CHICAGO — At the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, each of the school’s departments bring something to the annual Thanksgiving dinner table — literally.
“Each of the pathways contributes something and participates in the dinner,” said Alex Pazienza. Pazienza, a senior at CHSAS who has volunteered for the dinner for four years now.
The dinner, served on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, is by invitation for residents of the Beverly and Mount Greenwood neighborhoods in Chicago’s 19th Ward, where the school is located.
When Pazienza says everybody contributes, she’s not just talking turkey and sides. The turkey is contributed by students in the animal science pathway, like Pazienza and classmate Payton Fleming.
CHSAS offers junior and senior students six agriculture-related “pathways” to concentrate their studies in for the last two years of school. Students choose after a pathway rotation in their sophomore year, so they can explore each of the pathways’ subject matter and classes. The pathways are: agricultural finance and economics; agricultural mechanics and tech; animal science; biotechnology in agriculture; food science; and horticulture and landscape design. Students are admitted to CHSAS via application through the Chicago Public Schools lottery process. That process considers the students’ application, grades and test scores.
“We heard that they are making turkey-shaped cutting boards so we will design the centerpieces to go with those,” said Brittany Kee, horticulture pathway teacher. Her students are responsible for designing and arranging the 40 centerpieces for the tables at the dinner.
Over at the “Mech Tech” pathway classroom, teacher Max Williquette confirmed that the turkey-shaped cutting boards would be on the tables.
“Our students have finished cutting the forms and have started assembling and gluing the wood together for the turkey cutting boards,” Williquette said.
In the food science lab, freezer bags of pumpkin puree sat waiting to go into a freezer, next to the already-frozen bags of corn, all from the school’s large garden.
The pumpkin would be made into pies for the dinner. The corn would be blended and made into cornbread.
“We had a ton of pumpkins this year so we have a lot of pumpkin puree and we had a big corn crop,” said Ima Eno, food science instructor.
Her students learn food biology, packaging, marketing and labeling as well as safe handling and entrepreneurship. They take the ServSafe online food sanitation exam in their junior year. Those that pass receive their Illinois food sanitation license.
On the day of the dinner, volunteers from the school gather in the morning to start preparations.
The school volunteers are assisted by local chefs, who also prepare some of their own specialties for the dinner. This year, chef AJ Castillo from Americanos in Morgan Park, chef Neil Byers from Horse Thief Hollow Restaurant in Beverly, chef Alvin Green from Beverly and chef Gautham Rao from Smith Village in Morgan Park cooked for the dinner.
The planning and organizing is done by the CHSAS FFA chapter officers.
“We start the planning process when we get the turkey poults, right at the start of our school year,” Pazienza said.
That planning ramps up in mid to late October.
“We start about a month in advance, we send invitations, we make fliers, we start estimating how many people are going to attend,” Fleming said.
The primary audience for the dinner are residents in the Mount Greenwood and Beverly neighborhoods.
“We open up the school like big arms and they can come in and have Thanksgiving dinner,” Fleming said.
“Hosting the Thanksgiving dinner for the neighborhood is such a natural fit because the school is part of these neighborhoods. We’re open for different events and activities throughout the year for our neighbors,” said William Hook, CHSAS principal.
The CHSAS volunteers serve over 300 diners. The dinner starts at 5 p.m. and runs until 7 p.m. Volunteers serve and refill plates and cups.
The menu is traditional — turkey and all the sides, including pumpkin pie and Eli’s Cheesecake.
Even as the students give back to the neighborhood, they also receive from the neighbors, especially senior citizens who often RSVP in groups so they can sit together, said Pazienza.
“I love talking to them and listening to their stories,” Fleming said.
The dinner is a learning experience for the students, as well.
“I have learned that you always have to have fun. They have so much to do, with jobs and thinking about retirement and everything. They come here and you feel good knowing that there is still fun stuff to look forward to,” Fleming said.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is people skills and how to talk to new people. It’s just good for learning how to talk to people I don’t know,” Pazienza said.