all are welcome

(Photo by A.V.Crofts)
(Photo by A.V.Crofts)

In a primary season with sharp language around immigration, two articles beg to be read widely. Both feature programs that use the shared experience of food to strengthen the bond between immigrants to their new hometowns.

The first article profiles Hot Bread Kitchen, a top-shelf bakery committed to producing high-quality loaves of all kinds. The brainchild of New York baker Jessamyn Waldman-Rodriguez, Hot Bread Kitchen employs recent immigrants and trains them in all aspects of the bakery: from making dough from scratch to pulling fresh-baked loaves out of the oven at the perfect time. Not only do their breads sell to some of the fanciest restaurants and shops in the city, all of their bakers are placed in full-time positions after completing training.

Two hours south by train from New York sits Edible Alphabet, a project under the care of the Free Library of Philadelphia and in partnership with Nationalities Service Center. This program offers a new twist on English language training by blending language acquisition with cooking. Ingredients are the vocabulary lesson and each class ends with a shared meal. NPR recently showcased some examples of dishes, all designed for affordability and the varied tastes of Philadelphians, wherever they come from.

Baking—and breaking—bread together is a form of welcome. Given the less charitable sentiments that keep surfacing in the bluster of the primary season, I pledge allegiance to programs like Hot Bread Kitchen and Edible Alphabet who happily celebrate many flags.




“the kitchen is my harbor”

Image Courtesy of Book Larder

Last night I had the distinct privilege of attending a book reading at the marvelous Book Larder by chef and author Donia Bijan, an Iranian exile of over 30 years. Bijan is a gifted storyteller and held the crowd spellbound as she shared tales from her book, Maman’s Homesick Pie, of meals, family, identity, and memory.

You must stop reading this blog immediately and go purchase this book, preferably from a store such as Book Larder. I forwent sleep last night because I had to devour at least the first chapter. Given my commitment to bedtime, readers will appreciate the power this book holds over me. 

At one point during the question and answer period, Bijan confided that while the perception of exiles is one of untethered “betwixt and between,” food can be a reassuring constant. “The kitchen is my harbor” she said.

We were lucky to let down our anchors with her last night.

cultivating communities

Photo by Ron1478

It’s a good life, my life in Maine.

No watch on my wrist. Lots of chances to swim. Great friends. And fresh fruit and vegetables for days.

Corn that’s sweet and pops as you devour it off the cob, slender Japanese eggplants, soft raspberries, and mountains of rainbow chard. It’s good stuff.

Lucky me that my ancestors settled this land 200 years ago and I benefit today.

This morning I joined my mother on a road trip from our farmhouse to North Windham for the weekly farmers market–a modest little operation tucked behind a church off Route 302. We’re talking six stalls or so that sold perishables, and maybe two additional stalls that sold crafts or plants. It’s not the see-and-be-seen mobfest that is the Ballard Farmers Market in Seattle, but it’s not quantity, it’s quality that matters at a farmers market.

The stall that caught my eye didn’t lure me initially with their vegetables (though they were abundant and gorgeous) but rather, the couple who were staffing the booth. It was as if I’d beamed up to Khartoum and found myself in Omdurman Market, not rural Maine. Turns out they weren’t Sudanese, but Somali–her henna and his skullcap fooled me–and they farm with a project called Cultivating Community out of Portland, Maine. Cultivating Community describes itself this way:

Cultivating Community’s mission is to strengthen communities by growing food, preparing youth leaders and new farmers, and promoting social and environmental justice. We use our community food work as an engine for high-impact youth and community development programs that reconnect people to the natural and social systems that sustain us all.

This is a mission statement I can get behind. It contains some of my favorite words: “food,” “leaders,” “community,” “reconnect,” and “sustain.”

Each summer I return to land that my family once farmed, contrasted with my Somali vendors who are first-generation Maine farmers. Their food fed me tonight, and I am grateful for it.

come together over couscous

I was on a flight between London and Johannesburg the day that the FIFA World Cup started. I knew it was serious business (most of the passengers on the plane were wearing country-specific soccer–oh, I’m sorry–football jerseys) and wasn’t surprised that the captain gave the cabin regular updates on the England vs. USA score. I actually love that kind of enthusiasm. Total sucker for it. Each update would elicit groans and cheers–though we Yankees were very much outnumbered by the Brits.

From Johannesburg I flew to Windhoek, Namibia, neighbor to the north, where the first shipment of vuvuzelas were already sold out city-wide, and the day of South Africa’s first match was essentially a national holiday. Needless to say, this part of the world was the perfect place to steep myself in football fever. I knew that I could watch soccer three times a day, pretty much every day, which is what I did when my schedule allowed.

The French team had issues from the beginning. The quick recap: inflated egos, combined with a less than effective coach and a strong competitor field, had France exiting after the first round. This was widely reported and quoted back in La France as a “national disgrace.”

Now, as relatively recent World Cup champions, I can understand a nation’s serious disappointment. But talk turned ugly, and specifically, started to target the ethnic make-up of the team and questions about how “French” they really were. (Funny how the reverse was true 1n 1998 when France won the whole shebang–the Benetton ad of a team was heralded as a shining example of the “new France.”)

Jamie Schler, who writes from France, has a great piece in the Huffington Post that approaches this national hand-wringing and narrow-mindedness head on, and sets her argument squarely on France’s dining room table and the threads of culinary history that run through the country thanks to immigration patterns. She, rightly, chalks up France’s hasty retreat from the 2010 World Cup to poor management and behavior, and uses dishes like couscous to illustrate the ability for immigrant populations to contribute and assimilate to a new culture, while at the same time preserving their ethnic identity and traditions.

I want Sarkozy to hire her. Then again, he’s got bigger problems than Schler can likely fix.

crayfish chronicles

Photo by kalleboo through Flickr Creative Commons

Understandably, there has been great attention focused on the coast of Louisiana, and the awful waiting game to see how thousands upon thousands of gallons of oil will impact the fragile ecosystems and the families whose economic livelihoods depend on them. Just today, the New York Times reported that Louisiana residents are stocking up on seafood, afraid of what the future will bring.

Interestingly, the New York Times also ran an article recently that highlighted a shellfish that is dear to Louisianan stomachs, but is not harvested from the sea: crawfish (crayfish). (That doesn’t mean that the coastal crawfish won’t be affected by the spill, however, as many thrive in tributaries that are where rivers meet the ocean.) But there’s a twist to the story that I love: the article featured local Vietnamese immigrant restaurateurs, who are incorporating this beloved crustacean into their SE Asian cuisine traditions, as well as offering up the traditional Cajun crawfish preparation that has deep roots in the delta and beyond.

Furthermore, I had to smile when I got to the end of the article and Hieu Pham, the brainchild behind “Crawfish Shack Seafood,” who was born in Louisiana to Vietnamese parents, expressed a preference for Philadelphia’s famous Amoroso’s rolls which no cheesesteak should ever been seen without, but flies in the face of local Louisiana bakeries. I’ve been known to purchase Amoroso’s when back home visiting family in Philly and pack them back to Seattle–there’s something about that Philly water that makes the Amoroso’s rolls just perfect for a cheese steak–or sopping up crawfish broth down on the coast of Louisiana.