Chicago Ag School students serve up a farm-fresh feast
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org November 27, 2013 6:36PM
Updated: December 30, 2013 11:57AM
As folks across the country fill their plates Thursday with turkey and all the trimmings, how many can say they knew their turkey personally?
How many hatched their bird from an egg and raised it to become a succulent, 40-pound, golden brown main course?
Just how did all this food get to the table?
Ask students at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.
For a feast that would make the Pilgrims proud, Ag School students on Tuesday prepared their first farm-to-table Thanksgiving feast for 300 senior citizens from the neighborhood.
The farm, in this case, is on the school’s 78-acre site at 3857 W. 111th St. — the last functioning farm in the city.
Neighbors are used to seeing horses, goats and chickens roam the property, and many shop at the school’s farmstand for fresh vegetables.
Last year, animal science students hatched another idea. After raising chickens for awhile, they wanted to try turkeys.
“I asked them, ‘Why?’ and students suggested a Thanksgiving dinner. We have to start with the end in mind,” Principal Bill Hook said.
“When this came up, we had everything,” food science teacher Wende Dallain said.
The corn in the freezer became corn bread and corn pudding. The pumpkins they harvested last month became pies. There were Brussels sprouts, squash, parsnips, onions, eggs — all homegrown, as part of their curriculum.
“Our goal is not just culinary skills, but what we do in the food industry — the safety, the processing,” Dallain said. “This (dinner) is really a cool way for kids to see how we use the foods they processed and preserved. How else do you get kids to come to school at 3 a.m.?”
Preparations began in the wee hours Tuesday morning, because, as junior food science student Robert Johnson said, “Serving 300 people takes time.
“I enjoy cooking and being with my friends. It’s a privilege to do all this,” he said.
“It was rough getting here at 3 o’clock, but I enjoyed it,” junior Rayco Lee said as he put the last of the corn bread into one of many ovens.
The school enlisted the skills of five area chefs, who shared their own recipes with students, including Chicago chef Graham Elliot, chef Jay Tarczon of Joseph’s Restaurant, chef David Somerfield of the Smith Village retirement community, Michael O’Shea, assistant professor of culinary arts for Moraine Valley Community College, and Neil Byers, of Horse Thief Hollow Restaurant and Brewery.
Finding diners was no problem either, as the school teamed up with Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who frequently hosts parties for local seniors.
“It’s been an enormous undertaking and fun to watch,” O’Shea said.
First, eight of the nine turkeys they raised were sent off to a USDA-certified butcher, who dressed them for dinner. They averaged 42 pounds each — sans feathers. The one bird that was spared was aptly nicknamed “Lucky For Now.”
Mike O’Shea, the alderman’s brother, went to Ag School a week earlier and demonstrated how to brine the turkeys with a mixture of salt, sugar, lemon juice, soy sauce and herbs. This, he explained, makes it moist and juicy, allows it to cook more evenly and gives it more flavor. Students were responsible for rotating the turkeys in the brine for five days — including the weekend.
On Tuesday, after the golden brown birds were taken from the ovens after four hours, O’Shea showed how to carve them, assisted by his own college students.
Most of Tuesday morning was spent slicing, dicing and cooking 20 pounds each of acorn squash, butternut squash and parsnips; 20 pounds of sausage for the stuffing, and 30 pounds of Brussels sprouts. Before that, they made 60 pumpkin pies.
“I like working hands-on with the chefs and learning cooking methods,” Liam Kondelik said as he sliced bacon with Byers for maple bacon Brussels sprouts. “Usually we do this from a scientific point of view. But this is a unique experience.”
For Byers, this was “a great opportunity to get involved and teach them something.”
The Thanksgiving feast involved much more than the animal science and food science classes. Horticulture students designed centerpieces of fall flowers. The mechanics students crafted wooden cutting boards. Special-needs students wrapped all the silverware in napkins. An army of student volunteers served beverages and desserts.
“Students took a lot of ownership in this,” agriculture department chairwoman Sheila Fowler said. “When they buy into it, they are more willing to take the initiative.”
“Kids learned how to show up early, stay late and work hard. That’s rewarding,” Hook said.
Students as well as chefs learned the value of giving back.
“This is awesome,” Elliot, the chef, said as he greeted diners. “Everyone talks about keeping it local. To be able to do this in my neighborhood, to be able to give back — it’s great.”
“When I saw Graham Elliot’s name on the flyer, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to meet him,, ” said Kathleen Yuhas, one of the guests. “I also came to meet the kids and see how this all comes together. It’s exciting that they raised it all.”
“It tastes so much better when you do not have to fix it,” said Maureen Degnan, who planned to prepare her own Thanksgiving day dinner. “This is my treat dinner.”
“It’s delicious. There’s really a nice variety,” her husband Tom Degnan said.
“Everything is good. I love turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes,” Joan Morris said.
“The servers are so nice,” said Fred Morris as students chatted with their dinner guests and explained how the meal came to be.
These diners likely learned to be thankful for agricultural sciences, too, so they did not have to raise their own turkey.
“Without agriculture, you would be naked, hungry and homeless,” student Brittany Clay said.