The Crossroads of a Shelter. In Safe Horizon' shelters, women prepare meals for themselves and their children.
Do women ever get together to cook meals?
The kitchen of the Oasis shelter is filled with the smells of roasted turkey, sausage stuffing, gravy and pumpkin pie as the program's clients prepare a traditional Thanksgiving feast during their "Cooking Can Be Fun" class.
"Cooking Can Be Fun" is the brainchild of program assistant RoseAnn, who started the classes four years ago to teach clients how to cook, plan nutritional meals, and shop on a budget. It's also a way for the women to increase their independence and build self-esteem. "Some of the women in the program had never cooked before," explains RoseAnn as she bustles around the kitchen, offering encouragement and instruction to class participants. "The batterer wouldn't let them cook. He cooked. It was another way of keeping control."
The class meets once or twice a month, and RoseAnn has helped the women put together a cook-book of their favorite recipes. Of course, most of the money goes toward groceries. "We plan our menu, and then one or two of the ladies come shopping with me. We talk about budgets, coupons and club membership discounts," says RoseAnn.
"Cooking Can Be Fun" features all kinds of food, but often the classes are organized around a seasonal theme. The women cooked a barbecue for Memorial Day, made caramel apples for Halloween, and prepared flavored olive oil and vinegar using herbs from the Oasis office garden during the fall. In December, they will bake up a storm for their annual Christmas tea. No matter what the women are cooking, they clearly get a lot out of the program.
"RoseAnn brings your personality out. You bake and you remember your grandmother. My grandmother said you have to be in the mood to cook or you'll mess everything up. But we're always in the mood with RoseAnn," explains Anna, as she pours hot water into a pan full of stuffing.
RoseAnn smiles, and then heads over to the stove. "I'm not much of a cook," says Melissa, who also helped out with mashed turnips and potato surprise. "But I've learned some things. The best part is eating. I thought it would be hard to make certain things, but it's not that hard. Next year, I'll be able to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family."
Family is a big topic of conversation as the women cook. They talk about favorite dishes from past Thanksgivings, about family recipes, and about the different foods that are important to their cultures. In the process of exchanging stories and recipes, the women learn more about each other and share their knowledge. "Chary taught us how to cook Spanish rice," says Anna. "I taught her how to make Italian Spanish rice. Mine is more tomato-y and hers is spicier."
"I like to cook," adds Chary. "I've made flans and rice. Today I learned how to cook American food. In Puerto Rico, we celebrate Thanksgiving, but it's a little different. We have potato salad, and pastellas, which are like tamales."
RoseAnn sees the program as an important way for women to learn basic skills, as well as a complement to the counseling and therapy that they receive. "I find that all of us cooking, we've formed a bond. We talk, we laugh. Sometimes we put on the radio and dance around the kitchen."
That sense of connection, and of accomplishment, has helped some women at Oasis blossom. "Sometimes, when a woman starts the cooking class, she is withdrawn. Gradually, as she gives input about a menu, makes a dish on her own, shares meals with the other women in the class, she comes out of her shell a bit," says RoseAnn. Today, RoseAnn is particularly proud of her class because of the initiative they have taken in the kitchen. Usually, she does a demonstration and then students try out the recipes on their own. But today, they skipped the demonstration, looked over the recipes, and got down to business. They've also done a miraculous job as they cook; keeping the pots, pans and mixing bowls under control as they prepare nine or ten different dishes.
As lunch time nears, pans of hot food are moved into the cheerful dining room where two tables are set for the meal.
Caseworker Camille does an expert job of carving the 15 pound turkey which staff member Terry cooked overnight. "We're so grateful to her for taking care of the turkey," says RoseAnn. "The first Thanksgiving we had, it took twelve hours to cook the turkey, and there wasn't room in the oven for anything else."
The director of the shelter joins the group in the kitchen and marvels at the work that's been done. "This is wonderful," she says. The clients' children come to the dining room where they happily accept plates of food dished up by their mothers. Anna pours juice and Melissa brings the gravy to the table.
Everyone piles their plates with baked sweet potatoes, glazed carrots, brussel sprouts, cranberries, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, two kinds of stuffing, and of course, turkey with gravy. Conversation dies down as people dig into the delicious feast.