It’s Monday night at Midway Community Kitchen, and everyone is talking about sugar. It’s everywhere, added to thousands of processed foods that aren’t even considered sweet, and students tonight learn that the average American eats enough of the stuff to fill a Mason jar each day. The students gasp, saying that they don’t want that much sugar in their diets, but they’re not sure how to avoid it, especially when it’s in everything from yogurt to marinara sauce.
With the help of an Orange County Business Investment Grant, “Dedicated to Health” is an eight-week course that fosters healthier cooking and eating habits. It’s run by undergrads from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, who earn service learning credits by teaching members of St. Paul’s AME Church and employees of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center to make home cooking easier and more nutritious. Midway’s founder, Kathy Gunn, will run the course a second time this spring in the hope that other interested students will take what they’ve learned and share it with others at home, or more broadly, like in their church congregations or workplaces.
A lot of children aren’t getting the chance to learn cooking skills from their parents or grandparents, and most schools aren’t including it in their curriculum.
“I see overreliance on prepared and fast foods as the biggest problem in our society today,” Kathy explains. “A lot of children aren’t getting the chance to learn cooking skills from their parents or grandparents, and most schools aren’t including it in their curriculum. Taking away the mystery and intimidation that people have regarding cooking; making the kitchen a place of socializing, creativity and fun; lightening up on the rules of what to eat and how to eat; getting people connected with each other and the community through cooking and eating – those are things that I hope happen at Midway.”
MEET ME MIDWAY
Kathy’s commitment to improving health in her community stems from her own childhood. She grew up on a tobacco farm in Durham County and spent much of that time relating to food in a way that always made her feel like a “country bumpkin.” In her early 30s, she started working for Ben and Karen Barker at Magnolia Grill. “I realized that all of the food experiences I had growing up – and was more than a little embarrassed by – were now valuable job skills,” she says. She honed her homegrown talents working with the Barkers, eventually becoming pastry chef at Acme and then executive pastry chef at The Carolina Inn.
I realized that all of the food experiences I had growing up – and was more than a little embarrassed by – were now valuable job skills.
These days, she seems content to stand to the side, in a T-shirt and jeans, and help out the leaders of Midway’s classes, be they UNC undergrads or chefs like Amanda Cushman of Simple Real Food, Phoebe Lawless of Scratch or Ricky Moore of Saltbox Seafood Joint. She finds them tablespoons or assembles the Vitamix mixer. She hears the students in classes when they say they only cook because they have to eat, that they need quick and simple recipes if they’re going to avoid packaged foods, or that they’re not confident in their knife skills.
There seems to be no limit to what Kathy is willing to bring to Midway to address these concerns. In the coming months, the kitchen will hold singles’ mixers one night and sliding-scale, basic skills classes on another, perhaps a wine tasting on a Friday and a kids’ cooking class on a Saturday. “And small food businesses can rent out the kitchen to prepare food for sale,” Kathy says. “Al [Bowers] from Al’s Burger Shack was here the other night.” The emphasis is as much on the “community” part of Midway Community Kitchen as it is on “kitchen.”
PROOF IN THE PUDDING
The “Dedicated to Health” class ends with the preparation of a quick recipe: avocado chocolate pudding. Instead of dairy and refined sugar, the students learn they can use avocado for consistency and maple syrup for sweetness and flavor. Understandably, people are wary of the wacky concoction, but the results are shocking. Nearly everyone thinks the dessert is a hit – it’s easy, tasty and, in a way, empowering. One student, Brentton Harrison, even starts conceptualizing ways he can customize his pudding at home (hello, peanut butter!).
“I know I have a sugar intake problem,” says Brentton. “I’m trying to cut down. This [class] will nudge me to cook healthier and not buy processed foods as much.”
It’s a nudge in the right direction and the ultimate goal of Midway: to get people to think outside of the box, inside their home kitchens and on a path to better health.
Avocado Chocolate Pudding
Curious about that pudding? Try the recipe! And feel free to customize it to your liking, but make sure to avoid ingredients with added refined sugar.
1 cold, ripe avocado
1 Tbsp. raw cacao powder
2 Tbsp. organic maple syrup
Dash of cinnamon
Optional toppings: toasted coconut, chopped nuts or cocoa nibs
Mash or blend the avocado with cacao powder, maple syrup and cinnamon until very creamy. Add desired toppings. Serves 1-2