Sometimes being intensely uncomfortable is good for you. In fact, we should all make a point of experiencing something clammy, awkward, alarming, sad or maddening every so often. Rather than that standard reminder about how there are those less fortunate while in the middle of complaining about our first world problems, I say remind me when I’m feeling good and capable. Not when I’m down and want to spend a small moment feeling sorry for myself. That way I might just have the gumption to get up and do something to affect change rather than feel bad about it and move on. So it’s thanks to Corner House that I had just such an experience yesterday and came straight home to make a plan to re-engage and help my neighbors out.
Not many things feel as awkward as trying to enjoy plate after plate of delicious victuals while watching a heart-wrenching movie about hungry children. So I give huge props to James Iacino and Matt Selby of Corner House for not only donating 25% of all proceeds yesterday to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, but for choosing to host a free screening of the movie in their restaurant. I know I was not the only one choking back some tears while simultaneously working on enjoying and swallowing an exquisite platter of pork rillettes. And that awkward tug-of-war is pretty much how we spent the remainder of our time at Corner House. I imagine this attempt to share both sides of that experience with you might be just as awkward, but I’ll give it a go as long as you keep in mind that each time I consider the food and atmosphere I am feeling like a bit of an asshole.
It was our first time at the relatively new restaurant and I was struck by how small and cozy it seemed (only 1200 square feet!). They made creative use of the triangular space which seats only about 50 now (soon to almost double with outdoor patios for summer). While the bathrooms were spacious and nice, I am never too happy when everyone can see your comings and going to the loo. Especially when they are all looking right through you to the movie. But personal, weird nitpicks aside, the atmosphere made up of various woods and industrial metals is quite nice. One side of the triangle was outfitted with impressively heavy chairs and tables made from Colorado hickory and steel with one wall lined in striped beetle kill and the other in aspen tree wallpaper. The other side of the restaurant featured a couple community high tops and some seats at the bar.
Before the movie began the grilled avocado salad arrived. I used to think one should never cook an avocado but I have since changed my tune when it comes to the crispy, deep fried variety. That said, I could not really figure out why this avocado was grilled. It did not really add anything flavor-wise and seemed to do something funky to the texture on the outside. But it did taste like a perfectly good, creamy avocado and the peppery arugula, perfectly spicy fresno peppers, oranges and vinaigrette made for a great salad. And then the movie started.
Created by directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush and Executive Producer (and Silverbush’ husband) Tom Colicchio (you might have heard of him), the movie shines a vivid light on the current state of hunger in our country. And for those of us in Colorado it gets even closer than that. Rosie, one of the three people featured in the movie, is a charming and optimistic fifth grader living in the small town of Collbran between Grand Junction and Rifle. Having to rely on food banks, friends and neighbors and never knowing for sure where her next meal might come from, she is doing her best to be a normal kid. It is heart breaking. And as a parent, it is almost too much to watch.
But the movie does a great job of balancing these wrenching scenes with data and history and good quotes from Jeff Bridges—”If another country was doing this to our kids we’d be at war”—so that you don’t feel like throwing in the towel and drowning your sorrows completely in one of the fine craft cocktails on the menu in front of you. During one such lull in emotional torment, a really nice bowl of tuna poke arrived. Mounded over rice with a ponzu sauce and crunchy wakame flakes, it was fresh and tender with little bursts of mint and heat awakening our palettes. I was able to get a few good bites in before the fact that 50 million Americans are hungry and that 1 in 2 children will be on food assistance at some time sunk in. Add to that the fact that the school lunch programs are left with only about $0.90 out of a measly few dollars to buy the actual FOOD our kids eat and my sadness was turning into anger.
This anger, though, did allow me to stop a moment to marvel at the rillettes plate that had arrived. On the plate was a glass pot of the pork rillettes, some grilled bread, wafer-thin slices of pickled vegetables, house-made fig jam and a seedy mustard. Unlike most rillettes I have had or made, which are whipped into a paste, this was made up of small chunks of tender pork suspended in a duck fat that melted as it hit your tongue. Paired with the sweet and chunky fig, the tangy mustard and bright, crunchy vegetables, it exemplified the quintessential snack plate. I tried to both savor its pure goodness but also eat it quickly (before the movie got me again).
For all the raw moments that caused tiny head shaking all around us, the movie also highlighted some true warriors. There is a scene in which Odessa Cherry, a teacher in Mississippi diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, tries to teach her kids to seek out the sweet bliss of a melon over chips. Having decided to try to cure her diabetes through diet, she is on a passionate journey to educate her kids about healthy eating. She passes the melon around so the kids can really feel it and recognize it in the store so they can ask their parents for it by name. She then slices open the melon, passes it around and says “Ready. Set. Taste!” with infectious enthusiasm. The kids dig in, juice running down their chins, emitting happy noises and eating right down to the rind. Even this scene makes me weep like a baby, but it’s a good weep. It’s a good awakening.
Parts of this movie will flatten you like a bug leaving you feeling like a helpless smudge, but it will also show you the goodwill of those fighting this cause. And if, like me, you are moved to march straight home and go to the Share Our Strength website, you will find myriad ways in which you can help. The site is well organized and provides great information to help you find a good fit whether it’s donating money, time or spreading the word. You can even attend a swanky dinner like Chefs Up Front, happening March 17th in Denver, in which proceeds go directly to the Cooking Matters program.
Or, do as I did and teach people to cook healthy and affordable food. Several years ago I volunteered with Share Our Strength to teach cooking lessons to an after school group at Girls Inc. These girls were excited to cook and eat and learn and would proudly show off their new skills and ideas to their parents when they picked them up. There was something intensely gratifying about being able to use my skills to directly impact someone. And thanks to one little girl’s enthusiasm during a discussion of gardening and polination we now greet our garden in the summertime with a joyful “THANK YOU BEES!!” I was grateful for the timing of this movie and the reminder of all the great volunteer programming they have and have already filled out a new volunteer application.
I was also glad for the chance, however uncomfortable it was, to experience Corner House. They are clearly doing what they believe in both food- and conscious-wise and are leveraging that passion and spirit for good. And by not shying away from a topic that many of us would rather not face, they are owning this problem as we all should. Please make time to watch the movie and keep the momentum going.
A Place at the Table is now playing at the Mayan Theatre and is also available on iTunes and on-demand through some cable providers.