People and programs 06/03/2013

Last week I joined the Men’s Cooking Group for a Monday evening session at The Stop. For months, I had been smelling the amazing dishes coming out of the kitchen and hearing about the day’s meal while giving monthly tours of The Stop (which happens to coincide with the cooking group). Finally, I decided it was time to experience first-hand what the guys were up to.

Despite arriving late I felt welcomed immediately. Members of the group brought me up to speed on what they were preparing. First up, the Akiwenzies’ Smoked Fish Pie recipe from Good Food for All, The Stop’s cookbook. I was impressed by the collaborative culture that reigned in the kitchen. While a few of us peeled potatoes for the pie, others finished dicing the pepper garnish for the asparagus and feta salad. Right through to the end of the session I was struck by the group’s attitude: tasks weren’t jobs or burdens they were simply things to be done. Moreover, the act of preparing a meal created a good excuse to break down wall and social isolation and come together as a group.

Born out of conversations with community members and feedback from the Annual Program Survey, the Men’s Cooking Group gives male community members a place to learn about kitchen basics. At the start, sessions were instruction-heavy because many of the members weren’t familiar with the basics of knife skills or kitchen safety, let alone safe meat-handling practices, budgeting, and planning healthy meals. Setbacks in life come in many forms. Several of the guys in the kitchen had been through separations or divorces. Having relied on their wives do the cooking, they now felt the need — one that was in some cases intimidating — to learn their way around the kitchen for the first time.

As with many programs at The Stop and other Community Food Centres, community kitchens are about so much more than the hard skills and knowledge that get passed on in sessions. Now that the program is a couple of years old, the core members take more ownership of teaching those who are new to the program. And that peer-support extends beyond the cutting board and stove. What I experienced was a familial culture, a group of guys who were watching out for one another. Everyone is able to participate at their own speed, according to their own means. And each tries to make sure that everyone has equal opportunity to be a part of the process.

David, a long-time volunteer with the program, echoed this feeling of family. He also pointed to another benefit of the program that I hadn’t yet realized, the creation of “a culture of eating.” Meaning that the act of cooking together is followed by the act of eating together, and making room for everyone around the table.

Once the fish pie was ready, fifteen plates were laid out and plated with restaurant-caliber artistry. We gathered in an adjacent room that someone had carefully set (I didn’t notice anyone being instructed to do this) with napkins, cutlery, cups and cucumber-lime water. Conversation hushed and we sat together and ate like family.  

The seasonal asparagus salad complemented the warm, smoky, round flavours of the fish pie perfectly. Discussion about the meal shifted from its flavour and construction to its practical, take-home nutritional qualities. The polar opposite to a sterile nutrition label, the casual yet informative tone of this conversation made these details easy to digest. We also talked about cheaper adaptations to the meal such as other smoked fish and protein options, and alternative veggies to asparagus for the salad.

After finishing the dishes a few of us lingered around the kitchen and I asked the coordinator, Hussein Silva, about his role in the program.  He spoke about creating a safe space and setting and maintaining limits – although it didn’t come up during the day’s session, foul or language or aggressive behaviour simply wouldn’t be tolerated. Clearly he was working to make sure that there was a welcoming and open environment but Hussein was equally quick to point out that in large part it was the group’s culture; these guys are proud of the program and want to see it continue and grow.

It’s exciting to think of this program and others like it spreading this family feel and culture of eating together to other Community Food Centre kitchens, like The Regent Park CFC, which is slated to start programs this fall. 

Thanks to everyone in the group for the warm welcome and delicious meal.

— by Ross Curtner, Learning Network Coordinator