“Oh my… what is in this?” I exclaimed as I slipped into my impatiently salivating mouth another dripping forkful of creamy macaroni and cheese.
My dining companion accused me of being with child, because only pregnant women savor their food with that degree of passionate abandon.
“This stuff is amazing.” I tried a nibble of the sautéed kale with chow-chow. Tender, yet crisp, seasoned to the lightly salted edge of a peppery spiciness, the piquant greens drew up a puckering “Hallelujah!” inside my cheeks.
Then Kristi began to eat. She moaned as her eyes rolled back in her head and her lids fell closed. “Have you tried this chicken yet?” Casting rules of etiquette to the wind she described it between chews. “Crunchy, herbed breading. Juicy, succulent meat…”
I must speak with the chef, I thought.
Fortunately, the chef, Marisa Stubbs, is a friend of mine. When she started Food For Life, a Christian culinary enterprise which utilizes food to offer skills, training, and support to young adults in Washington, D.C., I purchased one of their first take-out meals to encourage and promote my buddy.
Now I order Food For Life meals because I want them. I want them bad.
Cravings. They’re not just for the knocked-up anymore.
The foundation of the Food For Life (FFL) organization is dinners—unbelievably delicious, gourmet-quality, ruin-your-palette-for-other-food dinners—sold online to customers, who pick them up ready-to-eat. Dinner sales generate revenue for the FFL training program, making it a more financially sustainable non-profit. In 2014, about 40% of FFL’s budget came from meal sales.
Stop by the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, on Seward Avenue in Southeast D.C., on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday evening, and you’ll see a cadre of young people working the baked, brined, braised, and basted bones out of a commercial kitchen as though they’ve been trained by the likes of Julia Child, Gordon Ramsey, or Anthony Bourdain. Because they have.
Marisa, a professional chef, has also worked in development and education through her Peace Corps years and in various positions with a number of non-profits and anti-poverty/anti-hunger ministries, locally, nationally, and internationally.
“I learned that transformation, accountability, and the power of small group settings are pretty important to me. Then a friend who watched me preparing a brunch said, ‘When you cook for others, you experience joy.’ So I added food in the mix—which is one of the best ways to connect with friends and strangers—and Food For Life was born.”
“Excuse me, Marisa?” I interrupted. “We have recently renovated our home and have a lovely, newly updated in-law suite with its own private bathroom. It’s yours. Rent-free. All I ask is that you cook for me. Not even every night, just once or twice a week.”
She smiled at me. “That’s sweet. But I’m a D.C. girl, and I’d have a hard time running Food For Life from out in Virginia. But thanks.”
Rats. It was worth a try.
Marisa recruits her staff via local social service agencies, personal relationships, and former students. For each session she chooses six to eight 18- to 23-year-olds who are at-risk due to lack of education and skills, or because of life history or present circumstances.
“I hate applying the term ‘at-risk’ to these kids, though,” Marisa says. “Because everyone is at-risk of something. My students are strong, resilient, creative, hopeful, smart, and intuitive… I’d love for more of us to call out their assets over their limitations. And most of them have great senses of humor. They crack me up so often. Like the pizza thing,” Marisa said, shaking her head with a chuckle.
“The pizza thing?” I asked.
She nodded. “So I’m teaching the students how to make pizza. They’re always excited about pizza from scratch: the dough, the sauce, the toppings. Making calzones and stuffed crusts. Using the leftover dough to bake cinnamon or cheese sticks. Of course, the practical instructor in me wants to educate them about the technical aspects of dough, like how yeast and gluten work. Then one of the young women interrupts me to say, ‘I know what yeast is. That’s when your jeans are too tight and…’ All the girls nod seriously. The guys? Deer in the headlights.”
If I’d still been enjoying one of Marisa’s pecan-praline brownies (a square of heavenly decadence on a plate), it would surely have spewed out of my mouth and peppered the area around me with its dark, brown-sugary goodness, I laughed so hard and so suddenly.
I wondered what Miss Manners might say about licking a tablecloth in front of a guest.
Marisa told me more about FFL. “Our training programs run for nine weeks, with three sessions offered annually. Students come to FFL because they want the culinary skills. We take advantage of their attention to the cooking process to also work on soft skills like communication, teamwork, dependability, taking responsibility, handling mistakes, accepting feedback, dealing with conflict, managing stress, marketing yourself. These are the things that will make them successful in any industry.”
“How about post-FFL? Are you seeing positive changes in your students’ lives?” I asked.
“They’re amazing,” she tells me. “Two of my former students have gone on to be extraordinarily successful culinary arts students. Many are making their way into the food industry. Kids who never finished anything, who didn’t have a single award or certificate to show anyone or to hang on the wall, complete Food For Life training and walk out proudly with a framed graduation certificate in their hands. It’s awesome to watch their growth.”
“That must be so gratifying,” I said.
“It is.” Marisa nodded thoughtfully. “But there are some who go through the program and are still floundering, and occasionally someone who doesn’t finish. It hurts, and I’m sad for them. But we keep trying.”
“Would you be willing to reveal one of your recipes to me and my blog readers?”
Marisa smiled. “Based on many emails and what I affectionately refer to as ‘friendship-stalking,’ I know that my baklava is your favorite. In your honor, I’m going to share that recipe.”
My heart thrummed like the wings of a hummingbird at the cusp of a honeysuckle blossom. Marisa’s baklava!
If I am ever on death row, and am offered my choice of a last meal, I will want an entire platter of Marisa Stubbs’ baklava.
So if you live in or are visiting the D.C. metro area, do your taste buds a solid and order a $15.00 (two-course) or $20.00 (three-course) Food For Life dinner some evening. If it’s your last I’ll be as shocked as the kid who stuck his knife in a power outlet. Use the order form at www.foodforlife-dc.org; pick-up instructions are below the order window.
And even if you don’t live within noshing distance, please consider supporting Food For Life with a one-time or recurring donation. You’ll be helping to change lives and support dreams.
Now, please don’t try to contact me for the next couple of days. I’ll be spending some quality time alone with my pan of baklava.
|Photo by Isabelle Hurbain-Palatin|
36 square pastries (OR TWO PANS)
1 ½c water
2T lemon juice
4 cinnamon sticks
whole cloves, cardamom pods, orange/lemon zest
- Combine all ingredients and stir over low heat until sugar dissolves
- Increase heat to medium and cook an additional 5 minutes
- Strain syrup and cool
2lbs almonds and pistachios, mixed and coarsely ground
1t ground cardamom
1t ground clove
Combine all filling ingredients
2lbs phyllo dough (keep dough covered constantly under a damp towel)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Melt butter and brush two 12”x9” pans with butter
- Place 8 sheets of phyllo dough in each pan, brushing with butter between each layer
- Distribute half the filling evenly between two pans
- Repeat with another 8 sheets dough and melted butter in each pan
- Spread with remainder of the filling
- Top each pan with a final 8 sheets of dough and melted butter
- Cut into serving pieces
- Sprinkle top with cold water and bake for 20 minutes
- Reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake an additional 15 minutes
- Cut into serving pieces
- Cut through baklava lines again
- Pour cooled syrup over pastry and let cool