Wednesday, March 30, 2011

FEEST and the Food Revolution

Every Wednesday afternoon in the kitchen at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, a group of teenagers and a few adult mentors gather to make a meal together. They are not related by blood, but they are, in a way, building community - through food.

From their blog: FEEST is the Food Education Empowerment and Sustainability Team. We are a youth-run program out of Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, and we gather every Wednesday at 3:30 PM to kick it in the kitchen, prepare a delicious and healthy meal, and then eat all together family-style while learning more about food in our communities. At the end of every month, we throw Community Potlucks where people of all ages are invited to share and dialogue with us.

Teen Link was invited to take part in the Community potluck and dialogue and this is what we saw:
At 3:30pm, Roberto Ascalon, the lead chef, dons his chef's hat and yells out "Time Check!" And the cooks get to work. Present at this time is Lena (6 months with FEEST), Fatuma (1 year with FEEST) and Isaiah (1 year with FEEST) who actually wants to become a chef. All three youth wash their hands and pick out gloves to keep them clean.

Fatuma: "I learn about different cultures through food, how to eat healthy, about what organics are and we share everything - no matter how much or how little there is." Lena joined FEEST through an internship. She likes to cook and is the oldest in her family and thus has to make dinner alot. Before joining FEEST, everything she made, came out of a box.

Upon arrival at the Youngstown kitchen, the youth clean and sanitize the tables, the work mats and the vegetables they will be using for the evening's meal. They gather around the table and begin discussing the items at their disposal. The young cooks sometimes have ideas about what they want to cook but wing it alot - creating dishes on the fly. If the fruits and veggies don't fit the recipes they have in mind, then they will adapt.

The food itself comes from the Youngstown garden, Tiny's Organic on West Seattle, and donations from the Delridge neighborhood. Each of the cooks make suggestions regarding the plan for the meal and all members of the group that are present give input on how best to create each dish.

As late comers (Candace who attends Cordon Bleu, staff member Amy, Natasha - Shorecrest HS, Jamila - Cleveland HS, Tius - working on getting his GED, and Catherine - Ballard HS) arrive, don aprons and gloves, the group continues to survey all the items on the table - one by one. Some are easily identified, others not so much. When the group cannot easily guess, pieces are cut off and sampeld for smell and taste.

Lena then pulls a large green leafy vegetable out of a bag and wonders aloud, "what is this?" Roberto tells her to smell it. And a detective game begins. "Licorice!" Guesses fly from the group and it is confirmed that it is Fennel. It has a flavor similar to licorice and its base can be used in salads or roasted. The leafy stalks will be used as a garnish.

Roberto also fills the cooks in on where each of the items came from, what it is traditionally used for and some limitations for cooking methods on each (i.e. the pros and cons of roasting or boiling or poaching).
Isaiah then calls everyone's attention to creating the menu. Ideas fly like popcorn. Lena suggests poached pears. She and Roberto engage in a back and forth dialogue about how to go about doing so - what might work and what might not.

The young cooks decide on:
  • Mashed Potato style Squash
  • Poached Pears
  • Baked Chicken
  • Boiled Sweet Corn
  • Vegetable Saute
The young cooks start scattering around the kitchen, taking on different roles of either leadership (whoever decides on each dish heads up that team) or support/prep. Candace yells out the rules for handling knives safely, and also touches on the protocols for the oven and carrying hot items.

Chopping follows - unusable pieces are tossed into a compost bin and the magic of the machine that is FEEST begins. Everyone has a job - some are heading up their teams, some are cutting onions, chopping garlic. Everyone says "thank you", and offers help when anyone has a question or doesn't know what to do, the group assists - but the control always remains with whomever chose to make the dish.

Suddenly the poached pears team grinds to a halt - "EWWWW!!!" They've found worms in a few of the pears. Roberto explains, "That's organic! Which would you prefer - a worm you can pull off or to have 'Raid' sprayed on your pear and then washed off?"

Their is laughter and sharing of stories - all the cooks, youth and adult alike, are having fun. Smiles abound throughout the kitchen. All practice efficiency, cleaning up as they go.

The time is called out repeatedly during the next hour and a half as they prep for the 5pm dinner time.
Natasha likes how FEEST brings people together. Isaiah says it builds community. Catherine: I don't like processed/boxed food. Candace: you learn to be creative, you get to try foods you would never have come across from pre-packaged/processed meals.

Finally, the cooks staff and youth from other Youngstown programs gather in a large room around a table that has been set with a green cloth and "ooh" and "ahhh" at the beautiful spread. The cooks explain each of the dishes; their ingredients and how each was prepared. And before the feast commences, each person at the table will say their name and one thing they are thankful for. The food is delicious and the company makes it even better.
Great time, great experience, great people. 

If you have interest in getting involved with FEEST, check them out at: