Last month, we asked for nominations for our next Uncommoner. Submissions poured in: tool makers, bike builders, community organizers, milliners, compost cultivators. The choice was difficult. But after careful consideration, we’d like to introduce you to our newest Uncommoner. She’s an entrepreneur, teacher, food advocate, and Board member of Slow Food USA working at the crossroads of policy, education, and food sovereignty to change the way we eat. And she makes one mean cabbage dish. Meet Katherine Deumling, the Ambassador of Food and brainchild behind Cook With What You Have.
OTG: Describing you as a chef doesn’t fully encompass what you do. Tell me about Cook With What You Have. Sure, it’s intuitive, but what is it all about?
Katherine: It’s about eliminating this fear that food must be fancy, that you must have expensive tools, and lots of expensive ingredients. It’s about eliminating the common perception that cooking and eating is a complicated process only for those with time and money. Because it isn’t. It’s a right, not a privilege. But it’s become this huge divider.
My whole love and joy is to teach people that food can simplify and enrich your life. It can help you feel good— socially, physically, and mentally— and get rid of all the noise. And it’s a great equalizer. Whether I’m working with my Early Head Start families who have rich cultural traditions, but little resources—little time or little money—the joy of simple food is something that can be part of daily life. It’s a way of cooking that enables you to eat with the seasons and support your local farmers. In the words of Michael Pollan, “This is one of the most radical acts we can do, to cook and to garden.” It’s nourishing, relevant, communal, culturally interesting and it ties us all together.
It’s one thing to learn recipes and it’s another thing to shift perspective on how people use ingredients in the kitchen—to spend less at the grocery store and waste less food, yet be inventive, creative and fun.
It’s true. My one-liner is often, Why Not? Because when the recipe says ½ tsp of oregano, people are scared to deviate. Have a leek, but don’t have an onion? Why not? It might not be something you serve to the queen, but why not? And you saved the money and stress of going to the grocery store.
How does your philosophy around food intersect with sustainability, food security, and climate change?
It’s best summed up by the concept of food sovereignty. Unlike food security, which typically references calories but does not go deeper—as in where or how or by whom and under what conditions the food was grown, processed or even prepared—food sovereignty brings all of those elements together. It includes culture and agricultural/agroecological practices that dominated the world’s agriculture until just 60 years ago. Working towards or regaining food sovereignty means farmers having access to seeds in the public domain (rather than patented terminator seeds), access to land, infrastructure for local or regional distribution and hope for a fair price and fair working conditions. All of these things are under pretty serious threat in many parts of the world.
Is this why you’re involved in organizations like Slow Food?
Yeah, I lived in Italy for years, but I didn’t learn about Slow Food until after I came back to the US. The Slow Food philosophy reflects so much of what I care about and it has quite radical beginnings. When Carlo Petrini founded Slow Food, his first two initiatives were longer lunch breaks and fair wages for famers so that they could actually have the time to eat and enjoy the food they grow.
Besides being part of Oxfam USAs’ Sisters on the Planet program where you work as an ambassador of food justice at a policy level, you’re also a teacher. And you mentioned something about a secret project you’re working on?
Yes. I work with companies, government agencies, and hospitals in their wellness programs. For example, I teach at Good Samaritan Hospital in their Diabetes and Weight Management program. I also train Early Head Start in-home staff. I also write recipes every week for multiple local CSAs. I get a list of what is in each farm’s CSA box, and I have 48 hours to write six or seven recipes for each CSA. It’s an inefficient process. So I’m transitioning from creating hyper-customized content for each farm to creating a tightly curated, well-designed, subscriber-based website that archives over 600 recipes. That way, I can market it to far more farms and individuals in the area for less, and it’s a more sustainable economic model.
You have a lot on your plate. So where are you going with all of this?
I want to elevate storage crops. Locally grown beans and grains are unbelievably nutritious. And they’re great for eating economically, eating lower on the economic food chain and creating less of an environmental footprint. There are some great farmers who are taking some big risks at growing them in the valley with huge investments in the equipment and the machinery. I want to help those farmers who are making that investment by introducing consumers to these delicious, affordable and nutritious products.
To learn more about Katherine, visit her website at cookwithwhatyouhave.com.