Charis Freiman-Mendel is not quite 15. She goes to Choate - the prep school whose alumni include John F. Kennedy. She is a bright and articulate kid. Clearly she has a lot going for her.
She hates the food, though. It's not just that Charis is used to home cooking. It's that she's used to...cooking. And doing it better than most people.
And at 14, she is the author of a cookbook: Cook Your Way Through the SAT.
The cookbook came about during a two-year homeschooling stint for 7th and 8th grade. Charis has been cooking full, gourmet meals since she was about 9 - shortly after she became addicted to the Cooking Channel. And, says her mother, Jennie Ann Freiman, when she was homeschooled, "she had to eat lunch, so she'd be cooking all the time."
That fit in with Freiman's initial idea to homeschool her daughter in the first place. She had felt, with her son's middle school experience, that the institution didn't provide as much creativity as she wanted. Freiman is a gynecologist, who currently only works part-time. She thought this would be a great way to combine spending time with her daughter and playing to Charis's creative strengths.
"It's the most time we've ever had together," said Freiman.
It never occurred to either of them that they'd get a book out of it.
From fun to functional
The turn came when Charis wanted to follow her brother to Choate, and had to take the SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test), which Freiman says uses many of the same vocabulary words as the college SAT and other standardized tests.
At first, Charis just wanted to practice writing, so she would cook something and then write about what she cooked. "Then we realized that if you're writing this paragraph, why not include the words that you're going to be studying anyway."
The result was sentences like, "Eating the most NONDESCRIPT mushroom can have DIRE consequences. The ONUS is on you to familiarize yourself with features of DELETERIOUS species and to remain VIGILANT when gathering wild mushrooms."
The book has 99 recipes - neatly divided into three equal parts for first course, entrées and desserts. Each recipe has a corresponding paragraph with 10 vocabulary words, with an extra set of vocabulary words at the end of the book. Below each vocabulary paragraph, there is a list of the 10 words and a list of words that mean the same, and readers are supposed to match the words. (There's an index with the correct matches at the back of the book.)
In the introduction, Charis and her mother exhort the reader to "think of the recipe, blurb and word list as a lesson. We suggest the reader first skim the recipe and blurb to become familiar with the vocabulary. Assembling the recipe ingredients and cooking the dish provide context for the vocabulary and sensory association with the words. After creating the meal, re-read the blurb and take the match test."
Seriously, this is a plan for using cooking as a means of studying.
And this is a kid who takes food - and words - very seriously.
"She kinda just cooks by feel," Freiman says. "Charis just gets food combinations."
Her mother has no idea how she does it.
"I've been married for 28 years, zero meals cooked for my family - and that is not an exaggeration."
Charis laughs when she hears this - and confirms that it's true.
"My dad is the cook in the family," and has a bevy of books that Charis grew up looking at and trying out.
Charis also gives credit to her Creole nanny, Ruby, who taught Charis about herbs and spices her father did not cook with (and who can be seen cooking with Charis in the video above).
The first full meal Charis made was a surprise anniversary dinner for her parents five years ago. She was nine. Ruby and her brother were her sous chefs. Charis "created this incredible menu with the appetizer and the dessert," her mother says.
This is where Freiman thinks she may have influenced the idea that was later to become the book, combining obscure words with cooking. "I looked at the menu and said, 'I'm sorry to be such a Philistine, but what is an Amuse Bouche?"
Turns out, it's a palate cleanser. "I think she must have gotten that from one of the cooking shows."
No matter where they came from, the recipes are intriguing, and the chicken and dumpling soup is quite good - though my 9-year-old and I did cut the recipe in half. Not all of the recipes are kid friendly. Or perhaps we should say, they're not limited in scope or flavor. So if your child decides to use this book to learn vocabulary words, perhaps he or she will also learn how to eat a wider variety of foods.
You can buy the book on Amazon.com.