The scent of simmering chicken, with hints of oregano, garlic and chiles, drifts through Garrison Middle School hours before lunch time.
In a large pot, the days chef's choice item is cooking at a low heat while the flavors meld. While the broth cooks, the kitchen staff chops onions and cabbage and slices limes into wedges for the garnishes that make pozole a unique dish.
Walla Walla Public Schools is in the second year of offering pozole, a spicy Mexican soup or stew, among its menu items. Although first cooked up in the Garrison kitchen last year, the recipe's popularity has spread so that it is now offered throughout the district -- including the district's six elementary schools.
With its distinct ingredients of chile sauce, chicken, and hominy in a broth, pozole offers a uniquely Mexican flavor to Walla Walla students, and a break from the burgers, nuggets and pizza that are nearly daily offerings at the schools.
"Many of our kids are not interested in eating 'American' food," said Garrison principal Gina Yonts in an e-mail. "We were looking to add more authentic Mexican cuisine to our menu because of our customer base."
Yonts was introduced to pozole, and other traditional Mexican dishes, while on a summer exchange to Jungapeo, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, about three years ago. Yonts was already familiar with the region as the homeland many students and staff. During her stay, Yonts lived with a host family and taught English to youth while also learning Spanish. The introduction to traditional Mexican dishes was an added highlight.
"Pozole in particular was a dish my host family served and it was delicious," she said.
With a large population of students from Michoacan at Garrison, a conversation was started to bring more authentic Mexican meals to the school's cafeteria.
The pozole dish is the work of Maria Alonso, a Garrison kitchen staff member whom Yonts praised for her skill with Mexican dishes.
While the pozole cooked on Oct. 6, Alonso tended to the pot by giving it a stir. The time finally came to pour the pozole into individual bowls, with a side of tortilla chips. Students are then free to add the fresh cabbage, onion, and limes as they wish, producing a hearty and flavorful stew.
As she worked, Alonso explained that she got the recipe through her mother -- another revered cook. The hand-written recipe in the Garrison kitchen was drafted to yield 200 servings, but on this day a batch was prepared for closer to 100.
At its most authentic, pozole would use fresh chicken, simmered to create a broth, as well as chiles soaked and blended.
Alonso's recipe uses canned chile sauce, canned hominy, and precooked diced chicken that the district secures through its food vendors. Dried seasonings are added, including oregano and chicken base, and everything is then simmered together with water in a large pot.
"Very easy, and very healthy," Alonso said, summing up the recipe.
"I think they've liked it," she said. "The students do say they've liked it."
Although popular, pozole is only served about once or twice a month as a chef's choice, which is in-house cooked meals prepared by kitchen staff three times a week.
Food Services Director Pam Milleson explained that although healthy and unique, pozole is high in sodium and so is only offered every few weeks. The high sodium content is another reason why other student favorites like cheese zombies (baked cheese sandwiches with tomato soup) and macaroni and cheese, are offered weeks apart.
"The one we struggle with the most is the sodium," Milleson said.
By keeping pozole and expanding it to other schools, the district's Food Services department has demonstrated that flexibility exists to break from frozen or precooked meals, while staying within a tight budget that is subsidized by the federal government and also meeting nutritional standards.
For Yonts, the dish brings a flavor of home to her students of Mexican heritage, while exposing those with different backgrounds to the culture.
"Putting pozole on the menu was a way for all of our students to experience another culture in an authentic way," she said.
"We are proud to be the first school in the district to serve pozole and very proud of Maria's talents in the kitchen. It's been exciting to see pozole on the district menu and an excellent way to build on the strengths of our team while serving our students well."
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.