Lonely turkey sandwiches on white bread sit inside a cooler in the back of Miami-Dade school bus No. 138.
Call it a necessary precaution. There’s no telling how the 27 fourth-graders at Charles Drew Elementary will like some of the food they will be eating for the first time.
“I eat anything. I eat octopus,” Suzane Bush, 9, says confidently as she sits up front in the school bus, next to her friend Deztinie Lewis, ready to roll through Little Haiti, Wynwood and Little Havana on a different kind of field trip: a tasting tour of Miami.
Deztinie, also 9, sits with a journal and a No. 2 pencil in her lap, ready to take notes on her food journey. At the top of the page she writes, “My first tour.”
Some lessons can only be learned outside the classroom.
That’s why the school system’s Cultural Passport program teamed with the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau and Miami Culinary Tours to take a group of children on a field trip Dec. 9 that combined culture, history and cuisine. They chose this Liberty City school, where 96 percent of the students qualify for a reduced lunch. And they chose these particular students for being among the school’s most deserving — the best combination of good grades, good attitudes and eager minds.
“Food, like music, can bring people together,” Connie Kinnard, vice president of multicultural tourism at the visitors bureau, tells the students as they sit quietly in the school’s auditorium awaiting to board the bus. “I want you to learn more about our culture in Miami.”
The bus rumbles out of Liberty City, east toward Little Haiti on Northwest 62nd Street, passing McDonald’s, Burger King, a Church’s Chicken. Less than 15 minutes later, it hisses to a halt outside of Piman Bouk New Florida Bakery at North Miami Avenue.
The accordion doors open and the scent of fresh-baked bread puffs inside, filling it with a mouth-watering aroma.
“What is that smell?” Rodrick Wilson, 10, says. The aroma is new and intoxicating.
They walk around to the side of the building, next to a colorful mural of a Haitian sunset, where they meet up with Miami Culinary Tours guide Mirka Roch Harris. She is speaking through a hip-mounted system to be heard over the rush of cars on the other side of the fence.
The teachers open a white cardboard pastry box packed with free-form tablet cocoye, a coconut-ginger cookie that is hard to find off the island.
“I want you to get a little taste of Haiti,” Harris tells them. “Think coconuts, think ginger. Very Caribbean. They’re crunchy, they’re sweet. They’re things you would only find in Haiti.”
The dense, chewy patties pull apart like coconut macaroons. Deztinie takes a tentative bite and then a larger one.
“Do they put lemon in this?” she asks.
“No, it’s ginger, that little bite you’re tasting. Good palate, though!” Harris tells her.
The ginger is subtle but unfamiliar enough for some of the students to stop after one bite. Not Anthony Pavón, though. He finishes his cookie and asks for a plastic bag to carry three others he wants to take home for his mother and two older brothers.
“You wanna switch?” Kani Powell, 9, asks him, looking at his bag.
“No way. Finders keepers,” Anthony tells him.
“When you first bite it, it tastes like lemon. The more you eat it, it tastes like sweet potato pie,” he says.
Harris follows the children onto the bus and sits halfway back, narrating the history of Little Haiti, from its origins as Lemon City and its citrus groves, as the bus turns south and heads toward Wynwood. She points out a cactus in someone’s front lawn near Northwest 46th Street.
“They eat that kind of cactus in Mexico,” she tells them. Some children laugh: Eating cactus? “They make tacos out of it,” she says. There’s a communal ohh.
Colorful murals and graffiti art signal the transition into Wynwood, and Harris tells them about the art community that sprang up here and now draws the annual art celebration Miami Art Week, which puts the focus on South Florida.
“I want you to think art when you’re in Wynwood. It’s one of the best places in the world to see street art,” she tells them.
Suzane shares that her stepfather is an artist. She reads the elaborate spray-painted writing on one wall as the bus stops in front of Jimmy’z Kitchen on Northwest 28th Street. A table is set up outside, and soon waiters trot out tray after tray of bolitas de queso, creamy cheese balls with a crispy coating, drizzled in guava sauce. Owner Jimmy Carey, a Johnson & Wales-trained chef raised in Puerto Rico, meets them outside to tell them about Puerto Rican fare. He brings with him a bucket-sized mortar and pestle used to make his mofongo, the traditional Puerto Rican plantain and pork mash that is his restaurant’s specialty.
Bryunna Knight and Armani McClain, both 9, pose for a selfie with their bolitas de queso. Bryunna fires off a snap for Snapchat. Harris teaches them to say it in Spanish, repeating after her: boh-lee-tahs de keh-so.
Soon they’re off again. As the bus winds through downtown and west toward Little Havana, Harris paints a picture of a changing Miami, from Bahamian to Jewish to Cuban. And this street, Calle Ocho, she tells them, is called Tamiami Trail because it used to link the agricultural communities of Tampa and Miami. The bus stops in front of Domino Park, where septuagenarians are throwing down dominoes.
“I’m not taking you to a chain. This is a real family-run restaurant. The real deal,” Harris tells them as they walk to Old’s Havana next door to the park.
Waiting for them under the awning outside the restaurant are platters of chicken and ham croquetas, salsa music blaring as tourists slip by them on the sidewalk. The kids double-fist them, the warm, crispy croquetas leaving their fingers glistening.
The teachers look down at their watches. Miami traffic has been kind, and they still have time for two more stops. They cross the street to Azucar Ice Cream, the gelato shop with Latin flavors, whose facade of a giant ice cream cone draws cheers from children. The scent of fresh-made waffle cones when the door swings open inspires ahhhs.
From how quickly the children dig into cups of Abuela Maria ice cream, you wonder whether they heard what goes into the ice cream. But they do.
“Vanilla, guava, Grandma’s special cookies. Delicious,” says Shaina Garvy, 9, licking the end of her spoon.
Harris leads the children down the street to Los Pinareños fruit stand, where a clerk tells them about several Caribbean fruits, from mangoes to rambutans. What’s a rambutan, they ask? The clerk holds up what Deztinie later describes in her journal as a “hairy lychee.” They pass around a bag of the freaky-looking fruits.
“What is it? How do you open it?” Anthony asks before learning to crack it open with his fingertips. He eats the tender fruit inside down to the seed.
“You can tell some of them are in areas of Miami they had never been in before,” said Matthew Sabatella, program director of the Cultural Passport program, who went along for the tour. “They’ll probably remember this day for a very long time.”
As the children head back toward the bus that will return them to Liberty City in time to join the car line, Harris sends them off with a final salute.
“You guys were exceptionally well-behaved,” she says. “You ate everything. You loved everything. Now when you go shopping with your mom or dad, keep your eyes open. There’s a lot of cool food right here in Miami.”
No one even remembers the turkey sandwiches.
Where to Find Them
Piman Bouk New Florida Bakery
5932 NE 2nd Ave., Miami. 305-759-6805
2700 N Miami Ave., Miami. 305-573-1505
Old’s Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina
1446 SW 8th St., Miami. 786-518-2196
Azucar Ice Cream
1503 SW 8th St., Miami. 305-381-0369
Los Pinareños fruit stand
1334 SW 8th St., Miami. 305-285-1135