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Issue Date:  November 23, 2007

Young cooks make a mean 'Spider Web Soup'


I like Julia Child. She was an adventurous, smart and creative woman. But recently having tried Child’s recipe for coq-au-vin, I’m here to say that next-generation television chef Rachael Ray’s meals in 30 minutes make a whole lot more sense for today’s cooks. And I’m not the only one who’s drawn to Ray’s casual style. Take an informal poll of the kids you know, and you may be surprised to learn that the Food Network has a big fan base among the younger set.

Teens I know say they’re entertained by flashy shows like “Ace of Cakes,” “Iron Chef” and “Dinner Impossible,” which feature chefs mastering unusual cooking challenges: gourmet dinner for 500 baseball fans using only ballpark ingredients; a cake shaped like the Taj Mahal; or amateurs competing against top chefs.

My daughters, ages 12 and 15, prefer such down-to-earth cooking gurus as Ray, “Simply Delicioso’s” Ingrid Hoffman with her Latina flair, and Paula Deen, whose no-holds-barred Southern recipes may be nutritionally incorrect but are nevertheless irresistible. We may demand homogeneity from our newscasters and politicians, but we love the regional flavors, accents and style these personalities bring to the table.

Consider young kitchen entrepreneurs Isabella Gerasole, 11, and her sister Olivia, 9, who not only enjoy cooking, they’re teaching other kids how to cook through their multimedia venture,, which features step-by-step Web casts that demonstrate how to prepare such dishes as “Spider Web Soup” and “Spooky Skull Meatloaf” for Halloween; bento box lunches featuring “Sushi Hand Rolls” and “Radical Stir Fry”; and Thanksgiving specialties like “Leek and Potato Tart,” “Phyllo Flowers” and “Mini Pumpkin Cheesecakes.” The girls’ culinary venture earned them a 2006 James Beard Foundation award. Now Scholastic has published a print version of their work, The Spatulatta Cookbook.

The sisters credit their Italian-American father, Vince Gerasole, a food reporter for Chicago’s CBS television affiliate, WBBM, with their cooking expertise, but it should be noted that mom Heidi Umbhau, a media trainer, is a coproducer of their Web site and according to her daughters, kitchen supervisor at home.

Isabella says Italian heritage and love of cooking go together like salt and pepper. “What interests me the most,” says Olivia, who goes by Liv, “is how you can add things to make [food] taste stronger, or make it really salty, or really spicy. I think everything you can put into cooking to make it awesome is really cool.”

Isabella’s favorite recipes to prepare are her dad’s pasta with pesto, and fresh salmon broiled with rock salt. Liv loves to make desserts. “I made a blueberry crumble,” she said, “and they ate it before I could even get it out of the pan.”

These girls may be prodigies at promoting their love of good food and their craft of cooking, but they’re just like their peers in their admiration for TV chefs like Rachael Ray, Giada deLaurentiis and Emeril LaGasse. The armchair social psychologist in me theorizes that watching interesting personalities prepare food from scratch is somehow reassuring, creative and tangible. And as the Gerasole sisters demonstrate, cooking is useful work that simply makes people happy.

The Gerasole girls attend Pope John XXIII School in Evanston, Ill., and are members of St. Mary’s Parish, where Liv sometimes serves Mass. Spatulatta, it is suggested, sounds like an old-fashioned saint’s name. “Saint Spatulatta, that’s fun!” chuckled Isabella, but she says there isn’t any religious overtone. “It just came up, a nonsense kitchen word.”

But their Catholic values are at least simmering on the back burner as they reflect on food and their faith. At home the family prays before dinner. “We usually say ‘Bless Us, O Lord’ and give thanks, and bless our family and friends,” said Liv.

Isabella has considered the importance of sharing food with others in a faith context. “When I am in the kitchen, I thank God that I have hands that can make food,” she said. “And for all these really great ingredients that he gave us -- or she. I cook for friends or someone and I am sharing God’s world. Everyone is a friend at your table. God wanted us to break bread together and love one another.”

Give thanks, share food, enjoy it, love one another: There’s a recipe for life. Bon appetit.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2007

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