Cinnamon is in the spice grinder, fresh garlic and purple onions sauté over a flame, and a spicy pot of chai tea simmers on the stove. Welcome to Saturday morning cooking class at the Garden Kitchen.
Neighbors come together in the heart of South Tucson to tend the garden and learn to create healthful, inexpensive meals.
The Garden Kitchen is a seed-to-table health education program that demonstrates how to grow, buy, store and cook nutritious food. The kitchen, which opened in fall 2012, was created as a partnership among the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, UA Pima County Cooperative Extension, the City of South Tucson and Pima County.
Feliciano Leon and his wife, Barbara, sip steaming cups of chai as they learn to combine ingredients from the garden into a savory egg-and-veggie dish called Spanish Tortilla.
"It's wonderful here," says Feliciano Leon, a geological engineer. "It has changed the way we prepare food."
He and his wife of 44 years have learned to incorporate quinoa and bulgur wheat into their diets, and Barbara Leon is starting a garden at their Barrio Anita home.
"Eating like this makes me feel good," Feliciano Leon says. "And I think I've lost a little weight."
The Garden Kitchen, funded in large part by a federal grant to battle obesity, is open to all and draws heavily from South Tucson neighborhoods.
Rosie Madril brought daughters Christine, 17, and Reyna, 19, to a recent cooking class. They were among about 30 people who filled the Garden Kitchen to watch Dominique Henry, an instructional specialist with the Cooperative Extension, whip up petite baked apples, spicy party mix, savory polenta napoleons and other dishes. Lovely plates of the tasty treats were passed to participants.
Gardening classes are also offered, and programs are free.
Cheralyn Schmidt, a program coordinator at the Cooperative Extension, has been instrumental in creating the Garden Kitchen.
"This has been our dream," Schmidt says as she waters lettuce in the garden.
The Garden Kitchen sprang from a shuttered Mexican restaurant with a dilapidated home in the back. Hells Angels were attempting to buy the property for a clubhouse, and the county stepped in and purchased it.
"The ultimate goal is to empower people to make healthy choices and ones that fit their lifestyle," Schmidt says.
The Garden Kitchen is seeking donations to install five vignette kitchens and an island kitchen, making classes more hands-on. Donations designated for the Garden Kitchen can be made through the UA Foundation.
Mick Jensen, a UA alumnus and a South Tucson city planner, says the Garden Kitchen is a welcome addition to the square-mile city. South Tucson helped with demolition, clean up and other jobs necessary in the remodel.
"A backyard garden is a great way to help people meet their nutritional needs economically," Jensen says.
"That's a troubled little spot on Fourth Avenue, and it's nice to take a piece of property and turn it into something so positive."