Consider three-hundred sandwiches. Now, consider three-hundred dumplings.
Last month, I found myself on Facebook, tapping out a comment about the blog a New York City reporter put together to chronicle her making 300 sandwiches for her boyfriend. The then viral blog involves an engagement ring. Me, I was pointing out we live in a hyper-transparent world in which people broadcast the minutia of their lives.
While critics lambasted Stephanie Smith and her programmer boyfriend “E” for the blog’s seemingly misogynistic premise, I wondered if she just chose the 300-sandwich-for-an-engagement-ring schtick to contextualize her exploration of food.
We choose how we communicate. Perhaps the persona she employs to also comment on the busy and ultimately lonely lives of young professionals in NYC bares little semblance to reality.
Before, I could consider this line of thought further, I realized I didn’t have anymore time. I had ingredients to organize and bone broth (slow cooker stock) to clarify. Everything had to be transported to the Parkdale Food Centre for Thursday’s classes.
Asked Karen Secord over a coffee and two gluten-free date squares at a Bridgehead coffee house, “Did you know there are 14 rooming houses in the neighbourhood?”
Tenants represent nearly 60% of clients to the Parkdale Centre, a subsidiary of the Ottawa Food Bank. The rest come from a family shelter and transition house.
Many clients are men with very limited access to shared kitchens, including fridges, ranges, and stoves.
Proud of the operation she runs out of space rented from a Russian Orthodox Church in Mechanicsville (89 Stonehurst Ave), she explained, “We [also] feed families you wouldn’t expect to [need to] visit a food bank.”
“Everyone is welcome. We don’t judge!”
It is seemingly contradictory the need for a food bank in an area of town under siege by gentrification. Mechanicsville’s butts up against Hintonburg, the formerly bohemian younger sibling of affluent Wellington West and Westboro. Now, Hintonburg has one of the highest densities of restaurants in Ottawa.
With all available land in the area being purchased and developed into highrise condominium complexes, housing prices have increased to match.
“Did you know generous donors sponsor ‘Good Food Boxes‘ for our clients?”
Of the two dozen or so monthly CSA-style (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes of fruits and vegetables that arrive monthly at the Parkdale Centre for nearby home owners, six are sponsored for clients, mostly families.
[We at foodiePrints are sponsoring a seventh.]
“Did you know nearby elementary schools keep vegetable gardens and donate the produce for us to distribute?”
Not your average food bank coordinator, Secord pioneered a number of innovative initiatives since taking the volunteer role over a year ago. She is working to upend long-held assumptions about food banks. For instance, she refuses to stock “better than nothing” food like Kraft Dinner or chicken wieners.
“Someone donated a palette of bubble gum,” she said exasperated.
Instead, hers is a very different distribution system of whole foodstuffs. The Parkdale Centre’s pantries, freezers, and fridges are packed with staples from bread to eggs, chicken legs, ground beef, flour, sugar, salt, canned tomatoes, canned fish, instant coffee, potatoes, onions, beets, carrots, and apples. There is also toothpaste, soap, laundry detergent, razors, shampoo, deodorant, and toilet paper.Secord partners with nearby restaurants, caterers, fine food shops, and even the local microbrewery Beyond the Pale (5 Hamilton Ave N.) for donations and fundraising. Thyme and Again (1255 Wellington Street W.) and newly opened Zazaza (1079 Wellington Street W.) have been particularly generous of late.
Neighbourhood volunteers even come in Tuesday evenings to bake bran muffins to distribute.
Accordingly, she works to break the cycle of poverty by limiting access to heavily processed foods. They saddle already disadvantaged people with health problems that stem from diets low in nutrition but high in calories. Obesity, for instance, tends to lead to diabetes.
And, researchers are exploring the link between poverty and brain function.
To address the oft forgotten third pillar of food security, she organizes cooking classes with guest instructors at the end of each month. Classes are exclusive to clients.
Instructors to date have included Paula Roy, food editor of Ottawa at Home magazine; Judi Varga Toth of the now defunct Credible Edibles; and Jason Laurin, chef and owner of Essence Catering. Mayor Jim Watson attended Laurin’s class.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), besides food availability and accessibility, “appropriate use” is critical. Essentially, having foodstuffs isn’t enough. People require an understanding of how to feed themselves, so nutrition and care. This means basic cooking skills.
Thus, attendees of Secord’s mostly demonstration-based cooking classes leave with crockpots, recipes, and ingredients to re-create dishes at home.
For our class, we decided to teach some crockpot cookery as other instructors offered dishes that were crockpot-friendly, but prepared via gas range, like Roy’s sausage and barley stew. We considered curry, chili, soup, baked beans, and large braised roasts.
Then Secord explained how her classes also foster community. Poverty carries stigma. For some attendees, thes class is one of few excursions out. The vast majority haven’t eaten a family-style meal in recent memory.
So, Jenn and I decided to share the warm memories we have making Chinese dumplings, growing up. The dish we “taught” clients to prepare was wonton noodle soup, explaining how to make stock with a crockpot.
What You’ll Need:
- 1 package of dumpling or thick wonton wrappers (400-454g)
- fresh ground pork
- fresh leafy vegetables like napa cabbage
- brown mushrooms
- green onions (scallions)
- soya sauce to season
- cold water to seal dumplings with
- Place the ground meat on a cutting board and chop the meat finer with a knife or pair of cleavers. The meat should resemble a fine mince. If using raw shrimp, chop coarsely. Set aside in a large metal or glass bowl.
- Pick your favourite aromatic vegetables. You can pick one or more – it’s completely up to you! On a separate board and using a different knife, chop the vegetables finely.
Chop your ginger finely.
- Mix everything together in the large bowl. Season to taste with soya sauce and your favourite spices.
- Place a large pot of water on a burner and bring it to a boil.
- Meanwhile, place a wrapper on a clean board. Place 1 tablespoon of meat mixture in the center of the wrapper. Dip your finger in some water and spread along the edge of the wrapper. If you are using a round wrapper, fold in half. If using a square wrapper, fold in half into a triangle and twist the ends together. Set the dumplings aside on a clean plate.
- Cook the dumplings in the boiling water until they float and the water comes back to a boil. The meat should no longer be pink.
- Remove from the pot onto plates.
- Serve with noodles in soup or enjoy them as is!
Making dumplings is a family affair, the original social network. Family, sometimes extended, sit together at a kitchen table, folding cut sheets of dough around bits of meat, shrimp, and vegetable. Hours pass, our chatting convivially about all subjects from school to politics.
Our class was sponsored by one large and several smaller donations from our readers and connections on social media. Special thanks go out to Holly S. for her generosity and Clara W. and Justin H. for their helping hands, making wontons to serve.
Time to reflect. For some people, food is a statement like mindless fodder for attracting attention on the world wide web. It can be content to fuel an online persona.
For others, it is survival.
Thank-you Karen for letting us participate in your crockpot classes.
Addendum: Since our September class, Secord has noticed a donation shortfall in food and funds.
Click here for the Parkdale Centre’s online donation web page.