Dishing up culture with ACE Martha’s Vineyard


You may think that living in an area with a wealth of gourmet restaurants gives Islanders well-rounded palates. But, the average Vineyarder has probably not had the opportunity to sample all – or maybe any – of the following: salted cod from Brazil, venison stew prepared in traditional Wampanoag style, and kugel and Kasha varnishkes.

A series of cooking classes over the next few weeks provides that opportunity.

ACE MV (Adult and Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard) has paired with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum (MVM) to combine culinary instruction with a glimpse into three cultures that are represented on the Island.

The trio of classes, collectively titled Cooking Through Cultures, will add to ACE MV’s roster of cooking classes that have been a popular mainstay of their curriculum for the past three years. The classes, to be held on Thursday evenings at the high school, will include a demonstration of Brazilian and Portuguese cooking by a native of Brazil, Wampanoag cooking by a tribe member and Aquinnah native, and Jewish cooking hosted by two women whose differing roots will inform their different approaches in preparing recipes from two distinct subcultures of Judaism.

Since ACE MV’s inception in 2009, founder and director Lynn Ditchfield has relied on cooking classes to help acquaint Islanders with cultures as diverse as Korean, French, and Indian. “It has been a really fun thing to do,” Ms. Ditchfield said. “It’s a delicious way to get into cultures.” And cultural immersion is one of the primary goals of ACE MV. “It’s a passion of mine,” said Ms. Ditchfield. “What we’re trying to do here is get into the cultures we have and celebrate them.”

“It seemed like a fabulous thing to do,” said Anna Carringer, assistant curator for the MVM. “Anything that’s multi-sensory is a fun way to learn on a different level. There’s this sort of static learning where you can read about something, but when it comes to things like music, food, and dance it really works on a different level.”

Ms. Carringer noted that she asked the cooking instructors “not to do research but share a dish that is significant to them.”

Elton Nascimento, who will be leading the Brazilian and Portuguese cooking class next Thursday, Feb. 16, is from southern Brazil. He will be preparing bacalhau, a dish made with salted cod that is common to his native area and has its origins in Portuguese cooking.

“This dish was in my childhood,” Mr. Nascimento said. “I learned it from my aunt who is a chef, and I think this type of dish is not popular here because it is very time-consuming: from start to end it takes about three days. It takes so long because you need to soak the salted codfish in water for two days. Even where I grew up we just used to have this dish for special occasions.”

The Wampanoag cooking class (February 23) will be led by secretary of the human services department for the tribe, Kristin Hook-Leslie, who often provides traditional foods for local Wampanoag gatherings and gives instruction in traditional Wampanoag cooking through the tribe’s afterschool program. She will prepare a stew made from local venison as well as a traditional form of corn cake. In her cooking, she tries, when possible, to use local foods and to demonstrate traditional cooking methods, but things have changed considerably since she learned various recipes from her mother.

“I use a lot of parsley, garlic, and onions,” Ms. Hook-Leslie said. “A lot of that grew here wild. When I was a kid there were open fields that lent themselves to that kind of vegetation.”

She added, “I do a lot of teaching in the vein of how we might have cooked years ago and how we do it today… I was eight years old before we had electricity here.” She explained that in antiquity journey cakes were made in a clay pot over a fire with the fat from a deer or rabbit in place of butter. She has adapted the recipe to utilize a modern facility, but she still tries to use corn meal from a nearby grist mill and ingredients – like cranberries and hazelnuts – that would have been found here at one time. It’s an opportunity to teach about a group of people who have been here forever.”

As a bonus, those interested in the Wampanoag cooking class can take advantage of a two-for-one offer and also attend Cooking Conch with Caribbean Flair (March 22) with Chef Deon Thomas of Deon’s Restaurant. Though not part of the Cooking Through Cultures series, chef Deon hopes to popularize a seldom used local ingredient. Conch is a shellfish that’s abundant in our waters, but it is almost exclusively exported.

The final class in the series is on March 15 with Lori Shaller and Ljuba Davis, both members of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. They will demonstrate, respectively, the cooking styles of the Ashkenazic tradition of Eastern Europe and the Sephardic tradition, originating in Spain, Portugal, and the Mediterranean.

For her portion of the class, Ms. Shaller will most likely prepare some sort of kugel, which she notes is, “a casserole that has incredible adaptability,” and possibly kasha varnishkes, a grain and pasta combination. Ms. Shaller’s friend and co-presenter Ms. Davis will speak on Sephardic culture and prepare a yet-to-be-determined dish from the Mediterranean area.

Said Ms. Carringer, “We’re happy to give the community the opportunity to share and learn from other people.”

All cooking classes are from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at M.V. Regional High School, Oak Bluffs, Room 111. Each class is $45. 508-693-1033, ext. 240;