DIY Shop, Cook & Art

First came the shopping checklist and a quick jaunt to ShopRite. Then, there was DIY sushi. And that was just the beginning of Cooking and Art at Lifetown in Livingston on a recent Wednesday night.

As the teen participants arrived for the weekly program, they were paired with their volunteer buddies. The tables were laid with plates, tools, recipe cards, and key ingredients, like shredded carrots, cooked rice, and nori, the seaweed paper sheets used to make sushi. But some items on the recipe card were missing. 

Each group compared the card with the components on the table and identified the items they did not have. A quick trip to ShopRite in the Lifetown Shoppes would remedy the situation. Once there, they selected ripe avocados, cucumbers, and imitation crab meat, along with tins to hold their sushi. They lined up at the register, paid with the cash that had been provided, bagged their goods, and returned to start the preparations.

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“It’s as real as it gets,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of the Friendship Circle and LifeTown. “This is one of my favorite programs because it’s everything that LifeTown is all about: giving participants daily living experiences from start to finish,” he said. This program, which began in September, mimics the at-home cooking experience. “After deciding what to cook, people often have to run to the grocery store to pick up some items before they can begin,” said Toba Grossbaum, LifeTown’s executive director. 

This particular Wednesday, December 22, marked the end of the semester. For Eitan Shua, 15, of Livingston, it was a bit of a revelation. He had never eaten sushi – or any Asian food, given his allergy to sesame. 

Beyond giving her son a chance to try new foods, Eitan’s mother, Shana Shua, said all the steps involved in the program have their own benefits. “The shopping, reading instructions, following instructions, measuring ingredients, pouring, stirring– it’s great for him. He really likes it, he’s doing something successfully, and he gets a sense of accomplishment seeing the finished product and being able to eat what he has made,” she said. 

Meanwhile, volunteers were having as much fun as participants. Emile Curi, 16, from Short Hills, made his own sushi roll after helping Claire Allard of Livingston with hers. It marked his second volunteer day with FCNJ. “I love this type of volunteer work,” he said. “I love working hands-on with kids.”

As 13-year-old Tuhina Kumar prepared her sushi, her mother, Pooja Srivastava said, “She likes the environment here, and she gets to see people her age and sit with them.”

The sushi was just the appetizer for a three-course meal of activities that also included decorating New Year’s hats with markers, gems, tinsel trim, pompoms, and sticky foam shapes; and preparing chocolate biscotti to bake for dessert. 

As much as he enjoyed making and eating the sushi, creating a hat to celebrate the arrival of 2022, and preparing the biscotti, Eitan was clear about his favorite part of the day’s program: “Eating the cookies!”

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