When we pulled up in our vans to Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, we collectively gasped. What had once been a rock-strewn lot fenced in with barbed wire was now a colorful oasis illuminated in the hazy morning sun, with wildflowers peeking out behind newly planted citrus trees and native grasses bending easily in the breeze on the “living rooftops” of the outdoor classroom. Since the inception of CulinaryCorps in 2007, we have witnessed and participated in the remarkable transformation of a former playground of the Samuel J. Green Charter School into an expansive organic garden.
We unloaded our vans full of pots and pans from Henckels (a kind donation to their new teaching kitchen) and were off on a tour of the enterprise with Chef April N. (CulinaryCorps alum ’07) and Director Donna C. Once familiarized with the program and its emphasis on teachable moments through food, our team was tasked with creating menu items for the afternoon’s lunch. But there was a wonderfully delightful catch. The menu items had to be shopped for side-by-side with the entire third grade class (60 students total) and then taken back to the classroom to be transformed into lunch by those same students. It was a challenge too sweet to pass up.
The team was quickly broken down into pairs and they got to work setting up their prepping/cooking stations. Makeshift burners, plastic cutting boards and an insta-kitchen in what was once the “girl’s locker room” were the means upon which the meal would be created. Undaunted, we departed for the Farmer’s Market confident that our charges would create a stellar meal.
The third graders arrived at the Crescent City Farmers Market with a palpable excitement but perhaps also a touch of apprehension—many of the students had never before been to an outdoor market. Before long, however, the chef-student teams were making their way around the market doing a “scavenger hunt” and shopping for the food that would be their lunch. While local strawberries were definitely the biggest draw, the students were incredibly courageous in their shopping choices and bought a variety of produce and products including romanesco broccoli, bright yellow crookneck squash and even alligator sausage.
Once back at the school, the teams immediately set to work chopping, sautéing, whisking and assembling. Students tasted artichoke hearts for the first time and declared them “delicious!” and couldn’t stop popping deep purple kalamata olives into their mouths (another first for many). The third grade class has only had the opportunity to cook three times this year, but the focus, creativity, courage and enthusiasm for creating the meal caught us all off guard. As one girl chopped Creole tomatoes, she remarked that “she was in heaven.”
While it was definitely organized chaos during the lunch preparation, a beautiful meal of six eclectic dishes was proudly brought to the buffet by the participating students. The menu included:
Whole Wheat Penne Pasta with Caramelized Cauliflower
Squash and Smoked Chicken Tacos with Fresh Salsa
Alligator, Olive and Artichoke Muffalettas
Strawberry and Fresh Herb Salad with Citrus Vinagrette
Creamy Whole Wheat Pasta with Tasso and Edible Flowers
Fresh Strawberry and Mint Soda
LA Strawberry Shortcake with Smith’s Creamery Cream
The lunch was a HUGE success! After seconds, thirds and even fourths were handed out, the buffet dwindled down to nothing. There were smiling faces and thumbs up all around. It was amazing to witness the day going from apprehension to elation in just a few turns in the pan.
As they headed off to recess, we all mugged for photos, gave hugs and slapped high-fives to the adventurous eaters we had the privilege of working with. Right before their departure, Ms. Costa, one of the amazing third-grade teachers at the school, said it was the highlight of their year so far. CulinaryCorps can certainly say the same.
The trip ended later that day on the sunny quad of Xavier University. As we were summing up our experiences for each other, Viviana (our trip co-leader and a four-time CulinaryCorps participant) said that things in New Orleans “have gone from black and white to color.” A simple statement full of truth. There is palpable optimism and wonderful momentum infiltrating the City and inoculating the projects we worked with this week. And after two years of CulinaryCorps trips, we found that the impetus is no longer just about rebuilding but also about enrichment. CulinaryCorps was honored, privileged and inspired to be a part of it all, if at least for a brief and shining moment.
[Thank you to Liz Williams of SoFab for writing about our visit on the museum’s blog]