Jaquon Glenn discovered that he likes bread pudding. After the first taste, the 12-year-old went for a second helping and licked one of his two plates.
The dessert and the serving of jambalaya that came earlier weren't just empty calories for Jaquon and 52 other children in a free after-school program at the new Seigle Point development.
Their meal was food for thought.
Geoff Bragg, head chef at South End's Pewter Rose restaurant, presented the New Orleans menu as the final of eight monthly programs on world cuisine.
Bragg created the outreach program – located at the site of the former Piedmont Courts public housing project in Charlotte's Belmont neighborhood – to give the children a sense of the world outside their community.
“Growing up in Charlotte, it wasn't as open to different cultures and races,” said Bragg. “We're trying to introduce different cultures to kids so they can appreciate the differences and similarities. People on the other side of the world really aren't so different.”
Bragg developed an appreciation for world culture as a culinary student at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston. Now well established in his career, he wanted to help others become more accepting of people of different heritages.
Bragg learned about the after-school program from an associate and asked to get involved. His employer provided the food.
The Seigle Avenue Partners Afterschool Program serves many families that remained in Belmont after the Charlotte Housing Authority shut down Piedmont Courts, which had deteriorated since its dedication in 1941.
Seigle Point opened at the site in 2008. It is a mixed-income community developed with federal assistance. The after-school program is in the community center, and Bragg's visits there were welcomed and anticipated, said Maggie Dixon, the after-school program coordinator.
“He always does something different for them,” she said.
Bragg's menus were inspired by China, Brazil, Kenya, Kuwait, Australia and France. He also devoted a menu to Vietnam, his mother's homeland. Teachers taught about each country in the weeks between Bragg's visits.
The consensus among the students was that people in other countries might not be so different, but their food can be.
They ate Australian meat pies floating in split-pea soup. They tasted Middle Eastern flatbread, meatballs and hummus. The menu from Vietnam introduced fresh basil and fish sauce, the pungent liquid used in sauces and dressings.
The New Orleans menu paid respect to one of America's famed regional cuisines. But first, Bragg quizzed the children sitting around two rows of tables.
What did they know about New Orleans? One boy knew the Saints, the city's National Football League team. What state is New Orleans in? One boy raised his hand and answered correctly.
“You get the first plate,” Bragg said.
Bragg shared other details about food from the city known as The Big Easy: It is influenced by African, Caribbean, French and Spanish cultures.
The two dishes he served in place of the children's usual weekday meal were created by people who needed to feed a group inexpensively, he said.
The jambalaya he brought is a Creole dish with Spanish and French influences. It is spicy because of the andouille sausage. That didn't discourage any of the kindergarten- through eighth-graders from giving it a try.
“It's much better than the other food we've been eating,” said Jacari Major, 13. “I might move there (to New Orleans) when I grow up.”
Thanks to Bragg's program, Jacari also had learned that Kuwait is a small country (just 17,818 square kilometers) which “has a lot of people in it” (3.1 million). He said he learned that Russia is bigger than the United States.
“I think it's incredible,” he said of the program.