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It was late summer, fall was approaching. You could tell from the bushels of sweet, crisp, apples for sale in the Eastern Market (stacks of them in the same formation they were a hundred years ago). We meet on the bustling street corner in front of Cost Plus wine shop, our learning kitchen perched above us. The chefs (fifteen to sixty year olds, facing a range of economic, psychological, and physical disabilities) descend from the van, led by Marcel. Who -with a beaming smile- walks up to my dad and I to tell us how he set his kitchen alight last night, while trying to fry French fries. It is our second meeting.

We walk through the Market as a group, making collective contact with a pole featured in an antique photograph we looked at early that day, of vendors selling produce a century ago. We come upon beautiful, knotted, robust, heirloom tomatoes, which fade from deep green to light orange, from purple to red (not the red, round, Monsanto tomatoes featured in supermarkets) with green tips that promise full sweet flavor. These will be the tomatoes for our salsa, they gleam in the rough, dirt-caked hands of the farmer.

We get fragrant cilantro from the Vang farm, a small family run operation.

The group travels to Mexican town, to find the perfect avocados for our guacamole, my dad shows the chefs how to recognize when an avocado is ripe- a delicate balance between soft and hard (erring on the side of hard), with a dusty black skin. The team’s exuberance is clear with each accepted and rejected fruit. We tasted warm tortilla chips from Honey Bee Market, and considered these the ideal accompaniment to our Salsa and Guacamole.

We return to the kitchen, to prepare our dish. Mid-way through the assembly of the dishes the group broke out into a spontaneous Chuck Berry dance party. We tasted the brilliant concoction each team of three prepared and discussed balance, tone, the feel in the mouth and texture.

There is a rare combination in Market Studio Kitchen of serious work and extreme joy. But above all there is an uncommon enthusiasm in the group. My days we’re primarily spent doing the dishes, however by the fourth day I was out of a job because DeShaun (with his signature smile) insisted on performing the task after every meal. By the end of the third week there was a full back of house team. Three dish washers (rinse, dry, and sanitize) two dish driers (to keep the pace moving at a clip), there were sous-chefs,  pot stirrers, floor moppers, table setters, waiters and waitresses, the chefs went to the phones to manage reservations. It came to the point where caregivers and supervisors were pushed to the periphery.

I imagined that some of the participants would be excited by this crash course of culinary and convivial strategies, but the amount of them that said they wanted to cook was astounding.  These citizens were getting their meals from fast-food chains and gas stations, and were now meeting the farmers that grew their food, and cooking their own meals, and better yet state that they now want to cook seriously, is quite remarkable. Something that cannot be achieved by short demonstrations to hundreds of people, food (with ingredients from unknown, or unexplained sources) served on plastic plates. The refrain over the nine weeks was that cooking food began with wonderful fresh ingredients and is the most direct way of delivering pleasure to a person you love.  To cook with intention, and with produce grown and raised with care and integrity food is key in providing this pleasure.

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

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