BRISTOL — The location may have been rural Vermont, but the ambiance was entirely French at the Mount Abraham Union High School cafeteria last Thursday. French music piped in through the speakers, crisp, white tablecloths dressed up the cafeteria, and students gathered to converse in French over a gourmet meal prepared by chef Bill Snell of New Haven’s Tourterelle restaurant.
“It’s what we want meals to be like — this idea of community,” said Kathy Alexander, director of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Food Service Cooperative, surveying the scene with a smile.
The high school’s second annual French Day was a collaborative effort between Mount Abe French students, Tourterelle owners Bill and Christine Snell, and the staff of the ANeSU food co-operative.
In recent years, the ANeSU co-op has made great strides in using school kitchens — not to mention the county’s agricultural heritage — to enhance the learning experiences of students in the Five Town Area. Along with in-school community service programs, the co-op has planned themed lunch days as special events that also integrate classroom learning. They recently hosted a Turkish Lunch, and the high school has Greek Day and Latin American Day coming up. Most theme days highlight food from cultures around the world, but they aren’t limited to geography — last year on March 14 (which can be abbreviated “3.14”), the co-op also sponsored a Pi Day (think of the numerical concept of “pi”), where every item on the menu came in pie form. Dishes included pizza and quiche as well as dessert pies.
“We are really committed to being part of students’ education,” said Alexander. “We tell all our teachers, especially here at the high school, if you want to inject food and culture into your studies to make it more interesting or fun, we’re here for you.”
Mount Abe French teacher Jori Jacobeit took them up on it. This year’s French Day marked a special occasion — for the first time, a collaboration was made with community members outside of the school system.
“I just thought, this is such a wonderful opportunity to partner with our colleagues in the community,” said Alexander, who added that in planning French Day, she immediately thought of Bill and Christine Snell, whose restaurant is among the most popular and well-reviewed destinations for French cuisine in the state and whose two youngest children currently attend Beeman Elementary School.
“Everyone’s excited,” said Bill Snell on Thursday, taking a break from preparing the meal of pork with cider and prunes (“sauté de porc au cidre et aux prunes”); pureed parsnips with celery (“purée de panais et de celery”); rice pilaf (“riz pilaf”); and sautéed green beans with almonds (“haricots verts aux amandes”). Snell also assisted with the ratatouille dish that Mount Abe French students prepared themselves earlier in the week. “(Students) came in as we were cooking in the morning, and they were excited to eat lunch.”
“To see (students) trying different food is also nice to see,” Snell laughed. “I don’t think I would have eaten celery puree at that age.”
Tourterelle pastry chef Adam Federman was also on hand, busily serving up trays of apple clafouti, a traditional French dessert of apples over vanilla custard.
“I wanted to do something the students could learn how to make themselves,” Federman explained. “It is one of the simplest French desserts out there. Julia Child describes it as pancake batter poured over fruit. Traditional, simple, and it’s good.”
The meal was prepared with the best available ingredients that the ANeSU cooperative had, with input from the students and the Tourterelle staff. Planning a school lunch menu can be an educational experience in itself, Alexander explained, since she and her staff have to meet USDA nutritional standards for each meal served in the cafeteria.
The French Day menu was designed to reflect traditional French cuisine while using fresh, local Vermont ingredients, a principle that Tourterelle uses to an even higher degree when preparing dishes for its customers. Tourterelle’s menu changes seasonally, and the Snells rely on local meats, vegetables and cheese in the restaurant.
Students also helped in food preparation itself. On Monday, French students went to the cafeteria and prepared ratatouille, a traditional French vegetable dish. They chopped tomatoes and eggplant with chef knives, sautéed the vegetables, layered the vegetables to enhance the flavor at Bill Snell’s direction, and let it “flavor up” for a few days before serving on Thursday.
Tenth-graders Katie Meyer and Susannah Frey staffed the lunch line along with Christine Snell, herself a native of France.
“We did a lot of stuff in class over the last couple of weeks,” Meyer said. She and Frey had helped make a bulletin board for the hallway, decorated the cafeteria, and found French music to play during the event.
“I think it’s good to get people interested in French, too,” Meyer said of the event. “It’s not like you’re just sitting in a classroom reading a textbook, you’re really involved in learning the language and the culture.”
ANeSU co-op educator Kristen Andrews emphasized that the cafeteria can really be an ideal classroom for students.
“It’s an amazing resource that’s usually untapped in high schools, a place for them to do hands-on work and to apply what it is they’re learning. It’s here, so why not use it?” Andrews said.
“It helps them to be more intimate with the operation of food, it helps them think about planning healthy meals, it’s really linked to health and well-being. The more that students are involved in preparing their foods, seeing where their food comes from, seeing that we have local farms that are dropping off their food here, that their beef is from a local farm — it can have lifelong consequences.”
In the short term though, the Mount Abraham community seemed to be thoroughly enjoying French Day’s success.
“Can I have thirds?” one student asked.