‘It tastes slightly of the ocean’: Portland school students test seaweed pizza

Posted Feb. 26, 2014, at 2:52 p.m.
East End Community School fourth graders Ali Djana (left) and Nazar Salman record their impressions while trying seaweed pizza in Portland on Wednesday. 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 decide whether the cuisine should be added to the hot lunch menu.
East End Community School fourth graders Ali Djana (left) and Nazar Salman record their impressions while trying seaweed pizza in Portland on Wednesday. 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 decide whether the cuisine should be added to the hot lunch menu. Buy Photo
Laura Mailander of Cultivating Community, a Maine organization that spearheads garden education initiatives, prepares pizza topped with seaweed at Portland's East End Community School on Wednesday.
Laura Mailander of Cultivating Community, a Maine organization that spearheads garden education initiatives, prepares pizza topped with seaweed at Portland's East End Community School on Wednesday. Buy Photo
East End Community School fourth graders, including Tessa Boxer-Macomber (center), dip edible sugar kelp into hot water, turning it from brown to green in Portland on Wednesday. Students were learning about local edible seaweed that may show up in their hot lunches.
East End Community School fourth graders, including Tessa Boxer-Macomber (center), dip edible sugar kelp into hot water, turning it from brown to green in Portland on Wednesday. Students were learning about local edible seaweed that may show up in their hot lunches. Buy Photo
Fourth graders at Portland's East End Community School (from top left) Devyn Shaughnessy, Tessa Boxer-Macomber, Ali Djana, Fartun Ismail, Nazar Salman and Trevor Fairchild, learn about sugar kelp with seaweed farmer Paul Dobbins on Wednesday. Local, edible seaweed may soon be on the hot lunch menu at their school.
Fourth graders at Portland's East End Community School (from top left) Devyn Shaughnessy, Tessa Boxer-Macomber, Ali Djana, Fartun Ismail, Nazar Salman and Trevor Fairchild, learn about sugar kelp with seaweed farmer Paul Dobbins on Wednesday. Local, edible seaweed may soon be on the hot lunch menu at their school. Buy Photo
Paul Dobbins, co-founder of the Portland-based kelp farm Ocean Approved, shows the root end of a strand of sugar kelp, known as the holdfast, to students at Portland's East End Community School on Wednesday.
Paul Dobbins, co-founder of the Portland-based kelp farm Ocean Approved, shows the root end of a strand of sugar kelp, known as the holdfast, to students at Portland's East End Community School on Wednesday. Buy Photo
Strands of locally grown kelp, known as horsetail, sit ready-to-eat in a bowl at the East End Community School in Portland on Wednesday.
Strands of locally grown kelp, known as horsetail, sit ready-to-eat in a bowl at the East End Community School in Portland on Wednesday. Buy Photo
Ava Peloquin, a fourth grader at Portland's East End Community School, examines a piece of sugar kelp on Wednesday. Students spent time learning about and tasting seaweed as part of a program to expand offerings of locally sourced food in the school's cafeteria.
Ava Peloquin, a fourth grader at Portland's East End Community School, examines a piece of sugar kelp on Wednesday. Students spent time learning about and tasting seaweed as part of a program to expand offerings of locally sourced food in the school's cafeteria. Buy Photo

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.

Poll question

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.

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