Learning outside of the classroom

These days Kevin Allen Micheal’s life reads along the lines of the book and latest screenplay, “Julie and Julia.”

Granted, Micheal isn’t a secretary.  He’s an IT systems analyst for the Transportation Security Administration, and he wouldn’t say his life lacks passion. But like Julie, who when she discovers her life lacks purpose turns to food and blogging, he needs an escape.

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And for Micheal, his escape is dancing — hip-hop to be specific.

“You need something outside of work.  Family.  Friends.  Some people do alcohol. I don’t agree with alcohol, but you need something,” said Micheal, who teaches and participates in hip-hop dance classes at Joy of Motion, a Washington dance studio.

Today, education isn’t trapped to the confines of a desk in a classroom.  Classes like cooking, dancing and art are rising in popularity for people with day jobs searching for a creative outlet to hone a new skill set.

Micheals isn’t alone. Joyce Wiley retired from teaching political science at the University of South Carolina two years ago. While she’s closed her grade book and shut the door to her campus classroom, she hasn’t locked the door on learning.

Wiley, along with her daughter Camille Elhassani, a Washington journalist, spent a Saturday morning in downtown D.C. chopping, mixing, and of course eating during a Moroccan vegetarian cooking class at CulinAerie a cooking school.

The class, a birthday gift from Elhassani, was inspired after a visit to Morocco several years ago. Elhassani, a vegetarian, said the smells of the bisteeya, a puff pastry similar to the American version of a shepherd pie made from flaky phyllo dough and stuffed with potatoes, peas and artichokes, made her nostalgic for the food and adventures of the African country.

“It was a good opportunity for us to remember that food and make some of the food we had there,” said Elhassani as she sipped Harira, a hearty soup consisting of beans and lentils, and noted with her mother that, regardless of age, there are always opportunities to learn.

Amy Riolo, cookbook author and the Moroccan culinary instructor at CulinAerie, said humanity was built around the arts and cooking. “People are getting back to their roots,” said Riolo, pausing to say good-bye to students, stomachs full, as they trickled out of her Moroccan vegetarian cooking class and thanked her for the session.

“Whatever people do from their 9-to-5, this is what’s most rewarding,” she said, noting that some of her best cooking students are lawyers and high-profile government workers with desk jobs make them anxious to find an outlet using their hands and finishing a project in several hours, as opposed to several years.

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And after three hours of chopping, lightly buttering and laying phyllo dough, mixing, and sampling, Wiley and her daughter began to smell the results.

Engulfed in a world of sense and sound, the pair sat down to a communal table with their fellow cooks and feasted on heaping plates of egg- and vegetable-infused bisteeya, a medley of savory cooked vegetables enriched with native spices like saffron and cinnamon, and buttery almond couscous and white wine.

Both Wiley and Elhassani polished off their plates, but neither forgot to save room for dessert — sugary marzipan-stuffed dates in fresh mint and strawberry flavors decorated the serving dish. Wiley tucked away a few for the road, noting the subtly fruity strawberry was her favorite.

While Riolo credits the cooking trend to celebrity cooking shows like “Top Chef,” and the Food Network, a drive to experience other artistic forms doesn’t end when the oven timer dings.

Elhassani has taken a ballroom dancing class, which she said didn’t stick, and learned Arabic. And while her mother isn’t a formal professor anymore, she continues to teach politics to senior citizens at learning centers and said the interaction is important for retiring professionals to keep their minds sharp.

Neither, however, plans to hang up her apron just yet.

“I think maybe next time we’ll do a cheese-making class,” Elhassani said.

“Cheese? Oh. That’s hard,” said Wiley between laughs.