Saturday, October 10, 2009

Field Trip: A Community on the Rise - A Garden in Decline

I’m not much of a gardener so I’m in awe of those who do it well. Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to tour four equally inspiring, yet very different gardens. This is the first of my reports on these visits.

My initial trip to the Gary Comer Youth Center was back in April. Hidden Valley hired my catering company as their Chicago caterer for their Love Your Veggies retreat. Hidden Valley created the Love Your Veggies campaign as a way to help parents and educators get children eating and enjoying their vegetables. The company had a contest associated with the program in which moms submitted an essay about kids loving vegetables. The winners, about 20 of them, were awarded a trip to Chicago during which they were treated to a gardening demonstration by my friend Jeanne Pinsof Nolan, The Organic Gardner, and a cooking demonstration by celebrity chef and cookbook author Art Smith at the Center.

While borrowing the Center’s wonderful kitchen, I got to talking with Executive Chef Karen Armijo and Chef Stephen Meynhart where we discussed the possibility of collaboration between the Center and Purple Asparagus. Karen asked that I circle back in September when the kids were back in school and the chaotic period of summer camps over.

In the meantime, I was speaking with my friend Lisa Gershonson, the L behind J&L Catering, now a cooking teacher and consultant. I learned that she had become involved with Center teaching cooking classes to the students there. She offered to arrange a visit to see the Center, in particular the wonderful rooftop garden, the heart of its food program. Nina Winston of Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand joined us on a soggy day, which couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for what we saw.

Lisa explained that the Center is located in a small section of Englewood, known as “The Pocket.” While I can’t find that neighborhood on my Chicago map, it certainly is a pocket of hope for the neighborhood’s children. Gary Comer, who made his fortune on catalog retailer, Land’s End, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and went to Paul Revere Elementary School in the 1930s. While visiting his old neighborhood in 1998, he stopped into his old school. When seeing the conditions, he decided to use some of his considerable fortune to help the school and the community. This commitment led to the development of the Center, an enormous and distinctive fixture on 72d Street, which offers a broad variety of programs in technology, performing arts, sports, culinary arts and gardening.

The garden is clearly a labor of love for Marji Hess, its Garden Manager, and even on a wet, gray October day when the garden is in decline, its beauty was evident. We began our visit is Hess’ office where an assortment of peppers had been set out, harvested that morning for a class that Lisa was teaching in the afternoon about jerk kitchen.

Tabasco Peppers

A Thai variety of peppers

I snapped pictures while Hess discussed the programs in which the students sell their products to restaurants, including Frontera Grill, West Town Tavern and Table 52, and to the general public through their Harvest Table program. The Harvest Table program is associated with After School Matters where high school students set up a farmers’ market onsite to sell to local residents.

Drying sunflowers


Our tour began in the “snack garden” where they grow mint and peanuts to show the students popular snacks in their pure form. Hess explained that in a large part of the garden she plants foods that have a culinary significance to the community but with a twist. For example, they plant a variety of mustard greens including ones with a ruby red hue.


The garden has a beautiful aesthetic with distinctive stakes and other design elements.

A dying sunflower.

Tomatoes harvested before the frost.

The rain began to come down heavier as we walked back to Marjii office’s and said our good-byes. I look forward to seeing the garden as it rises again in the Spring.

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