Urban Harvest Cooking Club at Auto High

By Ana Maria Ulloa

Every Thursday afternoon students at Automotive High School, in Williamsburg, break with their ordinary studies and get hands-on experience preparing fresh, wholesome food. With the assistance of Jenny Kessler, an English teacher who has been promoting various school-wide food education initiatives for over three years, these kids prepare and enjoy recipes that include produce grown in their own on-site garden. Since 2008 their cooking club and gardening activities have been sponsored by Slow Food NYC's Urban Harvest Initiative.

The recipes are intended to be simple, healthy (mostly vegetarian) and gratifying. Last month, Ms. Kessler arranged to bring in a very special ingredient: a whole, pasture-raised, grass-fed pig from Stony Brook Farm. This ingredient also came with a guest — Alex Sorenson, a freelance chef, experienced butcher, and former executive chef of Colonie in Brooklyn Heights. The pig was provided by Jimmy Carbone, of Jimmy's No. 43 in Manhattan, and Edible Manhattan magazine — two big supporters of Slow Food NYC and the Urban Harvest program. Chef Alex spoke about what raising a pig involves, showed how butchering is properly done, and then demonstrated how sausage is made.

Having the entirety of a pig on hand surely demanded the students’ attention and aroused all manner of curiosity and witticism. They were especially taken with parts seldom seen in the supermarket freezer, such as the nose, ears, cheeks, and tongue. All of us learned a tremendous amount from the butchering demo and saw that nothing goes to waste. This fact provoked wonder in some and disgust in the squeamish. Overall, the kids left with a more realistic understanding of what the animal really is — having dispelled their ideas about its flesh being bright pink or any other cartoonish notions about where pork might come from. And, education about all the people and steps necessary in the chain of food production, right up to putting a piece of meat on the table, clearly illustrated what the kids have been learning all year round: that food comes from somewhere.

The cooking is all done as a team. Each student, at the very least, pulls a carrot from the garden, dices an onion, or stirs some vegetables in a frying pan. The group is large and welcoming. There are “regulars” and also “newcomers.” Not every one of them gets involved in the same way, but they all get to experience what it takes to put fresh food on the plate and eat it in the company of others. As with most endeavors in the kitchen, there will be hits and misses, especially when dealing with a wide variety of tastes and degrees of interest. But, most importantly, in programs and classes such as this a group of kids that otherwise may not have been exposed to a variety of quality ingredients and techniques is being trusted with the responsibility of putting together and sharing a good meal.

Sadly, I missed out on tasting the homemade sausage patties themselves, some made with fresh herbs from the garden, others with spicy flavorings, all served with boiled potatoes and sautéed vegetables. The kids assured me that the outcome was delicious.

Ana Maria Ulloa is a PhD student of Anthropology at The New School and Slow Food NYC volunteer. She is currently working on an ethnographic project around "green" food initiatives in the New York City area.