Spotlight: Mary Jane Eason

Fruit Share first met Mary Jane Eason when she invited us to be guests on her program, Wooden Spoons, on CKUW 95.9 FM. We had a great time with Mary Jane and thought that all the Fruit Share members should meet her too. That’s why we decided to turn the tables and ask Mary Jane some questions ourselves. Mary Jane is more than just a radio host, she runs Mary Jane’s Cooking School which offers home cooking classes educating people about nutrition, diet and weight control, and life skills.

Tell me about yourself and Mary Jane’s Cooking School.

I grew up on a small mixed farm in the Interlake region as the eldest of four children. We pretty much lived off the land depending on gardens to provide food for the winter. My mother spent her summers canning and preserving vegetables such as tomatoes, beans and peas and fruits such as rhubarb, saskatoons or blueberries she grew or picked. We had milk and cream (always unpasteurized) and enjoyed the delicious cottage cheese made from soured milk. The home grown food was superior to anything I have ever eaten from the store. My mother also made all her own bread as did every homemaker on the farm at the time. I was gifted to be able to be outdoors and enjoy the fresh air and for having the experience of not having electricity or running water. Actually I was ten years old when we got electricity but our water always came from a well. This was a time at the dawn of factory farming which troubled me greatly as did modern agriculture with its dependence on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. I understand that at the time pesticides were necessary if one wanted to have a decent crop. However my father noted that fertilizers were making the soil brittle and unhealthy. He preferred to summer fallow the land.

We all attended the one-room country school and later attended the high school in the town of Fisher Branch. I graduated from high school and attended the University of Manitoba and got a Bachelor of Arts degree. I got married and raised three children and was mostly a stay-home mom. As the children grew older I enrolled at the University of Manitoba to begin studies in nutrition and obtained a Masters Degree in Science (nutritional studies) in 1987. At the time I graduated there did not seem to be any nutrition – related jobs available. I was not in sync with the thinking of the time that it was not appropriate for a “nutritionist” to be teaching cooking classes. I would not settle for any job outside the field of nutrition. Consequently, I ended up doing volunteer work in the community starting up drop-in cooking classes at West Broadway Community Ministry and as the opportunities arose at other organizations.   All my classes were hands-on. I felt a “calling” to do this type of work and was encouraged by others who joined me, one of them being Laura Steiman who remains as interested in the school as ever and a mentor Whilhelmina Howes who believed in the importance of whole foods and who was herself a counsellor and healer. Some people started talking about Mary Jane’s Cooking School and then an elder told me that you know what you are being called to do when others identify that for you. And that is what happened. What began as drop -in cooking classes became a not for profit organization with the name of Mary Jane’s Cooking School which was chosen by the people who were working with me. Because of the name people think the school is a business but it is not a business model. Our present location on 252 Arlington offers a home like environment conducive to the concept of home cooking. The location is conveniently situated near bus services going both east and west along Portage Avenue. MJCS moved into this location in 1998.

What inspired you to start Mary Jane’s Cooking School?

I did not decide to form a school but as I explained above things developed that way. I have always been concerned about the corporatization of our food and the loss of home cooking skills upon which our country once depended. I have always been concerned about the welfare of animals which I recognize as do our Aboriginal people as being our relations. I have always been disturbed by the lack of respect for creation and our sense of entitlement and anthropocentric attitude towards nature. I have always believed that health and well being depended on having whole foods prepared in ways that maximized their value.   Many people today have lost the skills of home cooking and have been raised on devitalized foods. Many people do not know about the nutritional values in whole foods. Poor nutrition has led to much suffering and to chronic diseases and obesity which are evident everywhere.  Ultimately, our food choices and the way we grow and prepare our food has the power to change the world.

Contrary to some ideas being promoted there is honour in home cooking.  Nutritional home cooking forms the basis of health in the home and in the community. MJCS reinforces the value of home cooking and also provides nutritional information as well as recognizing our responsibility in caring for the earth and respecting creation.

What types of classes do you offer?

I offer classes in basic home cooking which includes a broad range of food groups: vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices, dairy products, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs, meat, poultry and fish. We do baking including yeast breads and home made pizzas, casseroles, soups and stews, stir fries, quiches, grain or legume based dishes, salads and dishes containing meat.   We use seasonal foods.

Can you cater classes to people’s specific interests?

That is what I try to do. Sometimes people have certain things they want to develop skills in.   Once several people suggested that we spend an entire day making different kinds of soups. I get requests for classes on baking and more recently there is a greater interest in vegan/vegetarian cooking. I have had a request for doing some Thai cooking classes.

Because I am the only staff and MJCS depends on getting grants for specific classes and because all the classes are labour intensive, I offer classes for the public as my time permits. Without operational funding this is the only way it can be done.

Do you have classes suitable for people of all ages?

Yes. As time permits I offer cooking classes for kids and I have done did several workshops in the library for teens and tweens. I have been having ongoing classes with adolescent parents through a program sponsored by New Directions. I have been having classes for several grandmothers who are survivors of the residential school system. The majority of the classes offered to the public are for adults and occasionally a participant brings a child along as a way of bonding through cooking together.

Your cooking school purchases locally produced goods and services. Why is buying local important to you?

Buying local is preferable in a number of ways. Environmentally we should be purchasing locally produced foods as a necessary step in reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. We should be supporting our own farmers rather than shipping foods we already have from distant places. We should be eating locally produced foods which are fresher and more compatible with our bodies because we share the same environment. Economically our food system supports the big corporations not the local economy and the local producers. Buying local can be shown to protect the earth and the community. Getting to know our farmers and producers builds bonds of support which strengthen the community.

Have you tried fruit picking before?

I haven’t picked fruit with Fruit Share but I have had some canning workshops with Fruit Share. I have picked local fruit in my neighbourhood–chokecherries and apples. My brother shares his apple crop with me and when I go to my home town I often get a chance to pick the low bush cranberries when they are ripe.

What do you like to do with fruit you’ve picked?

I have made cranberry juice and sauce and chokecherry juice. I have made apple sauce and apple butter but mostly I freeze the apples in zip lock bags to be used later on for apple crisps or pies. I have made apple juice out of a small type of apple which is not good for eating but excellent for juice due to its red colour. If I have extra raspberries or strawberries (which is not often) I also freeze them in plastic containers or bags.

Can you share one of your favourite fruit related recipe with our members?

This is a recipe given to me by the lady who shared her tiny red crab apples with me. They make an excellent deep red apple juice.

 

CRAB APPLE JUICE:

Yields approximately six 1-liter jars

Use the small red crab-apple variety

Ingredients:

4 quarts (or liters) crab apples (I ice cream pail)

5 ½ quarts water

4-6 teaspoons Cream of Tartar

Sugar *

Method:

Wash the crab apples in cold water and cut in half and divide into 2 ice cream pails or large containers.

Boil 5 ½ quarts water in a large pot. Turn off heat and add Cream of Tartar. Allow to dissolve. Pour boiled water (while still hot) over crab apples. Allow to sit 24 – 48 hours at room temperature.

Strain juice into large pot. Boil. Add sugar to taste (1 ½ to 2 cups).  Stir to dissolve. Pour into hot sterile jars.

* Organic sugar is preferable for flavour and trace nutrients.

Note: I have never processed this juice but if you feel you should, then put the sealers in a water bath (using a canner) cover and bring to a boil. Process for 5 – 8 minutes.