Let’s face it: we live in a hurry-up, give-it-to-me-right-now kind of world these days. From business to pleasure, at home or at work, quickness and convenience have become desirable commodities. The days of leisurely anything seem to have become relics of a rapidly disappearing and little-mourned past.
This is especially true in the realm of food. Gone are the days of carefully planned and executed family meals, afternoons spent in the kitchen presiding over bubbling and steaming pots and pans, and evenings taken up with long dinners filled with earnest and inviting conversation. “Fast food” has come to rule the countryside.
Meg Barnhart was caught up in this breakneck world while raising three kids and working in hospitality and event management—and experiencing a bit of “mom guilt.” She remembered the dinners of her childhood, with her mother spending half the day preparing special offerings followed by candlelit meals that brought the family together.
Barnhart was determined to find her own way to replicate that experience, and began to experiment with a slow cooker; ingredients went into the cooker in the morning, and a splendid dinner was available that evening. The process gave her a certain measure of relief, and more time to devote to her family.
Some years later, Barnhart was looking to create a business that would provide employment for her developmentally challenged son and others like him. “A friend asked me one simple question, ‘What makes you happy?’ I laughed and said I’m having fun with my slow-cooking journey, and she said, ‘Do that!’”
Shortly thereafter, Barnhart was introduced to Jane McKay, another mom who, at the time, was developing recipes and writing about food. It was the proverbial “match made in heaven,” and they teamed up to explore the possibilities.
First came the Zen of Slow Cooking blog. In the wake of its runaway success, they crafted a few gourmet-inspired spice mixes and sold them at their local farmers’ market. Email sales followed soon after, and then an online store.
Eventually, they teamed with Planet Access Company, which provides training and employment for adults with developmental disabilities, to work on packaging the spice blends. Barnhart notes that, “in the state of Illinois, only 9 percent of people with developmental disabilities are employed. We wanted to address that employment gap, rooted in our belief that everyone has something positive to contribute to the world.”
They branched out into the community, offering classes at an organic farm, a workshop about the simplicity of slow cooking for a group of young adults with autism, and a program of Slow Cooker Community Boxes that fosters shared communal meals. Recently, the company became B-Corp certified, and Barnhart received the Specialty Food Association’s 2018 Business Leadership Award.
But for Barnhart and McKay, the greatest satisfaction is close to home. Barnhart tells it like this: “Our class was in a deeply depressed area on the south side of Chicago, with a large turnout of moms and dads trying to figure out how to put together a healthy and simple meal for their families. There was so much joy, love, and appreciation for our work that we felt so grateful for the opportunity to spread a little Zen!” And from McKay: “When my 9-year-old year daughter Connie told me, ‘Mom, when I’m older I want to start a spice business,’ I was floored.”
Because with The Zen of Slow Cooking, it’s always first and foremost about family.