PORTLAND, Maine — Pepperoni had better watch its back — that is, assuming pepperoni has a back.
The pizza topping rapidly gaining popularity among Portland’s East End Community School students is seaweed.
“This is the first week I’ve ever put seaweed on anything, but it’s been a wonderful addition,” said Laura Mailander of Cultivating Community, a Maine organization that spearheads garden education initiatives such as the one at the East End school.
As part of a program to expand offerings of locally sourced food in the school’s cafeteria, students are given weekly chances to taste-test new dishes and give them the proverbial thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether the cuisine should be added to the hot lunch menu.
This week, they’re trying pizza dressed with a type of brown kelp known colloquially as horsetail — or laminaria digitata in the science books.
“I was surprised by the response,” said Paul Dobbins, co-founder of the Portland-based kelp farm Ocean Approved, which is supplying the topping du jour at the East End school. “I’d said, ‘Oh, it’s not for kids.’ … But we’ve got to give our kids more credit. If you take the mystery out of this, they’re very receptive.
“Digitata is so mild, some people say it tastes slightly of the ocean, but doesn’t have a strong flavor,” he continued. “It takes on the flavors around it.”
Despite seaweed’s slippery, slimey reputation, fourth grader Devyn Shaughnessy corroborated Dobbins’ assessment after downing her bite-size square of the new food. Any anticipatory gross-out was quickly overcome by the very familiar tastes of cheese, dough and tomato sauce.
“It tasted like regular pizza with a little bit of green on it,” she said.
Which, for one boy on hand for Wednesday’s tasting, begged the question: “If it doesn’t taste like anything, why bother putting it on the pizza?”
The answer: It’s extremely healthy.
“It’s one of the most nutritious vegetables on the face of the Earth,” said Dobbins, rattling off a list of beneficial seaweed components, including calcium, iron, fiber and magnesium.
“Iodine is not something that’s found naturally in many foods, and seaweed is a really good source for that,” added Mailander.
And it’s locally grown, which is a priority for Portland schools. The Casco Bay location where Dobbins harvests his kelp is almost visible from the high-ground perch where East End Community School is located.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has made a sustainable foods initiative a cornerstone of his term in office, and is seeking to increase the amount of locally sourced foods served in city schools to 50 percent over the next two years — 30 percent of what the district cafeterias currently serve is locally sourced, including milk.