'The lunch lady with love' Yestermorrow's chef crafts meals from what's at hand

From today's Times Argus newspaper (Tuesday, September 9, 2008):
By Sylvia Fagin, Correspondent

Like a sprite, Heidi Benjamin is everywhere at once – physically and conversationally.

One moment she's explaining the spiral design of the kitchen garden at Yestermorrow, the design/build school in Warren where she's the whole foods chef. The next, she's striding across the field to show off spiky purple plumes of amaranth while explaining how she got the moniker "lunch lady with love."

For almost 30 years, Yestermorrow has provided inspiration and skills in sustainable design and building methods, teaching classes like "green home design," "ecological water systems," and "woodworking for women." The faculty boasts MIT grads, as well as lifelong craftspeople, and although students may not come for the food, they certainly learn from it.

Three times a day, all year long, Benjamin and her crew of cooks provide a tasty, healthy meal, almost entirely from local ingredients, demonstrating that eating locally can be delicious and affordable. A tangible feeling of community is created as students from diverse backgrounds dine and chat together.

"Students want to chill and feel the essence of this place, of sustainability," Benjamin explains in the dining room that's naturally lit by two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the spiral garden — and nearly eliminate the need for artificial lighting. Students learn that "it is possible to serve really good, local food for a pretty OK price. A lot of people are worried about that." Describing herself as a "frugal localvore," Benjamin rattles off some of the meals she creates from seasonal produce and local ingredients: Breakfasts of homemade granola, local eggs and oatmeal, Manghi's cinnamon raisin toast. Lunch buffets featuring cole slaw bursting with green beans, crunchy cabbage and sweet carrots, cold cuts of local turkey and ham, garlicky dill pickles, and Madhouse Munchies chips.

Dinners follow a theme, like Mexican night with fajitas of seitan and local beef; Benjamin devotes an entire chest freezer to the summer's bounty, ensuring local salsa all year long. Indian meals are almost entirely vegan, featuring kale saag, curried cauliflower, and homemade vegetable chutneys.

Benjamin invites student input — it keeps her creating.

"I ask vegans, 'What do you miss? Scalloped potatoes?' I can do that with soy milk. Instead of spanikopita, I do 'kale-kopita,' with tofu."

"I'm learning as I go," she says. "They call me a whole foods chef. I joke and say I'm three-quarters, because every so often a can of Pringles is just so fine. I don't sit and study books to find out what I'm supposed to do. I think, what do I want to eat? Sometimes I really want to eat comfort food — so how can I make that comfort food more healthy?" Benjamin substitutes honey and maple syrup for white sugar, strips of zucchini for lasagna noodles.

The fields and woods of the bucolic campus provide fiddleheads, ramps, a bevy of wild mushrooms, not to mention the foundation of a variety of hot and cold drinks.

"We have 10 different drinks we make for the cost of running the hot water." She lists a few: Sumac, dandelion, cinnamon basil mixed with lemon balm — none more mysterious than the process of letting leaves or roots seep for a while. "Students ask, 'Is that all there is to it?'" she recalls. "It makes it more approachable for people. They say, 'I can do that.'"

By example, Benjamin shows students that they can eat sustainably with ease; in return, she gets accolades, hugs and a dream kitchen where every cabinet, shelf and spice rack is custom-built.

"It's like a mix of camp, college and home here," she enthuses, offering up gifts of funky misshapen tomatoes, homemade jam, an offer to cater a student's wedding. "We feel the love. It's such a yummy feeling."

Heidi Benjamin's yummy meals are available to students of Yestermorrow Design/Build School courses, which range from one day to two weeks.

Sylvia Fagin writes about local foods and food producers. Contact her at [email protected].