Food for thought
Healthy, local-focused, environmentally conscious Wolseley cooking school heads into its 25th year
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In the early 1990s, four women on a mission to promote healthy homes in healthy communities joined forces to establish a space to make that happen. Together, community nutritionist Mary Jane Eason, counsellor Wilhelmina Howes, dietitian Diane Yu and anti-poverty activist Laura Steiman pooled their resources and established the basis of a model-home environment in which their values could be shared with people of all backgrounds and ages.
Mary Jane’s Cooking School (MJCS), the result of their collaboration, opened its doors in 1998, and has been educating people about health, nutrition and environmental practices ever since. The registered charity, located at 252 Arlington St., offers classes, workshops and training with a focus on education in nutritional home cooking and homemaking in harmony with individual, community and cultural traditions, with respect and care for the environment.
The women shared a concern about the increasing use of chemicals in foods, the effects of pollutants in the air and soil — and that the trends all posed significant threats to the health and well-being of people, animals and the natural environment. At its core, the school’s programming would have education about the interaction of earth, air, soil and water, and how those elements must be protected.
Eason, who grew up on a farm in the Interlake, has continued putting her passion into practice and running the school for more than 20 years.
“There was no opportunity for an education in those days,” Eason said about her childhood. “We didn’t even have the shoes to wear to get to school. There were no doctors around then; we would deal with things naturally, using mustard poultices for chest colds, lemon juice, ginger tea and things like that.”
Eventually Eason would pursue an education, and receive a master of science degree in nutrition. The mother of a massage therapist, a naturopath and an aerospace engineer is a few months away from her 79th birthday, but has the energy of someone half that age.
“I think our ancestors had good genetics; both my parents lived into their upper 90s,” Eason said with a laugh. “I believe part of my energy comes from a passion that I have. I just have this calling; I am motivated by that. I’ve always believed in physical activity. I also believe in natural immunity.
“I’ve always had a love for creation — I was born with it. I used to cry when someone would kill a bug. I used to hold bumblebees in my hand, care for anthills. I’ve always felt that there is intelligence in nature.”
Eason incorporates her lifelong respect for all living things in her classes and, based on those values, helps participants learn how to use natural ingredients and whole foods to build healthy lives.
“We have to know where our food comes from and how it is grown, and not to be taken in by labels; that’s the sign that the food has been processed,” said Eason, who never takes medication but relies on natural alternatives instead.
“We should be supporting the local economy as much as we can,” she added. “We are meant to be eating foods from our own location and geography.”
Over the years, MJCS has provided training in both drop-in classes and formal class settings to children and adults of all ages. Some classes have met off-site at locations including the West Broadway Community Services Crossways-In-Common location, St. Margaret’s and Holy Trinity Anglican churches, the Saigon Centre of the Free Vietnamese Association, at the premises of Women in Second Stage Housing, Inc. and in the West End Senior Centre. The school also offers classes to various community groups, including new parents and newcomers to Canada.
“I so appreciated learning from someone who fosters a sense of connectedness, who always looks at things holistically and teaches not only about food and nutrition but how those two things are connected to everything else that’s important,” said a former student. “From community to relationship-building, environment, nature, health — it all blends together, and the training at MJCS showed us how to make it work. That experience was both enlightening and empowering.”
For more than 15 years Eason has hosted Wooden Spoons, a weekly radio show on CKUW 95.9 FM community radio, exploring paths to healthy living in homes and communities through whole foods, environmentally friendly living and the importance of supporting the local economy.
“Ideally, we should be using organic food to avoid pesticides on soil and plants. The next best thing is to buy fresh produce, support local farmers, eat as naturally as you can, avoid eating anything genetically modified. This is supremely better than buying fast foods and processed foods.
“Frugality is one of the core values of MJCS, which applies not only to food but to traditional home crafts such as mending or darning instead of throwing away damaged clothing,” she said.
“With food, I am amazed at how things like celery leaves, parsley stems and other food parts are thrown away — they can be used in soups and stir fries or salads. I always pull out throwaways from containers used to collect food wastes at our classes and encourage participants to incorporate these items into their cooking. Pumpkins are thrown away after Halloween; I consider this to be a sacrilege. Pumpkins, in my mind, are sacred foods. When baking, using a spatula to remove all the batter is a must. So many bowls have batter left in them, which goes down the drain.”
“Food waste should not go in the garbage,” Eason said. “We should be composting, and we should not be wasting paper,” she added, noting that old newspapers can be taken to florists to wrap flowers.
MJCS offers vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free cooking classes, classes for kids and seasonal food-related events, including celebrating and cooking with pumpkins, Christmas baking and making your own sauerkraut.
The school also holds annual fundraising dinners; the next one is later this fall. Tax donation receipts are provided.
Updated on Saturday, October 15, 2022 9:17 AM CDT: Corrects school's location in deck