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A garden of cultural delights

By Lee Reinsch

GREEN BAY – Gripping the stem of a pumpkin leaf, Nhoua Yang peels off the outer layer of skin to reveal the tender stalk inside.

“You snap it and go like this,” she said, adding that the leaves are great boiled with a little salt or stir-fried. “They taste like other greens – like collards.”

Who knew you could eat pumpkin leaves?

Those brave enough to try new dishes at the Gardening – Exploring Cultural Roots event last weekend got more than food for thought.

They learned how simple dishes can be prepared from the yields of four gardens representing the dining traditions of Laos, Ethiopia, Mexico and the Oneida.

The UW Extension Brown County partnered with The Farmory to hold the event at the Annunciation Community Garden.

Extension Brown County Community Gardens Coordinator Margaret Franchino estimated about 80 people turned out, drawn by the sights and aromas of diverse victuals.

Family plan

The 250-square-foot garden of Hussein Mama Kassim and Makida Muhammed produces a host of goodies: zucchini, eggplant, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, bell peppers, corn and potatoes, without chemicals or pesticides.

“Potatoes tend to get bugs that can harm them, but we use a natural product on them,” said their daughter, Muliftu Mama, resting with her brother, Obsa, 3, after an afternoon of talking about the food of Ethiopia.

Along with a red stew chock full of potatoes and carrots, they served a cabbage salad, pickled beets and a homemade soft, curdy white cheese similar to cottage cheese, which was made by Muliftu’s mother, Makida Muhammed.

The stew disappeared fast.

“Multiple people said we should open a restaurant,” Muliftu said.

Along with pumpkin leaves, Laotian gardener Nancy Vang served pickled collard greens, spring rolls with cilantro, hot pepper and rice vermicelli and raw veggies, such as Thai eggplant.

Nhoua Yang compared it to cucumbers.

“But a lot of people use it in chicken curry,” she said.

Gardener Guadalupe Murillo’s family came to the U.S. from Mexico, where growing many of the same foods – corn, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and radishes – is more difficult than here, she said.

“Here there’s better soil, and plenty of water,” Murillo said. “In Mexico, we had to wait until it rained.”

Former UW-Green Bay professor of microbiology, Lee Schwartz, checked out the green things in the garden on the Annunciation Church grounds.

It contained some red tassled foliage he’d never seen before.

He and his wife, M. Helen Margaret Schwartz, are involved with local diversity events because of their interest in immigration issues, starting with the Hmong in the 1970s.

“We weren’t happy with what happened in Vietnam,” Schwartz said.

Did somebody say tamales?

Dillon Weist of Green Bay nibbled at a full plate featuring two kinds of tamales and corn mush drizzled with maple syrup.

With a still fairly fresh degree in sustainable agriculture from NWTC, Weist showed up because he knows many of the people involved with the event.

“Sustainable agriculture is an important area that’s still untreaded ground,” he said. “There’s a lot to be explored and not enough people to do the exploring.”

Representing the Oneida Nation agricultural operation, Tsyunhehk^ which means life sustenance and is pronounced Joon-heh-kwa, 7-year-old Braxton Wisneski explained his family’s recipe for corn mush.

“It’s white corn, mushed, with homemade real maple syrup,” Wisneski said. “And strawberries.”

It must have been a hit, because the metal pan of off-white goodness was nearly empty.

The Farmory provides local, fresh food

A grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council providing funding made the garden event possible, said Allison Hellenbrand, volunteer coordinator and community outreach liaison with NeighborWorks Green Bay and the Farmory.

The Farmory is a self-sustaining indoor agricultural center that operates 12 months a year.

Its home is a former National Guard armory building in downtown Green Bay.

Built in 1918, the old armory building stood vacant for many years until acquired by NeighborWorks in 2002.

Now its fish hatchery provides fertilizer for products grown in its indoor organic garden.

The herbs, lettuces, kale, leaf-broccoli, mustard greens, amaranth greens and more that it grows will soon supply hospitals, school districts and shelters with fresh local foods, Hellenbrand said.

The Cannery restaurant and market in downtown Green Bay is among those that use foods from The Farmory.

Farmory volunteer Patty Casady volunteers through VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, as a summer volunteer and just signed on to a one-year assignment with VISTA.

“I do educational outreach and show people what aquaponics and indoor organic farming are all about,” she said. “It’s going to be a fun, fun year.”

Steve Herro of De Pere loves spring rolls and tamales.

“When I heard they would have spring rolls and tamales, I had to come,” he said.

Herro serves on the board of directors for the Northeastern Wisconsin Master Gardeners Association.

“I like gardening, and it’s important to support our sister organizations, as well as diversity initiatives in the community,” Herro said. “I like to encourage those who are making the community more inclusive and more culturally enriching.”

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