Over the last five years, LJ has reported that the number one circulating nonfiction subject has been cooking. Food represents so very much within our culture and social lives. It triggers treasured memories, extends hospitality, provides the shared experience of first dates, serves as a pretext for family and friends’ gatherings, and is praised both as a virtue and a vice for how it makes us look and feel. Yet on the event calendar at an average public library, classes or programs on this number one topic are missing. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Learn the limits
You will need to do the legwork of the logistics of hosting a cooking program by evaluating what your library can handle. A cooking program isn’t just about how many people your program area can hold but how many it can manage, taking into account the additional safety precautions that come with griddles, hot plates, and other portable kitchen devices. In addition, there will need to be a space around the cooking area to protect against splatter, spray, and other cooking-related projectiles.
Furthermore, you will need to make sure that any cooking program won’t set off a fire alarm (or worse, a sprinkler system). Nothing puts a “damper” on a program like the fire department evacuating the building. A call to the local marshal can provide you with the proper guidance to ensure that your program is safe for the public as well as safe for the building. Once you know your boundaries, you can design a cooking program or class around them.
Choose the chef
Next, the key to a good cooking program is to find a good chef. “Good” is a relative term here because the person has to be both culinarily proficient and charismatic, with the ability to teach and to entertain. Cooking programs are a wholly sensory experience: they invite the audience not simply to look and listen but also to smell, taste, and touch. The chef will need to bring those elements to the classes and demonstrations in order to engage audience members.
One possible way to find a chef is through local restaurants. This can create a mutually beneficial partnership as well as promote local businesses. Another is through local culinary education programs. Both instructors and students can demonstrate; it is a good way to promote their program and achieve community outreach. A third way is through organizations like Pampered Chef, which combines cooking demonstrations, entrepreneurship, and local business support. Word of mouth and personal references work wonders for recruiting someone to be the face of this program.
What’s on the menu?
Finally, it is time to bring all of these factors together to design a program or class based on your community. What are your patrons’ preferences? What kinds of cuisines are prevalent in the area? Do you want to try something new? Like cooking, you will need to test some things out before you find the right combination of ingredients that makes the program pop.
Now we’re cooking (but no gas)
In my own experience, I was faced with limitations right from the first step. After being told by the county fire marshal that the only thing the library was allowed to use was a microwave, presenter and Pampered Chef consultant Lisa Hartmann and I turned those restrictions into an opportunity to be creative. We emphasized easy, nutritious, and budget-friendly meals that could be made with little or no cooking skills for all ages. We also had programs that talked about raw foods, mix-and-serve snacks, and even a kitchen safety class that taught the proper cutting techniques and food handling. Working within these restrictions showed me that a cooking program doesn’t have to be overly elaborate; even the basics can bring people into the library.
Our magnum opus was a grilling program held outside the library. With the guidance of the assistant fire marshal through the fire permit application process, we were able to hold a class on grilling pizza in our parking lot. Patrons who attended brought their own chairs and enjoyed a summer sunset while Lisa taught them about dough, sauce, toppings, and heat on a tailgate grill. The passing foot traffic added to the attendance as well; it was our most successful program of the series.
What to eat and how to prepare it are only a couple of the questions that are constantly being asked, especially as tastes and technology evolve. Providing programs, as well as collection resources, that help patrons eat happily and healthfully meets an evergreen community need. All it takes is a judicious combination of the right ingredients.