Stirring Up Inspiration

Teach teens to step up to the plate—and the stove

February 4, 2010

It’s been one of those winters when I’ve wondered if one really feeds a cold (achoo!) and starves a fever, experimenting with soups that require no further icy treks to the grocery store (achoo!). Coincidentally I had already made arrangements for my history students to see titles that include the 1964 Seventeen Cookbook in the University of Iowa’s Special Collections.

Seventeen magazine’s cookbook was either a marvelous time piece or a deliberate exercise in wishful thinking—or perhaps a bit of both. According to its pages, all cooks were female and all their foods both healthy and pleasing, making the young woman a source of delight to the grateful mother, whose kitchen duties she assumed, and an attractive catch to a would-be boyfriend. The nature of a teen in the kitchen has changed greatly since then.

The son of some friends of mine acquired the cooking bug as a teen, skipping adolescent-oriented recipe books and heading directly for the Food Channel and anything with the name Emeril on it. He’s had his own subscription to Bon Appetit for years and lectures us, à la Marcella Hazan, about the sad inadequacies of machine-made pasta. If he isn’t the homemaker Seventeen’s editors once envisioned, he’s probably not the typical teen cook, either.

So what happens when a perhaps-more-representative teen ventures into the kitchen?

Palatable programming

Some bold librarians know, having encouraged their young adult patrons to cook with them. Among them, this fall, was library assistant Beth Lyle at the Tecumseh Public Library in Norman, Oklahoma.

One November afternoon just before Thanksgiving, Lyle reserved space in her city’s auditorium kitchen, a facility adjoining the library, and led some 15 teenagers in baking pies. Her goals were twofold: educational and philanthropic. "A lot of the teens in the community don’t have the resources to do this on their own," Lyle said. She also hoped that exposure to baking would encourage young people to make use of the library’s cooking-related resources.

Having worked solo with novice cooks who ranged in age from 12 to 17, Lyle urges others who contemplate this type of hands-on activity to schedule additional staff or ask for volunteers from the library’s Friends group. "The teens loved it," she explained, but many had no experience with basic kitchen tools and techniques needed to peel apples. Lyle and teens alike, however, expressed enthusiasm for future programs in the kitchen.

Promoting cooking skills and nutrition information for young people occurs across the nation. Watsonville (Calif.) Public Library’s 2009 summer program for teens included a bento-box–making session, and the Carnegie Public Library of Pittsburgh recommends the brand-conscious Cooking Rocks! Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals for Kids as well as accessible, youth-oriented titles about vegetarian diets.

In California, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, youth services librarians serving would-be cooks are certain to cite one name: Sam Stern. The 19-year-old English chef has four cookbooks to his credit and an active website; his New Year’s blog post explained what foods help one cope with and recover from winter’s ills. Stern’s breezy British slang and enthusiasm for food, which balances good sense and good taste, have also made him popular with American teens. Sam Stern’s Eat Vegetarian will be released in April 2010, according to Stern’s site.

In the 21st century, cookbooks have as much to do with celebrity as domesticity, and publishers recognize that young people’s interests in food derive from diverse motivations. From haute cuisine to high-energy health foods, there’s now a title for every teen’s tastes.


Jennifer Burek Pierce is assistant professor of library and information science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Contact her at jennifer-burek-pierce[at]


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