by Adrienne Montgomery
Trek Program Writing Contest, 2003
“This project will promote sustainable living . . . encourage land stewardship . . expand culinary horizons,” I gushed in my award application last spring, bringing tears to my own eyes as I listed merely a few of the endless benefits that would result from my proposed cooking workshops for this summer. I soon had myself convinced that under my inspired and conscientious tutelage, an entire generation of socially and environmentally responsible youth would emerge, with brilliant cooking skills and refined tastes to boot.
This was the beginning of the revolution. ‘”Back to the garden!” my sustainable young followers would chant. This would mark the end of frozen dinners, the collapse of the fast food empire. Giant superstores would lie deserted and forgotten.
With my heart pounding and eyes flashing, I finished the proposal with a flourish, knowing that healthy communities would soon spring forth from my fingertips. I felt as only Joan of Arc would have, had she had access to emails and faxes, buzzwords and funding from the (Learning Exchange). l was poised to save the world.
Many months later, standing in line at Safeway with an armload of runty herb seedlings and suspicious looking produce, l began having doubts. “I don’t think I even like kids,” I realized, as I stared with horror at a young mother talking cutely ro her children. “And I know nothing about herbs” my mind screamed, as the clerk looked approvingly at my purchases. “I am not a sustainable young gardener, I am a university fraud!”
“We don’t eat tomatoes,” a little girl told me sweetly on the first day, as I stared in dismay at the sopping mess of twelve chopped tomatoes covering the table. The “tomato and cilantro salad versus tomato and basil salad” competition was not going to go very well . . .
“Pay attention to your recipes!” I shrieked as I watched salt pouring endlessly into a batch of scones. “Read the quantities carefully!”Then I noticed that my carefully typed recipe read l tbsp rather than 1 tsp of salt, and l had given three separate children the responsibility of adding that salt . . .
“Now doesn’t this dough look dry?” I said accusingly, to the little girl who was in charge of checking off the ingredients as they were added. “Could we have forgotten the butter?” ”There is no butter in the recipe,” she replied innocently, as l grabbed my error-filled recipe back from her. Maybe it was a good thing that they never took their recipes home to their parents . . .
“We are going to make pesto today!” I said enthusiastically, feeling like a missionary as I converted these children to fine food. “Oh gross, I hate the stuff. My mom makes it all the time,” responded one of the heathens. Later, as I served up two giant pots of pasta, being sure that all kids love noodles, another child exclaimed brightly, “Hey, this looks exactly like bird poop!” and seven bowls heaped with pasta and pesto were simultaneously pushed away . . .
“l can’t take a plant home, my cat will eat it,” a little boy told me as I handed out the “prizes” of personal herb plants to take home. “I hated basil, don’t make me take this,” another one begged . . .
“Why do you keep trying to feed us vegetables?” a girl asked me, as for the third week, the salad was left untouched. “I have no idea,” I thought wearily, as I watched the entire group fighting, paring knives in hand, over the lemon that I had brought for the dressing . . .
“Why do we have to put herbs in everything?” another one queried. “They wreck it.” “Oh.” I said helpfully, and my eye twitched . . .
“Some new herbs for the school garden.” I said, basking in the glow of my generosity. Lemon grass. cilantro, Vietnamese coriander . . . exotic plants for new and exciting cooking possibilities. Such a simple way to invigorate low-income meals. What an asset to the garden. “Where should they go, how much light do they need?” the garden coordinator asked. Damn, I had no idea, in the dirt somewhere seemed good to me The exotic plants were all dead within a week . . .
“Are you going to be a teacher?” a friendly staff member asked me after a particularly hectic session “NO!!!” I screamed, surprising us both. “Um, l prefer theoretical work.” I mumbled, and continued picking squashed herbs off the floor, walls and cupboards . . .
“Do you have any potting soil?” the coordinator asked, looking at the terra cotta pots I cleverly brought one day. Oh, potting soiL Is for pots. Lifelong learning, is what the university experience is all about . . .
“Mint sorbet!” l promised one hot Saturday during an adult workshop. After sneaking off several times to stare fearfully at it in the freezer, I finally tried some–and nearly threw up. Why, oh why did I not try these new recipes at home first? After distracting them with some quick instruction, I slunk outside, and hid the poisonous stuff in a bush, vowing never to promise things in advance again . .
“Delicious melon salad!” I was promising, days later, as I struggled to stop the football game that was taking place with the compost bag. “Really, truly delicious. Look, just cut up the melons,” I begged, and then watched with horror as a gruesome massacre of the melons ensued. No one ate that salad either. . . .
“Why are you going?” the cool basketball star’s friends asked him, as he swaggered over to my little cooking group. “You gotta learn to cook for the honeys,” drawled the twelve year old, who towered over me. I tried to smile confidently, to hide infinite gratitude. Did honeys go for parsley salad?
“This is great, I love this”’ a kid said, cramming a third bagel with chive and garlic cream cheese into his mouth. We all stared at him shocked. “Here, have them all,” I answered, handing him the untouched platter . . .
”l really liked that stuff,” another boy confided after a workshop. Can I take some home to my aunt?” “You’re kidding,” was my helpful reply . . .
“I think I forgot my recipes last week,” a girl told me. This was the girl that I had reminded, nagged and begged to take her recipes, just for fun. “Can I get another copy of them please?” she asked . . .
“Who hasn’t had a tum in cooking class?” the teacher asked on the third week. The entire class put up their hands, those who had already come staring at me with conspiratorial looks. ‘”They actually want to come back,” l thought dimly, and nearly fainted . . .
“An astounding success” . . . “Increased community spirit” . . . “Sustained interest in healthy lifestyles” . . . Buzzwords suggested by my brain for a successful final report. Well perhaps not quite.
Apparently the superstores are still in business. The revolution will have to wait.
But there are a few more children who have been exposed to the garden outside their school. And a few more children with new skills at their disposal.
And maybe, just maybe, there is a university student who might realize that quality of life is more accurately expressed in smiles, laughter, breaths of fresh air and some interaction, rather than a few more wordy reports and meaningless charts.