Monica E. Lapenta, world–renowned awards winner children's book author is the creator of program and our characters' Mom ...
Ok... let's make it less formal. :)
My name is Monica, I am Italian, I was born and raised in Italy and I moved to the USA when my son, Matteo was just two year old.
I am a mom, a children book author, a journalist, a writer, an activist. I am deeply in love with my city, Baltimore. We have a dog, Ipso Facto, and we live in Northern Baltimore. I love cooking, especially making pasta and everything I learned in the kitchen is because of my grandmother from my dad side, Nonna Norina, who just recently passed away.
When I created this program in 2015, I had a vision about how I wanted to connect to and be of assistance to my newfound community of Baltimore. I had the idea that this 60 year old non-profit organization, which has been active in the promotion of Italian Arts and Culture, could now impact the lives of the people in this community in a whole new way.
Here in America I have discovered that there are many misconceptions about what Italian culture truly is. The language , the arts, the music, that unique way of life or as we say in Italy, “vivere la vita”, are very difficult to communicate because of these misconceptions.
So let me give a little background.
Italian immigration to the United States is a fascinating story. From about 1890 to 1914, Italians became a part of what is known as the “New Immigration”, which was the largest wave of immigration of people from all parts of Europe. The majority of the immigrants from Italy were from the least developed parts of the country.
These immigrants were mostly artisans and farm laborers, or ‘contadini”, who had no formal education or knowledge of their own rich history and culture. But they did have a dream of creating a better life for themselves and their children.
They found the opportunity to make that dream come true in America. With much hard work and sacrifice they became an integral part of the beautiful cultural tapestry of the United States. But repatriation back to Italy was difficult for many of these immigrants, and so an immense divide grew between the original Italian culture in Europe, and the way of life developed by these immigrants in their new homeland of America.
(I’ve Got an Idea Cooking) As someone born and raised in Italy, I immediately recognized this immense divide when I arrived in Baltimore. I felt a strong desire to close this gap of understanding and connect my new fellow countrymen of America to the realities and beauty of my 2000 year old culture.
And it occurred to me that one of the best ways to achieve this goal is to expose Americans, specifically American children, to the delicious wonders of the Italian Culinary Arts!
You see, in Italy you don’t just cook - you LIVE in the kitchen! Just about every Italian can claim that the site of his or her fondest memories are in a mother’s, grandmother’s or an aunty’s kitchen.
There is nothing that tastes like what my grandmother used to cook. There is nobody that could make tagliolini like my Nonna Norina. With the prowess of a master magician, she would expertly a roll and massage the pasta dough in a humongous round shape, using the exact same rolling pin for over 40 years! She would iron freshly clean towels and lay them down carefully on a “quadro per la pasta” - a large wooden board - in order to dry the freshly rolled dough. In a soft but confident voice she would always say, “…si deve asciugare lentamente e deve stare stesa e bella dritta” – “…the pasta dough must dry slowly and lay down nice and flat”. As the water to cook the pasta was boiling silently on the stove, and the sauce,”sugo pronto” was almost ready, she would prepare for the next phase of her magic performance. With the utmost care and skill that I have yet to see matched, she would then place this pasta dough in a pan that was larger than life. Next she would start folding it delicately into a perfectly cylinder shape. And finally, with a sharpened knife she would cut the most wonderfully perfect and equally sized “tagliolini” that I have ever seen (or eaten!).
So this idyllic memory of my grandmothers kitchen begs the question, is this art?
Well the answer is simple.
YES! Art is simply something that deeply moves you, touches your emotions and stimulates the senses. This is exactly what culinary arts does. And the Italian culinary arts specifically has so much to offer all five of our senses.
The smell, the touch, the look, the sounds, and the tastes of the food made in my grandmother’s kitchen were simply incredible.
It is also incredible how many things one can learn in the kitchen; like
And yet all this knowledge about the joys of food were never taught to me as if I were in a classroom. I learned all these things and more, hands-on, in my nonna’s magical kitchen.
So I decided to create a cast of characters to animate our magical BACFAD kitchen:
MATT – a rolling pin. (the italian word for rolling pen is mattarello).
SPHEN – a wooden spoon. (the ancient greek word for spoon is sphen).
MR. BROWN – a paper bag. (Brown represents the brown paper bag that many children receive every month from various food banks).
Mr. Brown, Matt, and Sphen, together with our professional guest chefs, will use the foods provided from various local food banks and pantries to teach the children to prepare tasty healthy meals. The BACFAD characters will act as playmates and helpers for the children on their culinary journey, in which they will learn and share in an open and magical environment – the kitchen!
(We have been very inspired by the teaching methods of 2 extraordinary Italian educational pioneers , Maria Montessori and Loris Malaguzzi)
Hands-on learning – this is the basis for BACFAD, which is the acronym for Be A Chef For A Day.
This is what we do: we use our Italian culinary history and art and deliciousness to teach children the skills of cooking and confidence.
Our approach is unique in that it emphasizes cooking in the Italian style, while using primarily the foods provided by various local food banks and pantries
This revolutionary approach, one that we have seen work well for 2 years and counting, has become successful beyond our greatest expectations. What started as a two day festival evolved into a weekly program that helps children who are struggling from all over the city and the county. They learn not only what fresh vegetables look like, but they learn how to use them to create a healthy meal. The program is open to everyone. But if a child does not have an adult to accompany them – no problem. We will always have plenty of Italian grandmothers and godmothers eager to help and cook with them.
Yet once we have performed our culinary magic and cooked our many “piatti”, it is the children who we consider our greatest creation. We welcome them. We cook with them. We joke and laugh with them.
But most importantly, we LISTEN to them. We listen to them while taking care of one of their most basic needs - access to food. And they, in turn, feel heard. We know that the overall goal of the BACFAD program – to provide and promote access to food to all the children of Maryland – is very ambitious.
We are well aware of the obstacles and difficulties of the deeper socio-economic issues at play in industrialized cities like Baltimore.
We know that we cannot ‘fix’ the world. But we refuse to turn our backs on this issue. We will use our skills, our resources, and our kitchen to be a part of the solution. We are here to make a difference. We are here to use our Italian heritage for the community at large. Because, after all, we are more than just spaghetti and meatballs. Much much more…
A partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Chesapeake was established in 2016.
Next BACFAD BIG LITTLE will be on November 18, 2017.
For more info call us at: 410-547-9934 or Lisa Cheesboro of Big Brothers Big Sisters at the Y at 410-243-4000 #1221 if you are already a mentor of the BBBS.