Leon Johnson

    Building A Kitchen, Building Community

    Posted December 6th, 2012 by

    As a child the primary location of refuge, of passionate conversation and perfumed well-being was at, or occasionally under, the green Formica table my Mother kept scrupulously clean in the corner of her kitchen. Regardless of the terrors that lay immediately beyond the house or, indeed as it was more often than not, the volatile nature of the some of the inhabitants of the house itself, her kitchen prevailed. All three of her sons, now some 40 years later, cook passionately for their families, friends and communities.

    That this kitchen was located in a place called Cape Town and that many of these memories date from the years between 1963–1976 is another story. Many other stories, in fact. For now I will remain in reverie of how Elvethea’s ox-tail soup, neck-bone stew, and lamb curry saved my life, and how her spirited insistence that we meet at table every day forms the basis of the aspirations outlined below, and the foundation of what I cook for my two boys every day.

    After teaching for 20 years in art departments at institutions of higher learning I have started a new endeavor, a school of my own. In Detroit. A place where I might engage with “problems worth having” as my colleague Iain Kerr regularly exhorts – and through which I might wean myself off of the stale, habituated problems perpetuated in art school and universities that fails to prepare our young creative thinkers for the 21stC and breaks faith with the possibility of community partnering. Could I offer opportunities to learn deeply, experiment wildly, and apply what we learn to real lives and urgent needs? And this, without adding to the army of debtors leaving art schools with fraudulent tool-kits and exhausted heads and hearts?

      MarketStudio Kitchen aspires to engage the community by fostering relationships between children, young adult and a range of learning communities, and food, farmers, urban gardens and chefs, via cooking classes, nutrition science, food events and benefits, and themed meals. I believe that a year-round engagement, centered in the historic Eastern Market and scaled from one-day to full term classes, can serve as a rich and compelling counterpoint to passive consumption and crisis-scale poor eating habits in much of Detroit. MSK classes can offer creative and sustainable alternatives, for families and communities, to industrialized food systems and destructive nutritional addictions.

     In addition to basic cooking techniques, farmer and farm engagement with, for example, our wonderful friends of Melo Farm, we can inspire and teach skills essential for any good home or starting professional cook: kitchen safety, flavor profiles and seasonal produce knowledge, creative budgeting and menu planning, and teamwork and community outreach. During the growing season, May through October, our students can immerse themselves in the Market culture, staff a booth, witness urban farms in full operation, and taste and prepare what they see grown. Young members of the community will be encouraged to ask questions, touch, smell, and taste. They will be empowered to participate in the creative renewal of the city, as active and informed agents in social change and in the sustaining of healthier homes.

     In addition to our growing period engagement with youth and local learning communities, we are planning to offer a Summer Intensive, Detroit Emergent Futures Lab, pairing MFA + PHD students and scholars from around the world with Detroit communities and our young chefs.  DEFL will have a publishing partner, Salt & Cedar Letterpress, for the production of cookbooks, food-memory narratives, and special projects in the community.

    We  traversed our first 9-weeks – really an assessment period, with our professional facilitators, and wonderful teachers, NOVA – 45 students in three 3-week intensives. My 16-year old son, Leander Johnson, was my assistant. That remarkable story can be found here: MARKET STUDIO KITCHEN HUFFINGTON POST.

    This post is part of the MomsRising Healthy Holiday Food Blog Carnival.

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