother for that "little" detail. Harvey giggled at the thought of the little boy trying to tell his grandmother about cooking a turkey.
As long as she is a first grade teacher, Harvey hopes to continue the tradition. Plenty of leftovers, she said, the students also learn about sharing and giving. The remainder of the meal is donated to the Women’s Shelter in Conway. It was delivered to the shelter by a parent who also helped with the serving.
"I hope they all have many good meals from our gift," Harvey said. "We have donated to several causes but find this one the most fulfilling."