By Claire Cella
Barely audible amid the gregarious chatter of teenaged girls and the more resounding squeals of toddlers, is something not often heard in the cottage of the Teen Mother’s Program at the Austin Children’s Shelter: the rhythmic sounds of a knife meeting a cutting board. The knife, held by the silver-ringed right hand of 17-year-old Vera, slides through olive-colored stalks of fresh rosemary—perfuming the little kitchen as other young mothers cluster at the edge and look on with apparent, but hesitant, intrigue.
One girl wanders in, enticed by the sight of marinating pork tenderloin—a cut of meat she’s never seen before—as she munches on take-out pizza crust.
Instructors Amber Santa Cruz and Holley Ford, both managers at the local restaurant group comprised of Galaxy Cafe, Zocalo Cafe and Top Notch Hamburgers, don’t let the shy behavior continue, however. They quickly corral the girls into doing other tasks like snapping green beans, quartering potatoes and slathering pork with salt, pepper, garlic and balsamic vinaigrette, all while engaging them in a convivial dialogue about food and cooking.
“I think one of the best ways to cook is to use whole, local foods,” Ford says—supervising as one girl stirs a pot of boiling red potatoes on the stove. “Ideally, if you could get all your produce locally, it would be a lot more nutrient dense. But realistically—and I know because I have two kids myself—it’s all a balance.”
Santa Cruz and Ford began hosting these monthly cooking classes at the shelter for young mothers and other interested teenagers in June of 2012. Their goal has always been to instill the adolescents—whose former lives might have included abuse, abandonment and neglect—with knowledge of healthful lifestyle choices through exposure to whole foods and the values of home cooking. It’s an opportunity to introduce the girls to kitchen experiences they can use when they transition from the facility directly into life on their own.
For many of the mothers—who range in age from 17 to 22—the classes are their first opportunity in years to step back into a kitchen as cooks themselves. Lindsay Contreras, the executive assistant at the shelter, says strict legal guidelines prevent residents from cooking their own food at the facility. An on-site chef prepares three meals daily, but the girls confess they have an appetite for something else.
“[The food here] is based on cafeteria or facility food,” Vera says. “It’s not homemade; it’s not that home-based food. It comes from a box, a can. It lacks flavor; it lacks, you know…the time, the care.”
Ash, a 17-year-old mother of two, vibrantly recalls her mother making homemade tortillas. “All day, every day!” she cries. “Homemade by her. That’s the best food: homemade. And especially, especially when it comes from Mom.”
Using the girls’ evident heartfelt nostalgia for home cooking and whole ingredients, Ford and Santa Cruz want to impress upon them the important responsibilities they have to re-create this homemade experience for their own children. They fear the lower cost, as well as the convenience, of processed and fast foods have made the girls complacent and develop a palate for less healthful meal options. The cooking classes are designed to be an occasion to become more involved and familiar with food again…real food.
“People are very conscious of what the food problems in America are,” Santa Cruz says. “But not many people talk about the genuine ways to fix it locally and at the source. And I feel one of the biggest ways to do this is helping people to cook their own food. We’re not going to be able to change the laws, or change what’s on every shelf of the supermarket, but we can teach them how to pick out a vegetable, how to chop it, how to healthfully prepare it.”
“We want them to realize the potato they’re eating came from the ground and that it isn’t automatically a french fry,” Ford chimes in. “That a potato is a food, instead of thinking that food is just chicken nuggets, hamburgers, pizza.”
And it only takes one girl’s display of ardent zest about cooking and food to make Ford and Santa Cruz know they’re engaging in something positive. Vera, for example, can hardly restrain her enthusiasm—energetically moving from one cutting board to another on the crowded counter littered with a rainbow of plastic baby bottles. Before she moved to the shelter, she worked with her grandfather at his Mexican restaurant, and her rekindled excitement about food is unmistakable as she dexterously grips the tiny cloves of garlic and slices them with ease. “I just gotta get my hands on something; I just gotta be in the kitchen,” she says, smiling. “It feels good. Even if I have experience already.”
When the meal is finished, the girls, their children, the cottage staff and Ford and Santa Cruz gather around the dining-room table to eat as a family. As rounded spoonfuls of mashed potatoes move gently toward the tiny mouths of eager toddlers and crisp green beans are grasped by small fingers, it’s the final shot that Santa Cruz and Ford hoped for. “It’s nice to give [the girls] attention, to just be with them in a kitchen,” Ford says.
“More than anything,” Santa Cruz adds, “it’s about sharing the experience of cooking with younger people, instead of sharing an experience at a fast-food restaurant.”