Stirring the Pot: Food Is a Language That Teaches Diversity

The gym and halls of Templeton Elementary School were a United Nations of posters, drawings, fun facts, colorful passports, and food. “Food is a way for everyone to come together,” says Carissa Marks, who volunteers at Templeton. “If you don’t feel you have a place at the table, though, you don’t feel like part of the community.”

Marks, 33, is a recent graduate of Indiana University with a degree in sustainable food systems. She spearheaded Big Red Eats Global for IU as an intern and was a family gardening instructor at IU’s Hilltop Garden and Nature Center. She has volunteered on the rooftop garden at Middle Way House and works with IU Department of Biology Outreach, bringing the good news about science and health to Bloomington’s elementary schools. Marks is a passionate advocate for food justice.

Carissa Marks at Templeton Eats Global, a school-wide international food festival. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

Carissa Marks at Templeton Eats Global, a school-wide international food festival. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Marks had a seat at the table, but there was often no healthy food on it. Yoo-hoo chocolate drink and frozen bagels were considered a meal. Marks lived in a world of food insecurity before she knew the term existed. Nutritional food was scarce. Forget variety. The homogenous community of Palmerton did not welcome many outside culinary influences.

Marks and her high school sweetheart, now husband, Dave, set out to break the cycle of poverty, narrow-mindedness, and poor nutrition. They left Pennsylvania and, through education and jobs, ended up in Bloomington. Food insecurity — frequently not having access to healthy food —  continued to accompany them as they made their way, but their sons never went hungry.

Liam, 11, and Benny, 8, are now students at Templeton, where 70 percent of the families whose children attend the school are considered food insecure. The Marks family is a vital part of this closely knit community. Marks is in her element, digging in the dirt of a school vegetable garden that was started almost 20 years ago by teachers Kevin Gallagher and Risa Reinier.

“The Templeton garden lets children learn about healthy food options,” Marks says. “Being involved in the growing process is a way for them to be more open to trying food.”

It is also a gateway to a philosophy that embraces cultural pluralism and celebrates diversity. “There’s room for everybody at the table, but we need to recognize that there aren’t enough chairs,” notes Carissa.

With the support and encouragement of PTO President Amber Bohall, Marks mounted Templeton Eats Global, a school-wide international food festival. Held on March 30, ten classrooms each chose a different country to research, while the International Baccalaureate sixth graders presented projects on soil health, climate change, and pollution. Parents, restaurants, stores, and community organizations got involved, too.


“It is wonderful to see students trying new food — and unexpected, considering that they are not always risk-takers in the classroom,” says Erika Peek, a third- and fourth-grade combination class teacher. “I got to piggyback off of that enthusiasm. ‘You tried chicken biryani,’ I’d say. ‘Now tell me where the mountains are!’” An Indian student in her classroom took on a leadership role. “She became our resident expert,” notes Peek, who was serving the fragrant dish at the India table at the gathering.

Marks sums it up: “Food is language. It’s hard to communicate if you don’t speak the same language.”

For one lively evening at Templeton Elementary School, everyone was speaking the same language. And there was plenty of room at the table.

Chicken Biryani Made Simple (adapted from India Garden Restaurant)

1 1/2 cups basmati rice
2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, minced
4 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
3/4 teaspoon garam masala
4 chicken breasts, cut into bite-size chunks*
1 cup plain yogurt
4 tablespoons curry paste
1 cup raisins
3 cups chicken broth or water
1/2 cup slivered almonds (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped coriander (optional)

*If time allows, marinate chicken for 20 minutes in 1/2 teaspoon each garam masala, turmeric, ground cloves, cumin, and salt. This step will enhance the flavor of the chicken but is by no means necessary for the dish to be successful.  

Place rice in a colander and rinse with water until water is clear.

Heat ghee or oil in a large-rimmed saucepan. Add onion, cardamom, and cinnamon and cook for ten minutes until spices perfume the air. Sprinkle in ginger, turmeric, and garam masala. Add the chicken, yogurt, and curry paste and mix to coat. Stir and cook for five minutes. Remove cinnamon stick and cardamom pods.

Add rice and raisins. Pour in broth and bring to a boil. Stir well. Lower the heat and cook partially covered for 10 to 15 minutes or until rice is tender, chicken is cooked through, and much of the liquid is absorbed.

Serve sprinkled with almonds and coriander.


Iliana Abbott’s Gallo Pinto (Spotted Rooster)

This is a popular breakfast dish from Costa Rica, often served alongside eggs and fried plantains. Add a dollop of natilla, a Costa Rican version of sour cream, for a creamy option.

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3/4 cup bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 15-ounce can black beans, drained
2 tablespoons salsa, Lizano, or Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 bay leaves
1/4 cup water
2 cups cooked rice
1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt, to taste

Heat oil in large-rimmed sauté pan. Add onion and bell pepper. Sauté about five minutes, adding garlic in the last minute of the process. Pour in beans, sauce, bouillon, cumin, pepper, bay leaves, and water, and mix well. Stir in rice and cilantro. Mix together and cook through for several minutes, being careful not to dry it out. Salt to taste. Remove bay leaves and serve.

Pesto from Carissa Marks

Carissa Marks notes that your choice of greens will change the flavor of the pesto. Spinach and arugula are fine, as is kale, but her real go-to is milk thistle — that stubborn weed that grows in many of our gardens here in Bloomington. Weed them from the garden, wash them well, and throw them into a blender (which will blend out those painful thorns) with the rest of the ingredients.

1/4 cup raw cashews
1/2 cup oil (olive, grape seed, or coconut)
2 cups greens of your choice, chopped and packed down
1 cup packed fresh basil
Juice of half a lemon
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast, optional
1 cup almond milk
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper, to taste

In a blender or food processor, chop cashews. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend to a purée. Serve at room temperature or heated over pasta, rice, or baked potato.

Ruthie Cohen
Ruthie Cohen moved from New Jersey to Bloomington in November 2011. Every day she marvels at her good fortune to be living in this gem of a town. When she is not devising recipes in her kitchen and feeding her friends, Ruthie practices and teaches yoga at Ekah and Bloomington Yoga Collective.

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