Chef Shannon Smith had the inexpensive chicken wings lined on the baking sheet and corn bread ready to be made into homemade dressing.
Her students aren’t interested in the fancy stuff. They want the basics on how to make food quickly, cheaply and with good flavor.
Smith stops by this house about twice a month to give private lessons to women who are on their way to reclaiming their lives. They live in transitional living homes as part of the Inside Out program through the Southern Hills Baptist Church.
Almost all are coming out of alcohol or substance abuse rehab, and some have prison records from their addictions. Many have children, and all have jobs, school or both.
Learning something like cooking is hard to wedge into their lives. People are sometimes never taught those basic life skills because of dysfunctional family backgrounds.
Schools long ago dropped the home economics elective, and adult lessons can be costly. This puts struggling people at a disadvantage.
Even if a food pantry hands out dry beans, it doesn’t help if a person doesn’t know how to make that edible.
Amber Brown is a house manager and has been in the program for about three years. She has replicated all of Smith’s recipes and became a devoted user of a blender.
“I’m making smoothies like crazy. I’m eating healthier and have lots of energy,” Brown said. “I was so used to living a fast-paced lifestyle that I ate junk food or threw together a sandwich.”
Smith’s visits aren’t just about cooking. It’s about establishing a relationship.
“Having support from the outside is super important for us,” Brown said. “To have someone come in and care, it has a huge impact on us. She is encouraging us to keep doing what we’re doing. It’s life changing to have someone come to our house and show us how to cook.”
This is a passion project for Smith that started at least 20 years ago when she taught cooking at the Madonna House and at a low-income apartment complex.
Her own story includes hitting a rough patch but she rebounded by using her sewing skills to start a business making prom dresses and draperies. She took culinary classes that led to her teaching at Savory Chef for six years.
Now, Smith travels the world exploring culinary traditions to teach classes based on those international flavors. She chronicles her experiences on her Beads and Basil website. While traveling, she often stops in impoverished countries to work with women in micro-finance programs learn how to cook and sew.
That philanthropic spirit comes home with her to places like family transitional living homes.
“I look forward to this. I was a single mom on SNAP and WIC. I’ve been there,” Smith said. “I get so much out of this. This is more fun and meaningful for me. I identify with these women. I came from there, and I want to give them something that no one else is offering.”
Oklahoma appears to be changing its punitive attitude toward issues around addiction and mental health disorders.
Lawmakers are seeking ways to keep people out of prison and provide support to those completing their sentences or getting an early release. The Pardon and Parole Board and governor approved 527 commutations earlier this month, improving the state’s incarceration rate ranking to No. 2.
Oklahoma has other societal measures to address, such as No. 3 in teen births and among the highest in severe mental health disorders. These markers play a role in poverty, but they aren’t insurmountable obstacles.
It means offering more supportive services, whether through nonprofits, faith-based institutions or public programs.
All these need more than what government funds can provide. To do this, people need to step up and help. A person doesn’t need to be an expert.
“People want to help, and everyone has a talent,” Smith said. “Reading, knitting, gardening, sewing or cleaning — we can teach people what we know. These ladies are so eager to learn and be here with me. I’m honored they let me come here.”
When Smith teaches, she throws in advice on getting the best deals at stores.
“Just because something is inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s less tasty,” she says.
A variety of foods are introduced with an emphasis on fresh vegetables. Many people are used to canned food and don’t realize how easy — and healthier — it is to cook fresh items.
Smith gives tips like how to cut an onion properly, which I have apparently been doing wrong, and slice an avocado.
With larger families, she suggests cooking grilled cheese sandwiches in a broiler because that can get many done at the same time. Eggs are her favorite lesson.
“It’s a protein, and you can do a lot with it,” she says. “Like when we make a frittata, that’s an entire meal, and we can get a lot of vegetables in there.”
All her lessons are practical. No high-end machines, utensils or ingredients necessary. Even when tossing a salad, she has fun with it.
“Use the tools God gave us, our hands,” she says.
By the end, the women had said a prayer, were relaxed and sharing a modified version of a Thanksgiving dinner.
Vanessa Fox said her 3-year-old has given the homemade macaroni and cheese approval, and the chickpea salad is among her favorites. She doesn’t miss a class.
“I have never had anyone come in and teach me how to cook,” Fox said. “It’s been a blessing.”
The women said there is a married couple who volunteers to teach parenting skills. It has led to less timeouts, fewer tantrums and more understandings.
Around the house are lists of suggested techniques to use when children start to push the boundaries.
“I am connecting with my child better than ever. It’s about constructive discipline,” Fox said. “When she’s upset, I get on her level and ask her questions.”
That parent-child connection is reinforced in the kitchen with Smith encouraging them to cook with kids.
“It’s time to crumble the corn bread for stuffing. This is where you can get the kids involved,” Smith said.
Tulsa is fortunate to have nonprofits and the faith communities sponsoring many supportive programs. Schools are another place in need of volunteers.
Smith suggests people think about the things they enjoy and consider volunteering to share that knowledge.
For Smith, she has a credo with her students, no matter the age, income or background.
“It’s all about passing it on,” she said. “I have just taught you how to do something. Now, you need to go and teach that to someone.”