Thanksgiving leftover makeover
Turkey and fixings quesadillas
Potato pancakes with scallions and cheddar cheese
Sweet potato pancakes with garlic and mozzarella cheese
Cultivating Change got off to an uncertain start when Jan called me as I was driving to CCYC to let me know that we wouldn't have class because there wasn’t enough staff coverage. Like everywhere else, CCYC was experiencing pandemic-related staff shortages. We were really disappointed, especially because we had so many leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal that we didn’t want to go to waste. I suggested that maybe Jan and I could cook the food ourselves to be delivered to the youth, so that they could at least sample the recipes. Jan told me to come to CCYC regardless while she called the supervisor to see if that was an option. By the time I pulled in to the parking lot, Jan said that staff had arranged it so that we most likely could cook with the boys and deliver food to the girls.
When learning to cook, it’s just as important to know how to breathe new life into leftovers as it is to be able to cook from scratch. Jan suggested that we use the Thanksgiving meal leftovers as a base for new dishes. One of my very favorite things to make from leftover mashed potatoes is potato pancakes. You can add any seasoning or ingredients that you have on hand, and they are super quick, easy, and tasty. Since there were plenty of sweet potatoes as well, we figured we would make both types to see which was the crowd favorite. All of the other leftovers were put out with tortillas and shredded cheese, and everyone was free to assemble their own kitchen sink quesadilla. I loved seeing how many vegetables ended up in the quesadillas along with the turkey, stuffing, and cheese. The green beans were an especially big hit.
Early on in the potato pancake making, W. and T. started to argue and things got heated pretty quickly. Jan de-escalated the situation by having the boys breathe and talk through their perspective. The technique was so effective that the boys calmed down before my group even knew what was going on. I only learned that anything happened when Jan told me about it after class. Luckily, my group of boys was completely oblivious to the whole incident.
As we were finishing up cooking with the boys, one of the staff came in to say that the girls were able to come in to cook with us as well, so everyone was going to have the chance to participate in this week’s class. Once again, I was impressed by how willing the staff was to go above and beyond to accommodate Cultivating Change.
After the boys ate and cleaned up, two of the girls in detention joined Jan and I in the multipurpose room. As soon as we got started, one of the girls, H., started acting out. She said that she wasn’t going to eat anything that we made, and that she hadn’t eaten the Thanksgiving meal that we had prepared for her earlier in the week either. Anything we suggested, she shot down. She didn’t want to help make the food. When I showed her the ingredients in the potato pancakes, she said she wouldn’t eat them because she doesn’t like egg. When I suggested that she try it, she flatly refused. It went on this way for most of the class, until everything was assembled, and everyone else started sampling the food and saying how tasty it was. Someone suggested that she taste a bit of the sweet potato pancake, which she begrudgingly did, and then said that it was actually really good. She said that it was the first time she had ever eaten sweet potato, and she couldn’t even tell there was any egg in it. One of the staff members laughed about what a hard time H. gave us about the food only to like it in the end. When it came time to offer their feedback, H. had so many suggestions for foods that we could make next class. When I asked her to write them down, she said that she wasn’t able to because she couldn’t spell. One of the staff members then offered to help her spell out the words, and she eagerly handed us a list of four or five dishes she expected us to make next time.
As we were washing dishes after class, Jan made the observation that the only difference she could see between the girls in shelter and the girls in detention was the color of their skin or their gender identity. It was hard for us to differentiate between the struggles that brought each set of girls to CCYC, or the struggles that they experienced here while trying to deal with their situation. To us, it all looked like trauma, and the girls in detention were just as worthy of (and just as eager for) the support of people who were able to see past the labels that had been put on them.
AHHAH wanted to share a Thanksgiving meal with the youth and show our gratitude to the staff at the Chester County Youth Center, so we decided to prepare a proper feast the day before Thanksgiving. We were fortunate to have Jamilah join us, which was a great help, because I would be arriving late from my full-time job and we had lots of sides to make. We each brought a dish or two from home, and then prepared the rest of the dishes with the youth. Jan cooked the turkey, gravy, stuffing, and an assortment of sweet breads for dessert. Jamilah made mac and cheese, and I brought corn pudding, pineapple stuffing, and sweet potato pie.
Jan set the heroic task of making the following side dishes in two hours with the youth: roasted Brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes, maple orange sweet potatoes, glazed carrots, cranberry Jezebel, ginger garlic green beans, and Mexican street corn salad. When I arrived an hour into the preparations, everyone was quietly and diligently working. The boys were focused and attentive to the tasks at hand. There was an air of calmness in the room despite all of the activity. Jan told me that she had started the class with a grounding exercise for the boys, and I could easily see the impact that it had.
It really felt like a family affair with everyone pitching in. There were extra staff lending a hand to make sure everything went smoothly. I am so impressed by the staff at CCYC. They are consistently kind, patient, and supportive of Cultivating Change. I’ve seen them model a willingness to try new foods and jump in when a boy or girl needs extra help. They never complain when we send them back to the kitchen to fetch an ingredient that we’ve forgotten. They happily provide feedback on the dishes we make, and are often the tiebreakers when we are deciding on a winning recipe. Certainly the Thanksgiving meal was meant to give the youth a small sense of home while they are away from their families, but it was also for all of the adults who do so much to provide a safe and caring space for the youth as they navigate this challenging time in their lives. Many of them would be away from their families on Thanksgiving because they would be working at CCYC.
As we sat down to our incredibly delicious Thanksgiving feast, I thought about how grateful I was for AHHAH and CCYC and the joy that I feel every time I join Jan and Jamilah for Cultivating Change. Jan and I often walk out of CCYC giddy after class and say that this was the highlight of our week. When I tell people that I work with incarcerated adults and youth in detention, I often get asked, “Aren’t you scared?” That question used to irritate me, but I have come to realize that it is said by those who have never had any contact with those who are in the criminal justice system, and how much your perspective shifts once you have the opportunity to spend time with those who are “doing time.”
Nutella French toast roll-ups
Monte Cristo sandwiches
French toast sticks
Ever since the Cultivating Change class about a month ago when we ambitiously made too
many dishes and ran so short on time that the boys barely had time to eat, Jan has restructured
classes. In order to give the boys and girls options, but still allow enough time to eat and discuss the menu, Jan has chosen recipes that are a variation on a theme. We offer up a standard dish, but then show how you can customize it to taste or the ingredients on hand. In this way, we hope that the youth can rediscover, and enjoy, a dish that they may have never liked before, while learning a diversity of cooking techniques in the process. This week’s variation on a theme was French toast.
As we started class, all of the usual suspects were present: a disruptive new boy who had just
arrived to CCYC; several boys who thought the Monte Cristo sandwiches sounded gross and
assured us they wouldn’t eat them; and a sullen boy who kept his head down and his voice
barely above a mumble. Unfortunately, it sounded like the boys had had a tough week. There
were lots of disciplinary infractions, and B. and S. had gotten into a fight. B. wasn’t allowed to
participate in class, and S. was here with his arm in a sling. It looked like it was going to be a
Per usual, Jan and I divided the boys up into two groups to prepare the dishes. I was working
with A. again, as well as two new boys, W. and J. Within just a couple minutes of us getting to
work on the Monte Cristos, J. told me that I had man hands, which I think was supposed to
upset me, but just made me laugh. I guess that was my test, because after that, we were cool,
and we moved on to talking about other things. J. and W. picked out the combination of turkey
(sliced or sausage) and cheese (American or mozzarella) for each sandwich and assembled
them while A. whisked the eggs. A. was happy to be the chef again and jumped right on the
cooking duties. After the sandwiches were ready, we prepared the French toast sticks. A. said
that he wanted to melt chocolate like he learned to do in last week’s class to drizzle over the
sticks. He finished the French toast sticks on his own while the rest of us set the food on the
As everyone sat down to their meals and began to eat, the familiar silence of contentment fell
over the room. No one spoke for several minutes, and then Y., who had been the disruptive
student at the start of class, exclaimed loudly how good everything was, and that “we should
open up a shop!” To which I replied, “Yeah, and we can hire all of you to work there!” No sooner
had the words left my lips, the boys surrounded me excitedly and asked if that could happen.
Jan inquired if they would want to learn restaurant work, and all of them said that they would
enjoy that. They then chatted excitedly about what roles they would want to take on in our
hypothetical cafe. One of the many goals of Cultivating Change is that the class gives them the
hope, and skills, to find personal success. In that moment, Jan and I were able to witness what
it looks like when they can envision a future for themselves beyond the juvenile justice system.
Turkey Pumpkin Chili
Passion tea with lemonade and cider
Chocolate covered pretzels
Zucchini avocado chocolate chip muffins
The energy was low and distracted when we arrived in detention, and as soon as Jan announced the menu to the boys, B. grumbled and said that he wasn’t going to eat the chili. A., who had been so animated and chatty the week before, was slumped over and wouldn’t utter more that two words. It looked like the camaraderie of last week was a distant memory. We broke into teams, with Jan’s crew working on the tea and pupusas. Like last week, I was with A. and T., and we would be making the chili and pretzels.
As we gathered our ingredients, I tried to engage A. to see if he would talk about what was bothering him. He wouldn’t budge. I shifted my focus to T., when we had a confusing conversation about the Descendants, where I thought that we were talking about the rock band, but we were actually talking about a Disney movie. Luckily A. could see what was happening and set me straight, and that was enough to help him forget his worries for the moment. He slowly started to warm up and became more and more involved in the task at hand. One of the supervisors kindly came over to give T. some help with the vegetable prep, and A. took charge of the cooking. T. had never operated a can opener before, so we showed him how to use it and had him practice on the cans of beans, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, and pumpkin. By the last can, he was able to do it on his own. He asked to try the pumpkin, and I explained that is what goes into pumpkin pie. He wondered if we could make pumpkin pie in the next class, so Jan suggested pumpkin pie cream cheese muffins, which everyone got excited about.
A. was doing a great job cooking the chili, and the aroma of it started to fill the room. His pride in his work seemed to lift his spirits, and he commented on how good the chili looked. Once we added the final ingredients, we left it to simmer while we melted the chocolate to dip the pretzels in. The whole time A. spoke animatedly about the recipes he wants to make, and if we could help him eat well so that he can stay in shape during the off-season of football. We chatted away about food while we dipped the pretzels, and B., S., and T. popped over to sneak pretzel rods out of the tub while we worked. With everything ready, A. started ladling out bowls of chili. B. said he wasn’t going to have any, and S. said he would only take a little bit without beans. A. told them that he didn’t care because that would just leave more for him to eat. We convinced everyone to at least take a little bit to taste.
It grew quiet as everyone ate, and then suddenly B. announced through mouthfuls, that “we could open up a shop, because [the chili] is banger!” Several boys went back for seconds, and they used the cheesy pupusas to sop up the chili. At the end of class, they divvied up the pretzels and I had to keep an eye on them to make sure that they wouldn’t take the ones saved for the girls. They left with full bellies and big grins, the feeling of which I hoped would tide them over until we could cook together again.
There was still plenty of food from the boys, so we decided to share the leftovers with the girls and bake the zucchini avocado chocolate chip muffins that we didn’t get to make with them the week before. This week C. was more relaxed around us and accustomed to life in the shelter. She helped to make the muffins and really enjoyed the chili and pupusas. I was pleased to see a bit more of her personality peeking through, and hoped that it would continue.
P. told me that she would be leaving on Wednesday to go live with her mother. It seemed like she said it with an equal mix of excitement and hesitancy. I encouraged her to cook lots of meals for her mom to show off everything she learned in Cultivating Change. She assured me she would. Since A. had left shelter for another placement, I noticed that P. had lost her spark. I missed seeing the two of them joking and laughing while doing each other’s hair when Jan and I walked into the shelter for class. I wondered if A. was experiencing the same struggles without her friend, P. I was worried about what kind of support P. had back home to help keep her moving in the right direction. I hoped that A. would get home from placement soon, so that the girls could continue to offer each other the same encouragement and strength at home that they so willingly gave each other at CCYC.