Susan Porter lays out her ingredients — some onions, a couple squash, cloves of garlic, a dozen eggs, ground turkey, canned crushed tomato sauce — along with various kitchen utensils on the folding table in front of her. Beside her, there are nine other chefs ranging in age from late 50s to early 70s in bright red aprons. “Today,” Porter says, “we’re going to be making turkey meatballs with squash noodles and a tomato-based sauce.”
With a slight Southern twang and the hint of a smile that belies a no-nonsense attitude, she immediately begins delegating tasks to the staff before her. The list comes out quickly and clearly.
“Terri,” says Porter, pointing to the woman with the floral-patterned head wrap to her right, “you can peel the garlic. Larry, let’s get that water up to a boil. Catherine, we’re going to want you to start cutting the onions.”
Without hesitation, the team springs into motion. The bustle lasts for less than a minute before the questions start coming back at Porter in rapid-fire.
“This is how you use the garlic tool thing, right?” asks Catherine, seated at the folding table. “Is this enough water in the pot?” asks Andra, one of only two males in the group who would tower over the other women if he didn’t carry himself with a slight stoop.
“Susan,” says Larry, perched on his walker. “We need you at the stove.”
Porter never falters. She whirls effortlessly around a 300-square-foot linoleum-tiled floor, between the two stoves and the industrial sink, then back to the folding table, answering questions along the way, lending a hand and providing words of affirmation.
The 62-year-old is used to managing a kitchen. She’s the former proprietor of Town Fryer, a Cleveland Southern comfort food eatery which closed in the Euclid Corridor in 2010. But this is not the commercial kitchen she’s used to, and more to the point, these are not her typical chefs. They’re residents of the Cedar Extension High Rise, on East 30th Street, one of the first public housing high rises for senior citizens in the nation.
Under Porter’s leadership, the Cedar Extension group calls themselves the “Pioneers for Healthy Eating.” Though some rest on walkers in between tasks, their lively banter never ceases. They rib each other as only longtime neighbors can do, even as they never lose focus on their individual tasks in the turkey meatball assembly line. And they never stop expressing their appreciation for Porter. With every piece of culinary help, they are quick to respond, “Thank you, Susan.”
Twice a month for the past year and a half, Porter has gathered them in this kitchen on the first floor of Cedar Extension, the home base of her passion project. In collaboration with the nonprofit DigitalC and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, Porter has created Recipe Remix, a program through which she hopes to impact the lives of elderly residents of redlined communities.
By reworking familiar comfort foods into healthier alternatives, posting those recipes on a website for future use and livestreaming their cooking routines, she hopes to strengthen their connections to one other — in this building and in the community at large.
With 80% of people age 65 and older in the U.S. struggling with at least one chronic disease and 42% of adults 65 and older in Cleveland reporting a lack of access to the internet at home, Porter operates Recipe Remix at the nexus of health and connectivity, the critical importance of which she has seen firsthand.
“Every session highlights a different barrier that needs to be addressed,” says Porter. “Affordability of healthy ingredients, transportation out of food deserts, digital literacy — I want to help find solutions for it all.”
For today, the solution is found in the turkey meatballs, a healthier dish that comes together in just under 30 minutes. The group assembles their own plates — first the squash noodles, then the meatballs, then the sauce and a dash of low-fat Parmesan cheese — and then sit down together at the folding table. The Pioneers bow their heads and Larry leads them in a short prayer of thanks. After a chorus of “Amen,” they dig in together.
“This is the easiest part of the recipe,” smiles Miss Queenie. “Now, we eat.”