2017-01-01 / Dishing

A Place at the Table

Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

As Dean Martin crooned “That’s Amore” from a speaker, a 16-quart roaster oven bubbled over with sauce made with meat donated by Rising Spring Meat Co. The tantalizing smell of stuffed peppers wafted from a 1970s avocado-colored oven.

Kara Rohan, a 25-year-old State College woman with autism, stood over a large metal bowl, intensely focused on the task at hand: grating a block of parmesan that would soon be placed on three large community tables, which were already topped with Ball jars filled with pickled peppers and carrots from local farms. Those tables provided a front-row seat to 80 plants growing in an hydroponics system made with PVC pipe donated by The Home Depot and voluntary labor of a Penn State agriculture student.

One week past an election that divided the country, our community included, the scene this November evening provided much-needed nourishment for the soul. The idea behind “A Night in Italy Community Dinner” is simple: Our communities thrive when everyone has a place at the table.

Taproot Kitchen, the host of the evening, comprises a community of approximately 15 individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities, their families and friends who meet regularly at the Meetinghouse on Atherton, their downtown home base, to grow, pick, glean, preserve, cook, cater and serve healthy food.

About 99 percent of that food is local. “A Night in Italy Community Dinner” was co-sponsored by FoodCentres, a food-access project that acts as a gleaning network, “rescuing” fresh food that would otherwise go to waste.  Taproot Kitchen is a grateful beneficiary. The pasta dinner capitalized on approximately 1,000 pounds of donated produce, including 470 pounds of tomatoes FoodCentres received from a local farm as well as tomatoes, carrots and peppers donated by Plowshare Produce.  

While the food serves as a catalyst for social connection, Taproot Kitchen events provide an opportunity for a marginalized but bright group to cook, host and mingle with community members as friends and equals. During the work leading up to those events, Taproot Kitchen community members acquire vital job skills while meaningfully impacting their community and the broader local food system. The group is planning future community dinners and hopes to start catering for “Out of the Cold,” a program that connects the homeless with local churches providing food and shelter.

Future dreams include an updated kitchen and expanding the nearby Mazza Community Garden, where Taproot Kitchen members are already growing and harvesting veggies for their events. Funds will allow them to purchase blueberry and red currant plants and materials to build a wheelchair ramp, compost bin, irrigation system, beehives, wheelchair-accessible pathways and upcycled park benches.

In the meantime, it’s developing a reputation as a source of solid, home-cooked food. After Taproot Kitchen sampled its homemade pierogies, a riff on the Chicago-style giardiniera Schafer’s husband makes with his son Joey, one local chef remarked that he’d potentially be interested in putting the one-of-a-kind dumpling on his menu.

Taproot Kitchen evolved out of a need co-founders Sharon Schafer and Anne Rohan identified in their own lives. After high school graduation, options for their children narrowed and social engagement all but disappeared. “The fast-paced consumer society is something that leaves them behind,” Schafer says. “There isn’t a lot they can do with those jobs, and sitting around and playing video games is not an option.”

While Schafer and Rohan weren’t sure what path the nonprofit would take, they were certain about one thing: It would revolve around food — the great equalizer. “Joey was my inspiration,” Schafer says of her son. Since age 2, food provided him with a source of unbridled joy. She recalled how at age 7, he ordered octopus sushi at a Japanese restaurant. “He turned every head in the restaurant because he was so excited about eating the octopus.”

While working as a sushi chef may be unrealistic, Schafer and Rohan believe these young adults are capable of culinary work that transcends dishwashing duty. At every Taproot Kitchen event, they witness the depth of their members’ capabilities and the power of newfound self-worth.

After a small dinner celebrating the accomplishments of a few Taproot Kitchen members, a young woman and Taproot member who struggles with stuttering gave a beautiful speech about the importance of food in her life. “She was fluent the entire time,” Rohan recalls. “Her family came up after and said, ‘We’ve never heard her speak like that.’”

Thanks to Tony Sapia at Gemelli Bakers, Taproot Kitchen’s members are gaining experience outside of their regular meeting space on South Atherton. The bakery offers an internship program for Taproot Kitchen members, providing them with essential culinary skills as well as actual experience baking.

David Sharpe, 26, is one of the graduates from the most recent internship program, and on the night of the Italian dinner, he proudly displayed the pecan and pumpkin pies he helped bake. Sharpe, who lives in a Strawberry Fields transitional living program and cooks with his “Taproot family” as often as possible, spoke with immense charm, crediting the internship for chipping away at his negativity and replacing it with a desire to inspire and help others. “I will give back to people who gave to me,” he said, “and they gave me smiles.” •SCM

Taproot Kitchen Italian Wedding Soup

(Serves 4)

½ lb. lean ground beef
1 egg, slightly beaten
2 Tbsp. breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese
½ tsp. dried basil
½ tsp. onion powder
½ tsp. fennel seeds
4 cloves local garlic
2 large chopped local onions
3 finely chopped local carrots
6-7 c. chicken broth/stock
2-3 c. local root veggies such as parsnips or celery root, diced
2 c. chopped local kale
½ c. orzo pasta, uncooked
fresh herbs from garden
grated Parmesan cheese

In medium bowl combine meat, egg, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, basil, fennel seeds and onion powder; shape into 3⁄4-inch balls.

In large stockpot, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add 4 cloves garlic, 2 large chopped onions and 3 finely chopped carrots. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add 6-7 c. of chicken broth and 2-3 c. of chopped root veggies, such as parsnips and celery root. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes.

Remove root veggies with a slotted spoon, then strain to take out remaining veggies. Heat root-veggie stock to boiling; stir in kale, orzo, and meatballs. Return to boil; reduce heat to medium.Cook at slow boil for 10 minutes or until orzo is tender. Stir frequently to avoid sticking.

Finish with fresh herbs, including rosemary and thyme. Serve with additional Parmesan cheese sprinkled
on top.

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