Flatbush Thanksgiving: Erasmus Students Cook Dinner for 400 Neighbors

Flatbush Thanksgiving: Erasmus Students Cook Dinner for 400 Neighbors
Erasmus Academy students shop for their Community Thanksgiving dinner. Photo courtesy of Al Pereira.

Fifteen polo-clad teenagers from Erasmus Hall swarmed the aisles of the Flatbush Avenue Stop & Shop yesterday, heaving plastic-wrapped turkeys, whole pineapples, and cans of cranberry sauce into groaning shopping carts. They are culinary students at Erasmus’ Academy of Hospitality and Tourism, a traditional high school with Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, just down the street. There, they learn to create meals from scratch, alongside their core classes.

The students had come to gather ingredients for the third annual Kings Cares Thanksgiving Luncheon, which they’ll cook and serve to the Flatbush community. The event was planned in partnership with Kings Theatre, the National Development Council (NDC), the 70th Precinct, and the Flatbush Avenue and Church Avenue Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs. With a budget of $2,000, all in donated Stop & Shop gift cards, they could purchase more than enough food for the 400-plus people they plan on serving.

“We supply the $2,000 in gift cards so that the community can have a warm meal, cooked by their own community members,” said Stefanie Shuman, a PR representative for Stop & Shop.

Under the gaze of Dawn Watson, their teacher, students carefully selected jugs of olive oil and cans of Kraft parmesan, being sure to stay within budget. Watson, affectionately referred to as “Ms. Watson” by students and adults alike, gave stern but patient directives to students as they held out items for her approval. One brand of olive oil was too expensive: “It doesn’t have to be extra virgin,” she said.

The luncheon, Watson said, is an opportunity for students to expand their culinary education beyond the confines of the school kitchen. They take their shopping lists and they calculate quantities of ingredients based on the number of people they need to serve. In addition to cooking, they learn to shop, and shop frugally.

One 11th grader, Shakiya Lewis, was excited for the learning opportunity. “I know how to save money, but also spend it,” she said.

The luncheon is also great training for students who hope to enter the culinary industry after school. “I always wanted to be a chef,” said 10th grader Kenaph Saint Surin, who moved to Brooklyn from Haiti. “This will help me to get more experience.”

Erasmus Academy students shop for their Community Thanksgiving dinner. Photo courtesy of Al Pereira.

It will also be a lesson in teamwork: the entire culinary department, roughly 150 students, will get broken into groups, each one tending to a different part of the feast. One team will cover yams, one will work on starches, and still another will be in charge of turkeys –  30 birds, to be exact, which students will season with a homemade rub.

And then there’s the turkey stock. “We’re not buying stock,” Watson insisted. “This is fresh stock.” That stock, prepared by sophomore-year culinary students, would be used throughout the whole meal.

Watson takes a lot of pride in her students. “My kids – they’re not very privileged kids,” said Watson. “But they like to give back.”

Two girls – 11th grader Sanna-Kaye Reid and 10th grader Nicea Paul, are huge fans of the experience. “You pick out the food, you cook the food, and you serve it to people, you see the smile on their face,” said Paul.

Reid gushed over the candied yams. “They’re my favorite,” she said. “They’re SO good.”

The event is also a special one for Kings Theatre, which has played host to the luncheon for the last three years.

“It is literally a community Thanksgiving,” said Stefanie Tomlin, Kings’ General Manager.

Tomlin, who flitted around the store in a cherry-red blazer, gave hearty hugs to Watson and dove in periodically to help students with the shopping. Tomlin started her job with Kings in 2017 and helped form the partnership with Erasmus. It’s a labor of love for her.

The students, she said, are “the backbone” of the entire luncheon. “It was our wonky idea, but they make it happen every year,” she said. The image of students working in their chef’s jackets, seeing their talent, their pride in the finished product – this is what makes the luncheon worth it for Tomlin.

“It’s a really rewarding way to start off a day that has kind of a marred history,” Tomlin said, referring to the genocide of Native American peoples by the colonists whom they had supposedly formed an alliance with, a fact that Thanksgiving’s peaceful imagery often tends to obscure.

Erasmus Academy students shop for their Community Thanksgiving dinner. Photo courtesy of Al Pereira.

The luncheon draws community members of all circumstances. People from halfway houses and shelters have shown up, and so have people without families, or people who have families but cannot afford to host their own meal. Many of them are friends or family of staff and volunteers, police officers from the 70th precinct, and their families, and some of them come from Queens or even the Bronx.

Drawn in by the huge, orange signs Tomlin and her staff hang around the neighborhood, they’ll all show up for a warm meal this year.

It’s a massive effort to orchestrate a free meal for 400 people: setting up a tent, providing heating, as well as place settings and sternos. And of course, a staff to serve the dinner.

It’s all made easier, however, by the deluge of volunteers they get every year, Tomlin said. This year, there are roughly 170 of them, including staff’s family members – Tomlin’s own mother flew in from Atlanta one year. Volunteers and staff even insist on purchasing supplies like sternos on their own dime, even though Tomlin tells them to expense it.

At the end of it all, however, the luncheon is Watson’s territory. “Basically, we do everything Ms. Watson tells us to do,” Tomlin said, laughing.

Once the students had finished shopping, they gathered near the registers, fielding curious stares from onlookers. Giant sacks of potatoes and crates of apple cider were hoisted onto conveyor belts, and students and staff dashed back into the aisles to grab missing items. Tomlin stood with a half-full flat of cranberry sauce, checking in with Watson to make sure they had everything they needed.

During group photos,10th grader Elijah Francis wandered away from the others. “He’s camera-shy,” said Luke Fitzgibbon, Assistant Principal at the Academy. Someone shouted after him, and he stopped, reluctantly making his way back. He stood, shy but smiling, amongst the group, a bag of potatoes in his hands.

The Thanksgiving Luncheon will take place on Thanksgiving Day at 12 p.m. in the Kings Pavilion at Kings Theatre.

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