Destination cooking class in Savannah

Savannah Morning News

July 16, 2017

Let’s face it. During a visit to Savannah there are only so many hours and/or days you can spend inside museums, on the beach, at a fancy restaurant. There are only so many times you can take a ghost tour, a walking tour, a tour of historic homes. There are only so many visits you can make to the Juliette Gordon Low Childhood home, the childhood home of Flannery O’Connor, Bonaventure Cemetery. You can say the same thing after multiple trips to Charleston, Barcelona or Rome.

After that you’re looking for something new, something different and in the summer preferably something indoors.

Enter cooking classes. Enter Chef Darin Schnert and his business, KitchenTable Hands-On cooking classes. When he started his “leisure cooking” business two years ago, he was looking for a more direct way to connect with foodies or wannabe foodies or people wanting to learn how to be a foodie or at the very least how to be comfortable in their own kitchen. He’d cooked professionally for years in some pretty fancy and high-end kitchens (the latest being The Mansion on Forsyth Park). He stood at the top of his professional game. But manning your station in the kitchen or sitting down at the end of the night with your to-do and to-order lists can be kind of lonely. You don’t really connect with your customers (except when they complain: too cold! Too spicy! Where’s the promised avocado?). You aren’t really learning anything new. Your “aha” moments around food are few.

Schnert wanted a change. And whether he knew it or not, destination cooking classes – or cooking vacations – were becoming an industry. He was on the cutting edge. People go to Italy to see the Roman ruins, yes, but now they go to take cooking classes, regional cooking class. What could be a better combination? Especially for people who are afraid of cooking.  Huh? But what’s to be afraid of?

I asked Darin.

“You’d be surprised,” he said. “They’re afraid it won’t turn out, that they’ll be embarrassed, that they’ll have wasted all they bought. They think cooking will take forever. It’s so odd. People say, ‘I’m not a good baker’ when they haven’t even tried. It’s only a waste if you don’t learn from it.”

Thus the sign quoting Julia Child. It hangs in the spacious teaching kitchen with three ovens, a long counter and three 19-foot long tables for after-cooking eating. The quote reads, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you have to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

How very Julia Child.

How very Darin Schnert to include “kitchen table” in his “school” and copious retail shopping area (one of the last if not the last independent place in Savannah to buy cooking accoutrement, you know, clean kitchen towels, things to squeeze garlic, a nifty bench scraper).

“When I was growing up in Nebraska that’s what we did. At family get-togethers we sat around the kitchen table and ate. I have great memories of this,” he said. “But as a kid I was encouraged to help. My mother did not shoo me out of the kitchen. That makes a difference.”

On two different visits I stopped in on his classes. Once I met a couple from Charlotte who came to Savannah to celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary, another time a mother-daughter combination from Orlando “looking for something to do.” Then there was a Savannah couple celebrating a 54th-birthday. This was not their first time. They have been several times earlier with their teenage daughter, who can’t seem to get enough. “Now when we’re cooking she’ll remind me to ‘pinch’ the knife,” her mom said. Translated that means gripping the knife closer to the blade to get a good grip. “Or to get the skillet hot before pouring in the oil.”

I never really gave two thoughts to cooking until I found myself in Eureka Springs, a small town in Arkansas, with a limited number of options for making a living. But I was lucky. I had a business partner who recruited me to open a restaurant. Then he showed me what to do. “This is how you cut an onion, this is how you hold a knife, this is how you measure (you throw in some salt or pepper and then taste).”

I never gave two thoughts to cooking classes until I “won” the class at a silent auction for the Forsyth Farmers Market.  It might be a good gift for a friend, I thought, except then I ended up going too for “meatless Mediterranean” night. We learned how to make and roll dolmathes or Greek leaves (“the hardest thing about this is unrolling the leaves from the jar”)), how to make cold chickpea soup (tasty!), how to make pita bread (simple!), how to prepare peaches with a fragrant cardamom scented syrup (who knew you could roast the peaches and then peel the skin instead of doing the whole boiling water/iced bath thing?).

Two nights later the affable, non-threatening, encouraging Chef Darin entertained 10 people in low country cuisine with his award-winning “shrimp and red-eyed gravy creamy stone-ground grits”. It looked tempting. It’s one thing to throw something together in your same-old-same old way; it’s another to learn from a professional who has thought more thoroughly about what is being done.

But that night I had a date to see “Wonder Woman.” Dinner would be popcorn. Cheddar and chive biscuits, fried green tomatoes and pecan praline angel food cake would just have to wait.


the hunt for watermelon

Savannah Morning News

July 9, 2017

We did not show up with “a wagon and a horse in the summer sun.” That’s a lyric from the underrated and basically unknown songwriter extraordinaire Oscar Brown, Jr., in his classic “Watermelon Man” song on his iconic 1960 album, “Sin and Soul and Then Some.” We did not have Herbie Hancock’s piano tune – or Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria’s version – playing in our heads. We sure enough did not come back with watermelon tagged “organic.” But by golly by the end of the day – and it was a long day – we nailed our assignment. Last week, Promised Land farmer Robert Johnson and I showed up with watermelon aplenty for Deep Center’s East Side Block Party because that’s what Block Party organizer phenom Keith Miller wanted – local watermelon (not what you buy at the grocery store but melons straight outta the field) – to serve to all the young poets after they rapped and rhymed their down-and-dirty, heartfelt truths about life on the street in 2017 to family and friends and folks like former mayor Otis Johnson and Juvenile Court judge LeRoy Burke III at East Broad Elementary.

“They’re huge,” Miller said of the watermelon haul. “I was expecting those little round ones.”

No siree, Bob. We came back with the real deal. Crimson sweet, thank you very much.

It took some hunting. Driving around in Robert’s nephew’s truck (not Robert’s 1952 Mater Mobile), we tried Clyde’s in Pembroke, the Feed and Seed in Black Creek, Hodges in Newington, Ken’s IGA in Ellabell, taking the backroads all the way. “My wife sings in a church down that dirt road,” Robert said. “This here is where I grew up. That’s where I picked cotton. You do not want to pick cotton. Hard, hard work.”

There’s always Kroger, someone texted me. I was tempted. Nope, said Robert. Give me half a minute. We gonna find us some watermelon. So we kept on, windows open (swatting gnats), windows closed (too many gnats). We were hunting a watermelon patch. We wanted a u-pick-‘em field. Somewhere in these South Georgia fields we were going to find the source, the mother-lode, the beginning. But we were getting discouraged. Then we stopped at at farm stand in Brooklet, Ga. (population: 1,113) in Bulloch county, 364 people per square mile, median income $34, 438, home of the annual Brooklet Peanut Festival. Not too far from Denmark, Ga. This is our last stop, said I, the impatient one. The woman tending the stand had a lead for us. She got on her phone, punched in the numbers, called her source and gave us directions to Lloyd and Deanna Strickland’s Farm on Hwy. 67. A couple of rights, a left, another right at the old tractor across from the two-story blue house, then down a shake-and-bake road.

Bingo! Watermelons. And corn. And canary melons. And peas. And gnats, no extra charge.

We weren’t the only ones standing in the shade by our vehicles waiting for a crew to drive in from the fields. Finally, after some fancy negotiating in broken Spanish with people who know more English than I know Spanish we got back in the truck and followed a crew of six down paths through the field. We stopped. The farm workers jumped off the back of the truck, dispersed, squatted down to cut the vines, stood up, formed a line and started tossing the 35- to 40-pound melons (they might as well have been medicine balls) to the crew chief in the back of the truck.

This is not easy work. This is what you call migrant labor. This is why – or so I read – any crackdown on immigrants, which is supposed to help U.S. citizens, is managing to create a labor shortage in California, this despite a raise in pay to $16 an hour, health insurance and paid vacations. And that’s in California. No one wants to do this work. PS, it’s not hard to see why. It’s hot, it’s gnatty, it’s brutal, it’s constant. I’m glad I wasn’t out there snipping vines, hoisting the melons and passing them down the human chain.

Along the way the crew chief deliberately dropped a somewhat damaged melon for us gringo to try. Splat. Smoosh. Grab. “Go for the middle,” he said. “It’s the sweetest.” No kidding.

Back in town, we transferred the melons to my truck. Then I dipped into the garage of a neighbor overnight, squeezed out past lawn mowers, bikes, boxes. The next day I pulled my haul to East Broad elementary where Keith, the good-humored energizer bunny, had a citified crew from Dare Dukes’ Deep waiting for me to make the final transfer. They didn’t complain too much, if at all, but I wish they could have been with me the day before. I wish they could have put their poetic eyes – and imaginative words – on farm work. As articulate as they were about urban ills, urban challenges, I’d like to see what they would say about spending a day in the fields. None of it is easy.