When the teens come into our kitchen at Haley House, I tell them who I
am — that I grew up in a small town in Connecticut where everyone was
white and Christian, that I played tennis and that my favorite meal was
a grilled hot dog and an icy cold root beer in the heat of summer.
I tell them that I love to work in Roxbury, where I can learn about cultures I never got to see as a kid. Then I ask each student to talk a bit about where they grew up, their heritage, and some of their favorite foods.
I jot the foods and ethnicities down as ideas for future classes. Burritos, nachos, pastelitos, cereal bars, clam chowder, banana pudding — no problem, we can make delicious healthy versions of all of them.
This is the first in a series of six classes they will take at Haley House. Today, they’ll learn how to grip and chop with a knife, and how to prepare a salad. I tell them that even most adults don’t hold a knife correctly. With lots of supervision, the teens try gripping the knife like a chef and practice their slicing motions without food. We move to slicing celery, and then we dice an onion.
We ask the teens questions. A carrot — does it grow above ground or below? Should we peel it or wash it? How do we prepare it for a salad? We discuss our plan of attack, and then we all get busy scrubbing and grating the carrots. Bell peppers are next. At the end of class, we sit down and enjoy a salad made with raw veggies, grapes and mango, with a ginger lime dressing. The students eat every last bit.
Encouraging teens to become acquainted with, and maybe even fond of, vegetables and fruits is the best thing we can do for them. We explain why we fall prey to poor eating habits — we eat what is most convenient, and convenience food is usually unhealthy. We also affirm that eating foods in their whole state is “what’s up.”
The teens I see are vital, loving and smart, and they really want to get involved. One girl in a class, Shantalle, was shy and despondent. I asked her to make a smoothie for the class, and I taught her how to use our immersion blender.
She surprised me — she knew just where she wanted to go with the smoothie. She tasted it and asked, “Do you have any lemon?” I tasted it and was astonished by her palate and ingenuity. I told her she was thinking like a chef — that her palate was the bomb!
She broke into a smile, then everyone happily slurped down the smoothie.
Didi Emmons is the executive chef of Haley House Bakery Café, a nonprofit venture in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, where she directs the Haley House Youth Cooking Program, teaching inner-city at-risk teens how to cook with whole foods. Emmons also co-owns the Veggie Planet restaurant in Harvard Square and has written two cookbooks, “Vegetarian Planet” and “Entertaining for a Veggie Planet.”