Hassan Gedi dipped tongs into a boiling pot and pulled out glass jars full of dark purple liquid.
The jars contained pickled grapes marinating in brine. Next summer, Gedi, a 29-year-old refugee from Somalia, may be able to sell his own pickled goods at an Anchorage farmers market.
"I would like to learn this, to make money myself," said Gedi, who came to Anchorage more than a year ago and also has a job at a fish processing plant.
Through the nonprofit Catholic Social Services, Gedi is one of a handful of refugees taking cooking classes this winter. A newer extension of a summer gardening program that began a decade ago, the classes focus on food production, business and social skills. It's part of broader community efforts to re-settle people arriving in the U.S. from conflict-torn regions.
Amid a national slowdown in refugee resettlement, the agency decided to focus its programming on the existing refugee population in Anchorage, said Liza Krauszer, the state refugee coordinator. Through the cooking classes, she said, the agency hopes to help develop the skills of refugees in addition to gardening. A federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture supports the program.
The winter classes come at a time when farmers markets and cottage food production in Anchorage are on the rise. Farmers markets have sprung up in Mountain View and Muldoon, two of Anchorage's lower-income neighborhoods. The markets have created a niche for small-scale farmers and gardeners and the sale of homemade, non-temperature-controlled products like bread, cookies, jams, pickles and relishes, advocates say.
In May, acknowledging the popularity of the markets, the Anchorage Assembly sharply dropped an annual fee to sell cottage foods, from $310 to $50. Next week, the Assembly is slated to debate new regulations that license Anchorage cottage food vendors for the first time and drop the fee even further, to $25.
Lower fees are good news for refugees trying to break into the market, said Jesse Richardville, the class coordinator. He said that while the cooking classes would have happened regardless, high costs could have discouraged participants from branching out into their own businesses.
"The goal of our program is to teach our gardener participants – here's another economic endeavor, and here's another source of income," Richardville said.
On Saturday, in a building at the back of St. Anthony's Catholic Church in East Anchorage, a small group learned about two types of food preservation: pickling and fermentation. Richardville watched over the jar-boiling and explained techniques. Pickling involves vinegar, he said, and fermentation calls only for water and salt.
When two class participants walked into the room, Richardville greeted them by pointing to a line of colorful Mason jars. Each had a different type of produce inside — spicy pickled garlic, sweet-and-sour pickled garlic and spicy pickled grape.
Richardville named off the contents and handed the men tasting cups.
Nearby, Claudia Hernandez, 23, and Agustina Ramirez, 44, helped organize jars. The women fled political unrest in Oaxaca, Mexico, nearly two years ago. Both also participated in the summer gardening program.
In Spanish translated by Hernandez, Ramirez said she didn't have much experience with fermentation but enjoyed it.
When the gardening program first started in 2007, all of the participants were Hmong, Krauszer said. Now, class participants come from Iraq, Congo, south Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar and Bhutan, as well as Mexico, she said. Many lived in camps before coming to the U.S.
Richardville, a former supervisor at Spenard Roadhouse, organized the classes, which include not only cooking but English instruction and mentoring on customer service skills. The classes are aimed at refugees arriving to Anchorage without jobs, though some participants have gardened with the program for many years, Richardville said. He said that many refugees have experience with agriculture, but are unfamiliar with Alaska's growing seasons and environment.
Following a summer harvest, he said, it also made sense to look at preserving food over the winter.
In the coming months, more growth is on the way. Working with a Mountain View-based nonprofit, the Anchorage Community Land Trust, Richardville and his colleagues plan to launch an urban farm for refugees.