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My Businessmum

Collaborating cooks

I heard a story about a woman with three teenagers whose struggles resounded with another young woman with two young kids. It began with these two mothers who met at a workshop, who would then go on to develop a B-corp certified, non-GMO, women founded business, packing little tins of spices and sticking ribbons onto them in their kitchens.

One of these women is my own mum, Jane McKay. As of 2022, she is a founder of two businesses, with two now-teenage kids, supporting small companies and the community.

Over the past decade, I’ve watched mum and Meg overcome the misconception that slow cooker meals are boring mush. A key part of my mum's journey, which is nothing less than inspirational, is that she and Meg “soon banished the myth that slow cooker food was one dimensional - gray, stewy, and gruel-like” - Meg Barnhart.

As the spice business grew and mum and Meg’s partnership too, I saw the production develop. They started with a blog with an abundance of recipes I love, from late 2012 to now, sharing so much to accomplish their motto: “Feed your family. Feed your soul.” And there is so much more I could learn from my entrepreneur mum.

Eventually, they went on to win a SOFI and a Trailblazer Award and even participate in the Specialty Food Association's "Fancy Food Show." My mum winning awards with her business partner for her business was one of the most exciting parts for me to see. Visiting my mum at an international food show in New York in 2017 was so exciting.

Of course, there was no way for them to get there without some encouragement and fun. When I was 6 years old I drew a life-like representation of the relationship Meg and mum still have to this day in this drawing with my mum on the right saying “I think we should do lentils Meg”:

From a tiny, two-person project packaging spices at home into hand labeled tins, emerged a small, modern, community business centered around making dinner time the best time.

Chicago, The Windy City: a Home and the Home of Zen of Slow Cooking

One of my first memories of working with ZOSC is helping my mum stick colorful ribbons and logo stickers onto the spice tins. And, from around the same time, I have memories of visiting my mum when the business was just starting up: a stall with stacks of spices and a logo depicting the silhouette of a crockpot with steam emerging.

My most vivid recollection of one of these visits is from the Chicago Botanic Gardens when it was snowing, freezing and gray, but my determined mum was still out there enticing customers with easy, flavourful dinners that you prepare in a slow cooker and serve up seven hours later.

Then, watching mum make meals on TV, teaching Chicago about Zen of Slow Cooking; she would arrive home and tell us about her inch-long-lashes that the makeup team had plastered to her eyelids. We’d visit some of Zen’s team: Linda (the company’s graphic designer) had the friendliest, massive dog called Hudson and at her house was my first time ever seeing a pineapple upside down cake. Those are some foundational memories I have of Zen.

Finally, making trips to Planet Access Company: the warehouse where the packaging was done for their online customers. My mum and Meg were helping create local job opportunities for people with learning and physical disabilities for neither profit nor appearance; Zen’s packaging was, admirably, sourced locally and simultaneously managed to provide a wider range of jobs for people who otherwise might not have been able to access work. I remember being proud and in awe upon first entering the warehouse, and again when I later found out that all of Zen’s packaging was made within 100 miles of the business at monetary, but not moral or ethical, expense.

I truly admire that these two women, who created a practical product for others who face similar mealtime struggles as them, and who persevered through a difficult market, were still thoughtful enough to support and encourage others beyond just their customers.

The Recipes

While it’s a difficult decision, my favorite Zen meals are the pulled pork burger and the lentil dahl. The creaminess of the coleslaw, with the deliciously spicy pulled pork makes an incredible (and maybe healthier than a beef burger) meal. The vibrancy of the lentil dahl paired with naan is pretty and flavorful; I love both of these dishes.

There is a constant mélange of smells and sounds when mum - or dad, but mum uses the spice blends more - is in the kitchen: the satisfying hiss of the release of pressure of the Instant Pot ®, a sound I associate with ‘dinner’s ready!’; the scent of food slowly marinating in the slow cooker over the course of the day. When ZOSC started, our meal times - the only time the four of us are together - became vibrant and fun and colorful; a rainbow of spices and vegetables came into our lives, bringing with it a welcomed sense of international diversity and food culture.

I find the sensory element of eating with a range of utensils, breads, chopsticks, cutlery, our hands, etc - even if someone does still end up dropping it on the table/themself - to be crucial to enjoying meals. The house smells different every day and I’m introduced to new flavors all the time.

Bristol, U.K: a Home and the Home of Astute Ideas

Switching continents is weird. When we moved from the Windy City to Bristol in 2017 everything changed. In Bristol we have a famous hot air balloon festival and food trucks, but rarely do I see Mexican stores or restaurants in my new city. In Chicago there was a food vendor or grocery store selling Mexican produce and snacks on every corner of my neighbourhood. The variety of pizza restaurants, Bubble Tea cafés, Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian and more in Bristol serve a large and diverse population. There are more than 91 different language communities here, as represented by 91 Ways Org.

Now, with a new city, after nearly five years, comes a new, and just as promising, small business: Astute Ideas. Having a mum who’s started a business - let alone two! - can be busy and hectic but also inspirational.

With mum now navigating a new market, whilst also encouraging other small food businesses, there’s always practical research to be done by us kids. Recently, for example, we visited a paleta stall in Bristol. The owner, like mum, is now trying to learn how to cater for customer demands in England. Of course, we already know how amazing paletas can be, but it was only until we had clearly enjoyed our paletas that other customers approached the stall.

It’s all good fun exploring and discovering interesting people, though. A businessmum opens a lot of doors to new experiences. I see her work really hard, but I also aspire to be so dedicated to a job. Entrepreneur mums are ACE!

Read more about Astute Ideas and Zen of Slow Cooking


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