- Mount Nittany Middle School
- Mount Nittany Middle School
Latin Thanksgiving Meal initiative
Pass the esquites corn salad and stuffed chayote squash please.
For the second straight year, some district Spanish-speaking families will sit down to a different flavor of Thanksgiving feast, courtesy of culinary arts students in State High’s Career and Technical Center. They prepared roasted chicken dinners featuring Central and South American cuisine, all provided for free under the Latin Thanksgiving Meal initiative.
Alix Croswell, the district’s bilingual educator/family liaison, came up with the idea last year. She knew that Chef Zach Lorber’s students traditionally made turkey dinners for families in need at Thanksgiving as a community service. But she also knew that they weren’t a hit among the families she assists.
“In working with Latin families over the last five to six years, I had come to realize that they did not like traditional American Thanksgiving food,” Croswell said. “They needed food and would have loved to receive a meal, but usually said no thank you to what was offered because it didn't suit their taste and diet. I also learned that Chef Lorber and his students loved making food from around the world. I asked him if he would be willing to make a Latin-themed menu to suit the growing needs of this particular group.”
Lorber jumped at the opportunity.
“I was all for it,” he said. “Two years ago, we had a large influx of Guatemalan students and I had nine of them in class. So some of this came from a desire to help them. And then, it kind of built from there. Alix does a phenomenal job working with the families, making sure the kids have everything they need, and she said, ‘I want to do this.’ I said, ‘Great, let’s do it.’ There was no hesitation from me. And if I can teach my students new flavors, new traditions, it’s a win.”
Croswell solicited recipes from families to help Lorber with creating a menu. After collecting orders, she and Spanish-speaking volunteers eventually handed over meals to 24 families, feeding 85 people.
“When I suggested the menu to families last year, they all immediately said, ‘Oh my gosh, that sounds amazing. That sounds delicious.’ They were very enthusiastic about it,” she said. “Afterwards, I got a lot of compliments or expressions of gratitude and appreciation from people.”
This year, in addition to roasted chicken in place of turkey, 22 families serving 100 people received chorizo cornbread stuffing; arrós negres, a black beans and rice dish; Mexican esquites corn salad with feta cheese; stuffed chayote squash; and classic pumpkin pie for the cross-cultural touch.
For Lorber, the dinners feed into his desire to expand his culinary students’ horizons with regional and world cuisine units. Last spring, he invited acclaimed Oglala Lakota Sioux chef Sean Sherman to talk about how he only cooks with pre-colonial ingredients at his Minneapolis restaurant. Recently, Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie stopped by during a Penn State visit for cooking lessons and discussions about honoring Native American traditions with his dishes. Lorber also has built indigenous cuisine units for two courses.
But the Latin Thanksgiving meals serve a purpose beyond broadening techniques and tastes.
“I also want to teach the kids to be good people,” Lorber said. “This isn’t just about being nice. This is about being a good neighbor and taking responsibility to help families in need in our community.”
Croswell, for one, is thankful.
“It's been a fantastic way for SCASD to show a small subset of our community that there are many ways to celebrate Thanksgiving,” she said. “The holiday is not just about turkey, powdered mashed potatoes, and boxed stuffing mix. It's about sharing lovingly prepared food with family and enjoying time spent together around the dinner table, no matter what the menu. By honoring their diet and tastes and offering foods that are pleasing to them, we help the Latino population to feel seen and valued.”
By Chris Rosenblum
Photos by Nabil K. Mark
Published Nov. 21, 2023