Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Spread the word

My friend Liz manages a group of high schoolers who are working at one of the Neighborhood Farm Initiative's community gardens this summer. The program that pays young adults to do outreach and direct community service is part of the Mayor's Green Summer Jobs Corps. Now, I know Mayor Fenty has been getting a lot of flack for all kinds of things, from his choice of school chancellor to the disaster which was Snowmageddon here in the District, but this is a program after my own heart: kids getting paid to work 4 hours each summer weekday to do things like install rain gardens, advise residents on how to make their homes more energy efficient, and maintain parks and community gardens. It's like Junior AmeriCorps! When Liz invited me to teach a cooking class this past Monday morning, I eagerly agreed.

Ollie and I made our way to Fort Totten a bit after 11am to find the kids and staff out in the field. After a bit of work in the garden--I'd arrived a bit earlier than expected and found myself weeding a row of sweet potatoes with a couple of (only slightly whiny) adolescents--we got cleaned up and I gave a little bit of background on my own interest in community gardening and food. Then we got chopping....

I'd been asked to come up with a recipe that required no cooking (since there was no access to a stove or oven) and would include a number of ingredients that we could harvest together from the garden. I like a challenge. (Please. Remember the pumpkin-themed Iron Chef competition?) I decided on one of my favorite summertime salads: tabouleh. I'd arranged for Liz to bring some of the ingredients that were not in the garden (oil, lemon juice, and backup cucumbers and tomatoes--it's been a tough year for both at the alternately dry and boggy farm), I'd brought some pre-soaked bulgur, and together with the teenagers we wandered through the garden walkways to gather parsley, mint, and chives. As we washed ingredients and chopped, I explained a bit about Middle Eastern cuisine and a few variations that different friends and family have tried -- my dad, for instance, likes to include pomegranate seeds when they are available; I am quite partial to mixing in a little fresh mint; today we'd be substituting chives for green onions.

As we sat around the picnic table to enjoy the finished salad, Keshawn and Lanita scooped heaping plates for each of us. Everyone agreed the big bowl of salad needed more lemon juice so we added more. "See? It's all about tasting things and seeing what you like and fiddling!" I chirped, perhaps a bit nerdily. Destiny quietly smiled as she nibbled. Malcolm asked me how to spell "bulgur" so he could write about it in his journal. As we finished up, Keshawn asked me for a hug. "Wow. Now I've hugged someone who biked around the whole world!" ("Nope, only the whole country," I grinned.) I left a little while later with a big, goofy smile on my face. I love teaching folks how to cook. Not cooking for them, but with them....

Give a child some tabouleh and you feed him for a day. Teach a child to make tabouleh and you feed him for a lifetime. (Or something like that.) Can I do this every day??

BTW, just before I left Monday's cooking extravaganza, Malcolm mentioned that I should drop by the Tuesday afternoon farmers' market in Brookland, where the group would be selling their organic herb and vegetable wares. My old college stomping grounds in Northeast DC remain sorely in need of fresh, healthy food, so I stopped by to check things out. I couldn't resist buying some new potatoes -- harvested that very morning, and delicious (I discovered when scrambling them with some eggs and cabbage from other local farms for a late afternoon snack). As the one of the students weighed out my potatoes and made change for a $5, I mentioned how impressed I was with the group. Malcolm turned to me with a grin and thanked me for coming to support them, "And, please, spread the word!"

Okay, Malcolm, how's this?:
You can meet these amazing teens in person. The all-organic, by-donation market booth is next to the Brookland metro station every Tuesday from 3-5pm.You can also meet them and see a documentary featuring their summer program at an event next Thursday in Northwest DC. It's part of a fundraiser for the program. A $25 ticket includes the film, local wine, and plentiful hors d'oeuvres. Details are here.


  1. Hey, where's the blog post about the fine organic cuisine at the Legg Mason? I'm so disappointed.

  2. Yeah, I'm a slacker. The tennis kind of eclipsed the normal food focus that evening, but since you asked: my friend Ronn brought a gigantic veggie sub from a local sandwich joint, which we devoured along with some local organic peaches and dark chocolate beet brownies that I brought along. Actually, I should post that brownie recipe -- it's quite good, even if you don't normally like beets. Maybe I should've brought a few extra for Verdasco for after his match. (He's so cute!) Maybe next year....


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