One morning in February, my friend Karen gave me an application for an organic cooking class called Just Food. Karen always pushes me to join things with her, so I automatically said yes. As I thought more about it, I realized this would be a good idea. I usually skipped lunch and after school ate frozen yogurt or snacks from 7-11 because it’s just a couple blocks from school. For dinner, if my mom wasn’t home I’d eat packaged cup noodles or macaroni and cheese. I thought being part of Just Food would help me eat healthier, since I would be learning to cook with organic foods that I would like the taste of.
A week later Karen, Stephanie, Jenneva, Jeremy and I went to the orientation, which was at a church in Hollywood near the 101 freeway. A woman led us to a lot out back with dirt and hay on the ground. I wondered where the kitchen and stove were.
There were about 20 of us from Bernstein and Hollywood high schools there and a few minutes later we met the woman leading it. Corrine, who was in her mid-20s with short brown hair, wore jeans and a T-shirt and smiled a lot as she described the program. She told us that Just Food wasn’t only a cooking class. We’d also learn how to grow our own food in an organic community garden. Then we would learn to cook. I was surprised when she mentioned the gardening, but Corrine was so passionate when she explained that the garden would be organic and healthier than what people usually ate, that I got pumped up. She told us that although this lot doesn’t look like a garden now, “you will transform it into a garden.”
I was skeptical because none of us looked like farmers. I tried gardening in elementary school, but mostly because I liked digging holes and finding insects and worms.
Corrine gave us a brief description of the class. She said that we’d be building boxes for our garden. Then we would plant our seeds, and maintain our plants. Last she talked briefly about the cooking portion. She said that we’d be learning to cook with organic food and eventually we could use vegetables from our garden.
The garden would help feed the community
Corrine concluded the orientation by talking about the importance of a community garden. Her smile widened when she told us how the garden would reduce pollution (because food wouldn’t be transported in trucks) and how it would provide healthier choices for the people living nearby. The area had many homeless people. It seemed like this neighborhood could use a garden like this.
The next Monday Corrine broke us up into groups and had each group use a catalog to choose five vegetables, herbs or flowers that we wanted to grow. Karen and I chose a couple of tomatoes (these tomatoes were blue!), carrots, potatoes, rosemary and soybeans. We chose mostly based on the unusual shapes and colors rather than what meal we could cook.
After that we had to start building boxes that we would fill with soil. We were planting our vegetables and herbs in boxes because the ground soil was polluted, Corrine told me. Making boxes for the next two weeks was tedious manual labor in the hot sun.
Once the boxes were arranged in the garden, we had to line them with a layer of rocks for drainage because although plants like water, too much water will drown them. Then we finished off the bed by covering it with a layer of black soil. The lot was starting to look like a garden, just as Corrine had said it would.
About four weeks into the class Corrine finally taught us how to plant the seeds and seedlings we had ordered. Seedlings are what seeds become right after they sprout. They look like a few inches of green stem in dirt in a hand-sized plastic pot. Corrine had us repeat everything she did with her seedling, starting with choosing the right place to plant it. I had to make sure my squash plant had enough space to grow. I chose the middle section of my bed because there was a lot of room.
We watered the seedling in its pot and then dug a small hole with our hands. I felt like a kid again as I felt the moist soil in my hands.
Next Corrine turned the seedling’s small pot upside down and gently tapped the bottom until the seedling popped out. Then we had to “tickle the baby,” which means to use our fingers to gently loosen a plant’s roots from the dirt that had taken the shape of the pot. This way the roots will extend once they’re in the soil. Finally, Corrine put the seedling in the hole and packed soil around it for support. As I finished, I gently patted the soil around my squash. In my head I was saying, “I hope you grow” and “I won’t let you down.” I wouldn’t forget to water it, like I had with the cucumbers I tried to grow in elementary school.
During the next few weeks, I learned that the correct way to water plants is to pour the water on the soil around the plant (instead of directly on the plant) so that the water can be absorbed more efficiently by the roots. We also learned that it’s best to water early in the morning or late in the evening when the sun isn’t as high in the sky. This prevents the water from evaporating before it can be absorbed.
To teach us how to trim a plant, Corrine demonstrated how to cut off the lifeless, yellow and brownish leaves that were hanging down. If a portion died we had to cut it off to help the rest of the plant grow. After that whenever any of us saw brown or yellow leaves and branches we’d carefully take them off, making sure to rip off only the dead part.
Worms were helping our garden grow
Since we were building an organic garden we used a mix of ground up seaweed, fish and other plants as well as worm poop for plant food, not chemical fertilizers. Corrine dug a hole in one of the beds, spread newspaper down and added worms. She told us that the worms eat newspaper and then they poop it out, which adds nutrients to the soil. Worms also shuffle the soil and its minerals, so that the minerals don’t sit at the bottom of the bed where the seedlings can’t reach. I was fascinated by the abilities of these worms, and how they actually like to eat newspaper!
Halfway through the class, all the plants in a couple boxes had died. Corrine told us that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes plants just don’t grow.
Corrine let the students organize the new boxes. As we were choosing our layout someone remembered something we had learned. “We have to water our bed and seedlings,” someone said. Then we looked at our layout and made sure that we had spaced things out correctly. Everything looked swell and we were ready to put everything in the bed.
“Wait!” my friend Jenneva said. She pointed out that my squash seedling and another squash seedling were way too close.
“Oh that’s right!” I said. “Thanks!” I was relieved that we were there to catch each other’s mistakes. We switched the squash with some mint, which doesn’t need as much space. Then I saw a spot that needed more water and told another girl. I felt proud that I had caught that and that we were applying everything we had learned. I felt closer to the plants in this box than the first ones I planted, because we did these on our own.
Once we had everything planted and were waiting for the vegetables to grow, we learned to cook. I liked how much I had learned about gardening, but this was what I had signed up for. A woman named Tanya taught us to make spring rolls, which were vegetables, small noodles and herbs wrapped in lettuce. For my filling, I chose noodles, carrots, beets and rosemary from the bowls of ingredients. I had never heard of spring rolls and I’m not the biggest veggie freak but that roll was amazing. I even made a second one with mint, hummus and other sauces. It was delicious too, but tasted different than the first one. This taught me how small herbs could dramatically alter flavor.
My other favorite cooking class was when we cooked with tofu. I had finally made peace with veggies but Corrine was asking for the impossible when she said we would be using tofu to replace meat as a protein. I love meat, especially beef. The good news was that we were cooking zucchini and quinoa, a rice-like grain loaded with protein. These were two of my favorites and perhaps the only healthy things that I ate regularly.
Cooking healthy can be tasty
I had imagined tofu as a tasteless sponge but Corrine explained that it absorbs any seasoning it’s in. She also said that the more water you drain the tougher the texture, which can make it feel more like meat. We placed our sliced zucchini, which was marinated in oil, into a pot and added sea salt, black pepper, onions, garlic and tofu. We took turns stirring the mixture. After the food was done cooking, I didn’t want to eat the tofu. I still didn’t believe it would taste good. But Karen insisted and the chewiness was amazingly similar to chicken. And the pepper, oil, sea salt and garlic made it taste great. I decided that I would eat tofu whenever I got the chance.
Every once in a while I’d stare at the garden and although the plants were green and healthy, they still looked small. I wanted to see everything grow before the class was finished. And it didn’t seem like that would happen. But by our last week, when we invited community members to the garden, I finally saw our cherry tomatoes and strawberries start turning red. And our bell peppers were starting to grow, though they were just tiny green bulbs hanging from a small stem.
Compared to what it used to be—a small patch of dirt behind a parking lot next to a freeway—by the end of the class our garden looked like a garden. The tomato plants were sprouting tiny red round spheres, the rosemary took up complete corners of most boxes and the squash were spreading as they pleased. I carried home a sunflower seedling on my last day. On my way home I realized how much fun gardening was.
I’ve been planning to build my own small garden since my parents got a new home. I created a layout and have an idea of where to get my seedlings from. I’m just waiting until the spring to start planting. I plan to grow foods like zucchini, and more importantly those foods that aren’t at my neighborhood grocery store, like arugula and kale. I want to grow a variety of fresh and healthy foods so that I can eat better.