Walnut Creek Journal-December 2013, LaMorinda Sun-December 2013, Valley Journal-January 2014
Teacher creates cookbook for developmentally disabled
DANVILLE — East Bay educator and cookbook author Beverly Worth Palomba is a staunch supporter of American ideals — life, liberty and the happy pursuit of independently produced homemade meals.
Her new book, “Special Day Cooking — A Life Skills Cookbook,” brings her managerial background in the computer industry and 20 years of classroom teaching experience to developmentally challenged would-be chefs. The Danville resident has worked as an autism specialist paraeducator in the San Ramon Valley school district for more than 10 years.
With her work in special education, she has developed a life skills curriculum for the district’s Transition Program, which aids special education students, legally entitled to an education until the age of 22, to move from high school to independent or group home living. She says the 160-page cookbook was a labor of love. And not surprisingly, the special curriculum she has developed for her students’ projects reads like a recipe.
“Gather ingredients and equipment. Bring them to the table. Work in a group,” she recites. “Word simplicity and consistency are important.”
Palomba used the formula while planning her book. Dissatisfied with existing special-needs cookbooks, which either presented children’s recipes with baby-like pictures or were too complex, even dangerous, for her students, she began creating her own recipes.
Taking those recipes into her cooking skills classroom, she discovered the students didn’t know how to cut with a knife, follow steps in order or prepare ingredients in advance.
“I spent 31/2 years perfecting the recipes,” she said. “Cooking with my students was the most pleasurable part of the process.”
The book’s guidelines evolved organically, many of them “taught” to her by the students. The book needed to be fun, with a clean design. Each recipe had to be contained to one two-page spread. The language had to be consistent; for example, egg cracking- and bacon frying verbiage had to match from one recipe to the next. Only microwave ovens, toasters, blenders and plastic knives would be used. The main course and vegetable recipes would be nutritional, but snacks and treats that attract meal companions and reinforce cooking’s communal purpose were always in the forefront of Palomba’s thoughts.
“Everything in moderation is worth repeating,” she said. “I’ve never used instant pudding myself, but now I know it’s the greatest find. They make it, decorate it, eat it, clean it up and feel good. Even the bacon I suggest is thin-stripped and cooked well. I get the flavor without the big chunk in my BLT.”
And the students, who often operate in limited social circumstances, can step into the role of hosts.
“It helps them share with friends. It makes them part of a community or a home,” she said. “Suddenly, they can cook for their families, they can be creative. The confidence just comes along with the meal.”
Palomba began distributing the book a few months ago at her website and at Transition Fairs, events showcasing resources for special-needs young adults and their families. It’s also available on Amazon.
“What I’m finding is that teachers and speech therapists are wanting it for their classrooms. But it’s taking a life of it’s own,” Palomba said. “Special-Ed students are all asking me for it. It’s their book. They can write in it — and I want it to be a part of their life, not a textbook owned by the school.”
Palomba’s claim that this is a first-of-its-kind cookbook prompts a curious person to investigate. Indeed, most special-needs cookbooks seem to fall into the too-childish or too-complicated categories. One, the 2010 “Let’s Cook!” (Appletree Press) by Elizabeth D. Riesz and Anne Kissack, comes closest to matching Palomba’s bright, easy-reading instructions and page layout. Even so, with hundreds of thousands of developmentally-challenged but dedicated cooks in the kitchen, two highly-admirable cookbooks hardly seem enough.
“People think that because you’re special-needs you can’t do certain things,” Palomba said. ” But cooking is a hobby and can be learned like anything else. Just the other day, a student struggled to cut a cucumber. I told him he had to saw, not push. He got it and was thrilled. The whole class was thrilled with him.”