By Jennifer Justus, Culinary Community Liason
Bianca Morton is up to her elbows in tomatoes. A few yellow bins sit brimming with red and orange orbs perfuming The Nashville Food Project kitchen with their clean, acidic scent and mingling with the earthy tones of pasta roiling in a giant kettle.
The pasta will get tossed in tomato sauce, of course. That’s because Bianca has been working quickly to have all the summer tomatoes processed—chopped for green salads, dehydrated for later, or whirled up in enchilada sauces and marinas for layering into lasagnas.
She has to think smart and fast every day about how to use thousands of pounds of food that generously come through our doors from farms and markets. And then she works with volunteers and TNFP co-workers to turn ingredients into scratch-made meals for those who need it.
And it’s not just tomatoes. As Bianca sorted donated chicken from Cracker Barrel recently —determining its next iteration as chicken salad, chicken pot pie or roasted with balsamic and rosemary—a volunteer team filled pans with roasted peppers from our production gardens with hunks of bread that will become strata.
“Do you have any spinach?” one of the volunteers asked.
Bianca disappeared to the walk-in, one of her kitchen domains, and returned a few moments later carrying containers from Whole Foods.
“How about baby kale?”
“Perfect,” the volunteer said.
While the stratas will go to the YWCA and veterans through Operation Stand Down and workers’ dignity workshops on wage theft, Bianca is already thinking about meals for seniors at Wedgewood Towers and Fifty Forward.
The truth is Bianca has been sharing food long before her days at the food project.
During middle and high school, she baked her step-grandmother’s pound cake every time someone had a birthday. “I would bring it in a cake container. Cut slices all day long and share with everybody,” she says.
She had turned to cooking as a way to help cope with a clinical depression diagnosis as a teenager. “I cooked when I was happy. I cooked when I was sad. I cooked when I was angry,” she says. “When I was angry, I would go in there and bang the hell out of pots everywhere. You were liable to get two meats for dinner that night.”
She cooked for the family at least four days a week. But she always brought her lunch the next day sharing the leftovers. “This is funny now that I’m thinking about it and here (at TNFP)… I would bring enough to feed four or five people,” she says. “Everyone would eat off my lunch.”
Bianca’s curiosity about food came early, but she skipped a few steps on the typical path. When her mother bought her an Easy Bake Oven at age 10, Bianca left it in the box. But when her mom went out to choir practice or Bible study on Wednesday nights, Bianca snuck into the kitchen for the real thing. “I knew I had a three-hour window. I would take her Betty Crocker cookbook, and I would flip through that and figure out what I was gonna make.”
That usually meant cakes since they often had pantry staples on hand.
“As soon as she would leave… I was on it. I would fix my cake batter up and bake my cake. I would cool my cake and put it in a Zip-lock bag with a butter knife. I had cakes hidden in the piano bench, in my toy box, where I could go any time and cut me a little slice of cake off.”
The night her mother caught her, though, Bianca had fallen asleep with a cake in the oven. She woke up to find it, burnt and black, outside her door with a note. Her mother instructed her to change clothes after school and be ready to go. “I was like ‘she is gonna drop me off somewhere,’” she recalled. “She is literally abandoning me.”
But her mother took her to the grocery store instead.
“We were walking down the aisles and she said pick out stuff you want to learn how to make. So, I was like grabbing meats and everything. She would cook that for dinner and have me watch. I was like, ‘I love this.’”
After high school, Bianca went to culinary school in Atlanta. She took double the course load and graduated early while also working full-time as dining coordinator in a retirement center. Then she moved back to Nashville and took jobs at convention centers and downtown hotels.
Those jobs warranted a tough exterior with their anxiety-inducing pace and high volume in a male-dominated and often unhealthy industry. But she also learned lessons that stick with her today. Like the time an unexpected snowstorm hit Nashville turning a 20 percent occupancy hotel to 100 percent within minutes as a line formed out the door. Bianca slept (or more like napped occasionally) at the hotel for three days and learned that staying ahead—even chopping onions and peppers when there’s an extra few minutes— is essential.
Now at The Nashville Food Project, Bianca says the intensity of turning out thousands of meals each week takes on a new meaning. “In that instance, it was like ‘okay we gotta get the job done.’ But now, it’s rewarding. It makes me feel lighter, like I have an effect on other people — that I’m actually working in my gift. That I have a purpose… I care about the impact that I have on the next person whether it’s direct or indirect. So I’m constantly thinking, how I can make it better? Or, how can I make best use of my skills to be a blessing to someone else in any kind of capacity?”
That doesn’t mean she’s lost all her hardcore kitchen vibes. You’ll find her some days cruising through the kitchen on a mission — cell phone tethered to one ear via ear bud and a Venti Starbucks nearby with more pumps than she probably ought to admit. Working in a nonprofit kitchen, after all, has taken some getting used to.
When she first started at TNFP, a truck full of donations would arrive – all needing to be sorted, sized up and put away quickly – and Bianca viewed it as time and work. But Katie Duivan, catering and events manager would “turn flips,” Bianca says. “She would be like, ‘Oh my god look at this. This is beautiful.’”
“Where I come from you couldn’t show that,” she says. “I had to be hard. I couldn’t be friendly. Then they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re a woman and that’s a weakness.’ I had to run with the big dogs.”
But being here makes it easier to be genuine, she says. “I can smile. And the days I don’t smile, and I’m gruff, it’s fine. They accept me for who I am. Here they celebrate our differences and what makes us uniquely us.”
Plus, she says Katie, her other co-workers and the environment of a kitchen filled with the purpose of stewardship and service, might have rubbed off on her bringing her back to those days when she shared lunch at the cafeteria table with nothing to gain or prove.
“It’s kind of like somebody is throwing happy glitter,” she says. “You’re going to get some happy glitter on you, and you’re not gonna be able to get it off.”
Lodge Cast Iron recently donated several skillets to The Nashville Food Project. We asked Bianca to share her favorite skillet recipe for cornbread. In her family, they like it sweet, almost like cake, she says. “I was raised that if you didn’t eat sweet cornbread, you were making dressing.”
She bakes this version for her family every other week and considers it a staple at Sunday dinner. Tag us on social media in a photo of your favorite cast-iron recipe, and we’ll enter you into a drawing for a new Lodge skillet.
Bianca’s Skillet Cornbread
1/2 cup self-rising cornmeal
1 1/2 cup self-rising flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup oil plus 3 tbsp oil
2 eggs beaten
1 1/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons honey
3 tablespoons melted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a medium bowl, combine cornmeal, flour and sugar. Mix in 1/3 cup of the oil, eggs and milk.
Heat remaining 3 tablespoons oil in the cast-iron skillet. Pour hot oil into mixed batter. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Top with the melted butter and honey before serving.