When Christina Davis of Milton had her son, Miles Jae, three and a half years ago, she was confronted with a challenge that she never expected. Miles has severe, life-threatening food allergies. Davis had to rid the house of any allergens, including dairy, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, pea protein, sesame and gluten. Most packaged foods were off limits. “I quickly had to learn to cook most of the 21 meals a week from scratch, quickly,” she said.
Thus began a transformation of how her family ate. Feeling alone in what Davis calls her “food journey,” she sought out a group of friends who were concerned about feeding their families wholesome foods made from scratch.
They gathered together once a month at a local coffee shop to talk about food, swap recipes and vent, she said. Soon, the once-a-month gatherings weren’t enough, so the group started a blog. In June 2010, it made the blog public and birthed the From Scratch Club (FSC).
What started off as a way for Davis to deal with her son’s food allergies has blossomed into a new movement in the Capital Region to encourage, support and educate people about making their own food at home.
• Today — Troy Farmers Market’s Community Table. 9 a.m.-1 p.m., River Street, Troy. Also Nov. 17 and every third Saturday of the month
• Sunday — Troy Food Swap, with special guests Agricultural Stewardship Association and University at Albany professor Kendra Smith-Howard. 4-6 p.m. at Oakwood Community Center, 313 Tenth St., Troy, Tickets required, $2 suggested donation. Also Nov. 4, and every first and third Sunday of the month.
• Nov. 14 — Schenectady Food Swap, First Unitarian Society of Schenectady, 1221 Wendell Ave. 7-9 p.m.
More info: Class schedule, podcast, blog and full schedule of events at fromscratchclub.com
Now, with its mission of “making food matter, together,” the group hosts monthly food swaps, publishes several columns on its blog, demonstrates at farmers’ markets, runs a cooking school, hosts an online book club, and broadcasts via podcast, all with the goal of advocating scratch cooking, using local ingredients and connecting with food in different way.
“I think people are really trying to get away from consumption that they don’t have a hand in,” said Amy Halloran of Troy, who writes her own blog as well as contributing to FSC’s.
In founding FSC, Davis wanted to help people gain back what they’ve lost from the increase in packaged and processed foods. “We have lost the critical knowledge and experience to feed ourselves from basic ingredients to completion,” she said.
Davis points out several reasons to cook at home, including cost savings, health, taste, the economic impact of buying from local farmers, and the community-building potential of learning how to do it together and sharing the activity of creating from scratch.
Food swaps are one of the main activities of FSC. They’re hosted twice monthly in Troy and Schenectady, with swaps occasionally in Saratoga Springs. People bring their homemade items and trade them with others. For example, at the Schenectady swap last month, Deanna Fox of Delanson, who contributes a column to FSC’s blog, came with some homemade biscuits and compound butters and hoped to go home with some cocktail bitters and hummus.
Davis brought five canisters of coffee and maple syrup mustard to last month’s Troy swap and went home with a loaf of dosa bread, a jar of kimchi, ground coriander, chocolate truffles and a lavender all-purpose cleaning spray.
There are always plenty of unique offerings, such as pumpkin hummus, spicy red pepper sauce, fresh purple carrots, pretzels, coffee liqueur, mulling spices, salted caramel bars, honey-blueberry lemon jam, herbed tomato corn soup, cherry simple syrup, grapefruit soda and fresh herbs, all homemade or home-grown. “People are bringing really creative things there that I would never think to make or eat,” said Christine Hmiel of Albany, who hosts FSC’s podcasts.
There’s always an educational component at the swaps, too, such as a cookbook author or local foods advocate. Marty Butts of Syracuse, owner of Small Potatoes, a marketing, advocating and consulting firm for small food companies, was a guest speaker at last month’s Schenectady swap, as was Jennifer Wilkerson of the Schenectady Green Market, which just became a sponsor of FSC.
Butts told the group about “the transformative potential of a locally based food system,” and Wilkerson talked about the market as resource for those dedicated to eating locally grown foods.
At one of the Troy swaps, Alana Chernila, author of “The Homemade Pantry,” told the group about her book and blog, www.eatingfromthegroundup.com.
People come to the swaps for a variety of reasons. One is just the fun of it. “They’re a chance to participate in a barter, a trade economy that we don’t have a chance to do that often,” said Melissa McKinnon of Niskayuna, director of religious education at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady, the host site for the Schenectady swaps.
There’s a great social aspect, too. “They celebrate food and their craftiness with their friends,” said Ashley Gardener, owner of Common Thread Saratoga, the site of the Saratoga swaps. “Others come because they love to make food and share food with others.” People enjoy trading something that they’ve put effort into for something that someone else has put effort into, she’s noticed.
Those who aren’t sure about swapping can sign up for a “swap curious ticket” (there no fee, but advanced sign-up is required, and all attendees sign waivers to sample and participate in the swaps) just to observe what it’s all about. Melissa Berghammer of Broadalbin discovered FSC when she was looking into how to make her own jam. She came as “swap curious” to the last Schenectady swap to check it out.
Another activity of FSC is cooking classes, which instructors teach at various locations throughout the Capital Region. For example, the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy engaged FSC to teach cooking classes there. “There is definitely kind of a slow food movement coming back — DIY and home cooking is very popular now,” said education manager Caroline Corrigan. “There is this growing appreciation for whole foods and things that are made from scratch.” She also pointed out that in today’s economy, people are looking for ways to do things themselves to save money.
FSC also offers a “class in a bag,” where an instructor will go to someone’s home and give a class for a small group.
Partnerships are a large way of how FSC achieves its mission. Davis has fostered a network of resources for FSC members. Members have reached out to organizations throughout the Capital Region who have similar philosophies and goals. For example, FSC’s bartering and community-building match the mission of Troy’s Oakwood Community Center. “The food swaps are very community-building, very positive,” said Linda O’Malley, who runs the community center. “These are the new trends and they speak to a different kind of way of doing money and doing home, household kinds of things.”
O’Malley welcomes the group monthly to the community center for its food swaps. “It goes along with my mission to do creative outreach with a place that otherwise would be a boarded-up building,” she said.
Being in control
FSC also partners with the Troy Waterfront Farmer’s Market. FSC blogs about the market and sets up an information table and demonstrates various cooking techniques and food projects.
“I think there’s an increasing desire to rediscover and take charge of what people are eating and drinking and consuming,” said Anne Clothier, director of education at the Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa, where FSC teaches classes. “It gives people more power rather than placing it completely in the hands of grocery stores and marketing executives.”
Preparing food oneself means that you know exactly what has gone into it. “There’s a sense of being able to take control of what you’re eating,” said Hmiel.
FSC members have great plans for the club. They hope one day to have a permanent location with a teaching kitchen and community room as well as a retail location for DIY supplies, books and local foods. Davis also dreams big about creating a food incubator and hub for small start-up food businesses.