At the community center, they tried to hand her a turkey. After consulting with her three young daughters, Elizabeth Reyes declined. The girls' consensus: "Mami, you don't know how to cook that thing."
Around them NFL players, volunteers and 1,200 residents of the area around the University of South Florida — often called Suitcase City — were finishing up a Nov. 17 pre-Thanksgiving feast provided by Metropolitan Ministries. Residents in need headed home with a box of donated food.
Someone asked Reyes if she'd like to learn to prepare this most festive American poultry.
No, that's okay, she said. Her English wasn't good and besides, she hadn't been much of a cook back in her small town in Hidalgo, Mexico. As the baby of the family, elder siblings had always outranked her in the kitchen. They would shoo her away, worried she'd burn herself.
What she really needed, the staff at the University Area Community Development Corporation knew, was confidence. They could give it to her.
They hatched a plan. They convinced Reyes to come. She would have a Thanksgiving.
• • •
This place is called the Harvest Hope Center, designed to give hope in a neighborhood that has seen its challenges.
Sarah Combs, the CEO of the University Area CDC, is a farmer's daughter from Colorado. Two and a half years ago, she and her team started building raised beds and planting lettuce, tomatoes, eggplants and more. They consulted with garden guru David Whitwam and local cooperative extensions. They reached out to other community gardens.
Pointing to the dramatic health disparities in the largely poor university area, Combs thought one way to address issues like obesity and diabetes was to bring fresh, organic produce to this food swamp. Technically different than a food desert, a swamp is a place where unhealthy foods are more readily available than healthy foods.
They started with 18 garden beds and now have 33. But there were problems.
"Every time we had a harvest we would knock on doors," Combs said. "But we had people breaking in to steal food, so we had to put up signs that said, 'This is for you. It's free.' "
Combs had volunteers and community members to tend to the beds, and twice-monthly gardening classes. But she noticed something else: Some items, whether dinosaur kale or spotted eggplants, weren't leaving the garden even when fully ripe and totally free.
"There are a lot of different cultures in this community," she said. "We realized they didn't know how to cook certain vegetables."
So they renovated the Police Athletic League building adjacent to the community garden, not far from the tilapia pond (that's right, free fish for the taking for neighborhood residents if you can catch them) on the 7-acre parcel donated by the county.
They built a community kitchen, not a fancy commercial thing with gleaming stainless steel: beige laminate countertops, a red plastic clock and a row of hand-painted kitchen aprons on wooden pegs.
It looks like what most of us have at home. And that's by design. Combs hopes the kitchen, the garden and the community center will help make residents feel rooted. She wants its nickname to go away.
"My goal is to one day having a suitcase-burning party."
• • •
Tuesday morning, Reyes and her three daughters younger than 8 showed up at the kitchen.
Reyes, 35, emigrated with her girls and her husband, Ramon, 41, two years ago. Ramon installs insulation and Elizabeth is a homemaker. They live five minutes from the community garden in a trailer park near Nebraska and Fletcher avenues.
What awaited them was a one-on-one cooking class with Columbia Restaurant's corporate chef, Geraldo Bayona.
Originally from Puerto Rico, he brought Spanish skills, his own pots and pans and serious culinary know-how to the little building on 20th Street.
First, it was getting the bird in the oven. Together Bayona and the family chopped mirepoix, a mix of carrots, onions and celery, for the bottom of the aluminum roaster along with the giblets.
Bayona, who is roasting 120 birds for an anticipated 1,600 guests today back at the restaurant, showed Reyes how to season the turkey inside and out and to add stock to the pan to introduce a little steam. Meanwhile, the Reyes girls got busy with the construction paper for holiday turkey hats.
Next up was stuffing, an unconventional Gonzmart family recipe with spicy Italian sausage chicken livers, raisins, apples and water chestnuts. Reyes chopped and stirred, blowing on a bite with furrowed brow until the finished aderezo was cool enough to sample. Pretty good.
Cranberry sauce was a tougher sell. No one knew the Spanish word. Reyes asked, what was it exactly? A dessert? More like a sweet condiment, Bayona answered.
After she finished carefully ribboning leaves of sage for the stuffing, she started on the bags of kale that chef Bayona had brought. Together they would chop it, steam it and swaddle it in a cream sauce.
Two hours into the cooking, the roasting turkey had filled the small kitchen with a glorious smell. For a moment, the instructor and student paused.
"See," Bayona says. "It's not complicated. Just a chicken that takes a little longer."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.