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Say cheese! Students get a slice of ag

DIXON – One student poured vinegar, 1 tablespoon at a time, into a quart of hot milk, while another student carefully stirred the mixture with a wooden spoon.

The group of eight students watched in awe as the vinegar forced the milk to separate into slippery, gelatinous, white solids (curds) and cloudy, pungent, yellowish liquid (whey).

The sixth-graders at St. Mary School in Dixon made cottage cheese Monday as part of a 4-week Agriculture in the Classroom unit on pizza.

Katie Pratt, the ag literacy coordinator for Lee County, is using the familiar, accessible and beloved food as a vehicle for introductory lessons on farming with first-, fifth- and sixth-graders at four schools in the county over the next month.

“The goal is to teach them where the ingredients for their pizza comes from,” Pratt said. “It doesn’t come from a pizza place. It comes from a farm.”

Pratt will give lessons on cheese; meat, such as pepperoni and sausage; and crust, sauce and other toppings, such as mushrooms, onions and green peppers. Pratt will conclude the unit with a pizza party, catered by Mama Cimino’s.

Monday, the students learned the very basics of dairy farming: how cows produce milk, how farmers milk cows and how milk makes its way from the farm, to the factory to the cheese plant.

The students then set to work. They separated into three groups and unpacked their supplies, including a small pot, a large plastic container fitted with a piece of cheesecloth and a spoon, and their ingredients, including milk, vinegar and rennet, a digestive enzyme found in mammalian stomachs and used in the production of cheese to separate the curds from the whey.

First, they heated the quart of 2 percent milk to 90 degrees. Then, they dissolved the rennet tablet in a quarter cup of water and poured the solution into the hot milk.

Next, the students poured vinegar, 1 tablespoon at a time up to 6 tablespoons, into the milk and stirred the mixture after each addition of vinegar.

“Be careful,” Pratt warned them. “This will make or break your cheese. If you do it right, it will work. If you do it wrong, and add too much, it won’t work.”

They marveled at the transformation before them.

“Awesome,” several students said as the milk separated into curds and whey.

Last, the students poured the curds and whey into a container fitted with cheesecloth to strain the whey from the curds. They rinsed the curds with a bit of water to remove some of the vinegar.

“Taste it,” Pratt urged the students.

Most were apprehensive about sampling the cottage cheese: It didn’t look or smell like the cottage cheese they were used to; it looked blobbish and smelled pungent. Some students sprinkled a little salt over their curds to lend a little flavor to the cheese; they noted that, even with salt, the cheese was a bit bland. Others ate the curds – in teeny, tiny bites – straight up; they said it was noticeably acidic.

Pratt, who is in her first year as the ag literacy coordinator, is using lessons from Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom, which are aligned to state learning standards to ensure students get more out of the fun activities than just a quick overview of agriculture.

She hopes the students gained an appreciation of pizza and for all the work that goes into the crust, sauce, meat, cheese and other toppings on their pie.

“I hope the next time they sit down and eat a slice of pizza, a part of them stops and pauses and thinks about what makes that pizza happen,” Pratt said. “I hope they have more knowledge and appreciation for our farmers and American agriculture.”

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