December was a relaxed month, the perfect time to wrap up my teaching projects. I am looking forward to spending the rest of my fellowship time analyzing my field notes and preparing my manuscript. The final work will explore how different groups react to individual healthy cooking skills and the many ways they can be interpreted across communities. As I am deeply involved in the collection of the data, I am hoping to bring on another student to help in the analysis and final write up of the results.
November was a busy month, mainly because of travel and finals layered onto a final surge of teaching. While at times hectic, I really enjoyed teaching this month. With the holidays approaching, all of my classes took on a festive atmosphere. Football snacks and fall flavors were prevalent. One of my most interesting classes took place at Angela House, where the focus was on healthy Thanksgiving sides. Candied yams, apple-carrot-raisin salad, green beans, cornbread, mango salsa and homemade tortilla chips were on the menu, all by request of the women in October. In fact, the very idea of doing healthy Thanksgiving sides came from the group, which made me happy as I felt they must be starting to trust that I really would make whatever they told me they wanted. In the past, my requests for ideas have been met with a fair amount of silence, now I have a few ideas every time I visit. That particular day, one woman had requested a carrot, apple and raisin salad, which I had never heard of. I asked her what went into it and brought all the ingredients for her, assuming she could teach me something (as it often happens when teaching already skilled cooks). Unfortunately, she was not present that day, and I learned she was actually in the hospital getting a round of cancer treatment. The women looked quizzically at the batch of ingredients and asked what the apples, carrots and all were for. I told them about the request and said we didn’t have to make it. The suggestion was met with a resounding NO! They would absolutely figure it out and make their friend’s salad for her, sure to have it ready for when she returned from the hospital. Without a grater, this meant knife grating about 4 apples and 10 carrots- a grueling activity for even a seasoned chef. They persisted and a beautiful carrot, apple, pineapple, raisin creation was born. I saved the recipe for my personal files and plan to make it every Thanksgiving, remembering to be thankful for these amazing women that I am lucky enough to work with.
Remember when I said things were going to slow down? Well, that didn’t exactly happen in October but it was all for the best as I got the opportunity to work with an outstanding organization- New Hope Housing. New Hope has five supported living facilities all over Houston. I felt a great vibe at Rittenhouse, where my first class was held and the newest of the New Hope properties. Sometimes, you just walk into a place and feel that they are doing good work with their heart in the right place. It infuses the space with a very special sort of glow. That is how Angela House feels and Rittenhouse has a similar serenity to it. The New Hope Housing developments are not what one would traditionally think of when you think of single room supportive housing. There are rain chains, sprawling flower gardens and lots of open space. Given that many New Hope Housing residents have disabilities or mental impairments, I think it is important to have tranquil surroundings. These classes have been very interesting and instructive for me in learning how these cooking classes can animate people that may have limited feelings of utility in our current go-go-go society. One notable moment was when I taught at a site of older participants on a stormy and dreary day; few were willing to volunteer during the cooking process except one older man with a cane. He didn’t speak much or ask cooking or health questions, but watched intently through the class and jumped at the opportunity to help- from the cooking to cleaning the dishes. I had gathered all the rubbish of the day into a paper grocery bag because a trash can wasn’t immediately visible. As I left, I asked where the main trash was so I could take it out. The older man told me not to worry about it, he would take care of it. When I walked out the front door several minutes later, the rain was coming down steadily. I got into my car and as I was pulling out of the driveway, I saw the old man- walking without an umbrella, slowly with his cane, step by step, with the grocery bag of rubbish all the way toward the dumpster at the other side of the property. I know I am teaching these classes for the participants, but this old man taking on the considerable effort of schlepping all the way out to the dumpster with his cane in the rain for me—well, it made me pause. Even if these cooking classes don’t impact numbers on a scale or a diet questionnaire, I am impacting something—I am just not sure what.
Sharpening was the word of the month in September my students and I began to hone our culinary skills. For MD Anderson’s Childhood Cancer Awareness month, I doubled down on showing off our online cookbook and doing demos and classes for pediatric patients, families and providers. We made smoothies, demonstrated healthy fruit tarts and had kids twisting and topping their own whole-wheat pretzels. I had to sharpen my own skills in September with the start of a fresh school year, complete with several new classes. Skills were not the only thing that got sharpened in September- my friends at Angela House received an early Christmas present as a knife sharpening extraordinaire transformed their old, dull, knives into razor sharp tools fit for a culinary master. Needless to say, the healthy etouffee (spicy, Cajun stew) we made that night was made (and eaten) faster than any other dish to date.
August did not disappoint as the hottest and busiest month to date. With 17 classes taught and over 250 people impacted, I continue to spread the word about healthy cooking. This month brought to my attention the many different ways cooking classes can be taught and the sheer amount of time it takes to pull them off with regard to preparation. While ingredient costs are low, the labor time is high, often resulting in tens of hours spent cleaning, chopping and prepping in order to get everything ready for show-time. This is particularly true when the classes are more demonstrative or the group has less experience with basic cooking skills. Sadly, that is much of the population today. I taught at Baker-Ripley’s health fair, with over 400 attendees in total and more than 150 students in a set of 8 classes. While students were interested in the content, there was a clear disconnect for those that did not cook at home versus those that did. Some participants were disempowered around cooking and clearly did not think the recipe, while they liked it, was something they could actually make. This was the first time I appreciated this difference as it played out among such a large and diverse group. The experience led me think a focus of future classes needs to be varying skills among similar demographic populations. I believe a peer-led element could help bridge the gap but that will be for September’s classes.
July has felt like the usual summer slow-down just before the whirlwind energy of autumn. While July proved to be a great month for planning, I taught fewer actual cooking classes and spent more time seeking and writing grants, setting up meetings for August and polishing up my PowerPoint presentations. This planning phase has been fruitful, however, with many opportunities arising in August including a spot on a local morning talk show, a keynote presentation at a regional conference and many requests for meetings with new community sites. The classes taught this month were pretty much well received with a few notable successes and hiccups. One of the most amusing moments was probably when I planned a class for teenagers that was, in fact, for an audience of very young boys (4 – 6 year olds). Needless to say, the young boys did not have the same appreciation for my “make your own fruit coleslaw ” class as the older girls. It did, however, drive home a fact that I have been noticing since I began working on cooking classes with children – young boys almost across the board have a slight obsession with grapes. I am still identifying how best to work grapes into my classes. One of the best moments was with the Department of Health and Human Services in Austin. I was so nervous that this group did not fully enjoy the class I gave so I was warmed to see a note from two of my students that declared they had just purchased all the ingredients to make beet pesto and were getting ready to have it for dinner that very night.
It has been a steamy June in Texas and my project is heating up as well with big gains made this past month. A total of 8 cooking classes were held, and 4 planned for July. A diverse group is being targeted for these classes including childhood cancer patients, survivors and siblings, state-level Department of Health employees, low-income African American middle school boys and women transitioning out of the prison system. Future communities being targeted include low-income Hispanic families and refugee populations. So far, the participatory cooking classes have been well received with kids and adults alike mixing, measuring and giving opinions on flavors and methods. My main lesson this month has been on not underestimating who I am working with. The more freedom I give in classes, the better the dishes seem to turn out. One of the stand-outs of this month was a gorgeous Indian spice creation used to marinade fish. No added sugar, salt or packaged ingredients- just herbs, spices, fresh ginger, garlic and a lot of testing and adjusting. Feeling proud of my students is great, but just watching them learn, take ownership and feel proud of their own work is 1,000 times better.
May was a month of foundation setting for my ASF project, which is the development and implementation of community-based healthy cooking classes for diverse communities in Houston. This month has been useful for getting my fellowship situated, from drafting my proposal to having meetings with my mentors. Through our discussions, I have incorporated further elements into my proposal to take place during the summer months in order to gain more useful experience in the field of non-profit work. Namely, I will spend the next three months doing small cooking-related grant research and writing for my key organizations. This skill is paramount for grant-based organization work. My advisors have been supportive of the idea and already led me to some key starting areas. This past month I taught two cooking classes at Angela House (a transitional facility for former female prisoners) and one class at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital in the inpatient unit. My introductory cooking classes have been going well but are still foundational as I get to know the clientele and resources each place offers. Forming some degree of relationship is key to community-based service, especially with regard to food choice. As I get to know the clients, I feel more comfortable planning the classes around their skill level and requests. I have received a few other requests for cooking class teaching in Houston and I am looking forward to spreading these classes to more communities, documenting the experience and continually improving my delivery of this service.