We talk with restaurateur Ashok Bajaj about how he keeps his customers coming back and what defines and distinguishes his native Indian cuisine.
From church basements to food festivals, community food sharing is a tradition that carries meaning far beyond fold-out tables. As neighborhood demographics change, dishes with more ethnic appeal have appeared alongside the ubiquitous deviled eggs and casseroles. And within immigrant populations, sharing food has been a way to explain history and forge bonds with the wider community. Kojo explores community food traditions and why sharing food continues to connect our neighborhoods with the world.
- Johanna Mendelson-Forman Scholar in Residence, School of International Service, American University; Senior Advisor, Stimson Center
- Bonny Wolf Editor, American Food Roots; Commentator, NPR's Weekend Edition
- Manolia Charlotin Managing Editor, Feet in 2 Worlds
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world, it's Food Wednesday.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's an American food tradition that either elicits groans or gets your creative casserole juices flowing, the potluck. From church basements to neighborhood block parties, potlucks are the quintessential community food event. But these days those tables of baked ziti, Jell-o and deviled eggs are being crowded out by more, well, exotic flavors, from plates of pupusas to humus, kabob's and even sushi, changing demographics means that the flavor, the form and even the function of sharing food are upending tradition.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd even though new dishes on communal tables may not seem like a big deal, sharing food is now being seen as a diplomatic tool from immigrant neighborhoods, all the way to the top levels of government. So what are we learning at our community tables? How are they changing and why is sharing food so important for both society and for our stomachs? Joining us to sort all of this out is Bonny Wolf, editor of American Food Roots and commentator on NPR's "Weekend Edition." Bonny, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. BONNY WOLFThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us, in studio, is Johanna Mendelson-Forman, she's scholar and resident at American University School of International Service and senior advisor at the Stimson Center. Johanna, good to see you, again.
MS. JOHANNA MENDELSON-FORMANGreat to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation, give us a call 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. What are your favorite dishes to share or to eat at a community gathering? Do you do potluck's at your church or in your neighborhood? Why do you think this tradition continues, 800-433-8850. Go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there, shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIBonny Wolf, if there's one thing that ties us together it's, well, our stomachs. And whether it's a church potluck, a neighborhood festival or even a gathering at home, the act of sharing food is something that's common across countries, across cultures, so why do we do it? Why is the act of sitting down and breaking bread together so powerful?
WOLFI think, food is much more then fuel. Food is what really ties us together as, as humans. There's been a whole series of books, now, about cooking for one and eating alone. This is an anomaly that people don't want. They want to break bread together. They want to -- it's a natural human instinct to sit down with your neighbors, to sit down with your friends, when you meet someone new, you say, let's get together for coffee or lets -- you -- there's always some food or drink involved.
NNAMDIWe used some of your book, "Eating with My Mouth Full," in our preview. I'd now like to use some more. "A ritual cassoulet to recognize the snowfall, chili for the Super Bowl, crab feats in the alley, fund-raising dinners for the neighborhood arts workshop. After September 11, as the Pentagon still smoldered, a group of us ate together every night for a week. It seemed the natural thing to do."
NNAMDIWhen we talk about community food, I'll bet images of pancake breakfasts and potlucks come to mind for a lot of us. But changing demographics mean that egg salad and Jell-o are getting a lot less real estate at these events. You, Bonny, are a long time resident of Capitol Hill, how have you seen offerings at community events evolve, over the years?
WOLFWell, we recently had a potluck meal at the Eastern Market, which is Washington's oldest remaining food market. Actually, one of the oldest remaining in the country. And the -- everything you thought would be there was there. There was lots of pasta salad, there were deviled eggs, but there were also --- there are a number of merchants, at the market, who are from El Salvador, and one of them has a Filipino woman who works for him and she brought in the most beautiful tray of tiny little egg roll.
WOLFAnd there were all sorts of Indian dishes and dishes from Turkey and Asian, dishes of all sorts, things you'd never seen before. Of course you never saw lemon grass at Safeway until fairly recently.
NNAMDIThe neighborhood is changing. Let's talk a little bit about Jell-o. Your website just did a feature about how Jell-o salad is intimately tied to an annual Mormon holiday.
WOLFWell, Utah -- Jell-o is actually the state food of Utah. I don't remember the year that this happened but right after World War II, when people were looking for more processed foods, easy to make foods, the marketers at the Jell-o company thought that possibly the state with the highest birthrate would be a good place to sell Jell-o. And so they did. And it's -- it is such a big deal Utah that the, when they had the Olympics, the Olympic pin has a little bowl of green Jell-o on it.
WOLFAnd it's still served at all their big community events.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, Bonny Wolf is editor of American Food Roots and the commentator on NPR's "Weekend Edition." She is joined, in studio, by Johanna Mendelson-Forman, scholar in residence at American University's School of International Service and senior advisor at the Stimson Center. Joining us now from NPR studios in New York is Manolia Charlotin, managing editor of Feet in 2 Worlds, which is a multi media journalism project, focusing on immigrant issues. Manolia, thank you for joining us.
MS. MANOLIA CHARLOTINThank you for having me, I'm glad to be back on.
NNAMDIManolia, the blending of community's at the table is something that I know you're intimately familiar with, covering immigrant food and culture, over the years. But do you find that when immigrant communities, in this country, get together they often take time to recognize American cuisine as well?
CHARLOTINYes, definitely. I mean, we've done some features on this around the holiday's. In particular, Thanksgiving comes to mind, although it's a little bit earlier to be thinking about that but if you go to numerous immigrant homes, they celebrate Thanksgiving, they incorporate some of the dishes from their homeland and, of course, some of the traditional American dishes. So you'll -- if you go to, let's say, a Haitian household, you'll find turkey but you'll also find turkey made cut up with sauce and very savory.
CHARLOTINYou'll also find, you know, rice and beans. And the same thing if you go to a West African house that's celebrating Thanksgiving as well. So --or if you even go to a BBQ, since it's still summertime. You know, if you get invited to a immigrant's cookout, you're not just gonna have hot dogs and hamburgers, you're gonna have whatever staple dish that they include. So it's always -- it's a mix of cultures that happen at the table, at the immigrant table, anyway.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned being back on the show, Manolia, because our listeners may recognize your voice from the commentary you've given us over the years on Haiti. But you're now editing Feet in 2 Worlds which is a journalism project that tells the stories of immigrants, in this country, could you talk a little bit about your upcoming magazine and how the story you did ties in with this idea of community food?
CHARLOTINWell, so Feed in 2 Worlds has been covering immigrant stories for the last 10 years. It's a project of the new school. And it got started because, as a documentary that executive producer John Rudolph did with the team, around what it means to have -- to be of two worlds, essentially. If you're an immigrant here in this country, you essentially are still of your homeland, you still maintain a lot of the culture and a lot of interest but you're of here too. You're definitely assimilated into American society.
CHARLOTINAnd so we've continued this thread along many, many different stories. But one area in particular we keep finding ourselves coming back to is food. And so we have our Food in 2 Worlds podcasts series, is an award-winning series that we've done, talking about the different cultural impact of immigrants that come here and how it -- they bring their new cultures into American culture. So now we think of the taco, we think of falafel, I mean, I could keep naming these dishes that are a part of, now, the American table.
CHARLOTINBut these are immigrants that brought these here. And so we decided to take the next step and this upcoming magazine issue is going to be able immigrant women and food. And we're going to talk about everything from how women prepare the food at home to how they prepare it in their places of worship. We're gonna go to a Sikh Langar hall. How they prepare at home, if they're married to someone of a different culture. We have a Chinese-Indian couple, you know, for example.
CHARLOTINAnd we also talk about how they grow it. Many immigrants from their homelands are used to having gardens and or are getting foods from farm fresh. And so -- in Central Brooklyn, in particular, several neighborhoods have become, sort of, this urban oasis of where you can get fresh and affordable vegetables that are grown by local residents.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. Are you of two worlds? Tell us about your food combinations or how have international foods changed food gatherings in your neighborhood or in your family, 800-433-8850? Send us an email to email@example.com. Johanna Mendelson-Forman, what's amazing about food in this country is that we have an abundance of it. But when immigrants come to this country, there's often a glaring absence of ingredients they need which is one of the things that Manolia was just talking about, so that that in itself can create community and opportunity.
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, you're absolutely right. And in the Washington area, we've seen many large influxes of Diaspora from Vietnamese to Afghan's to Ethiopian's to even El Salvadoran's. And 20 years ago, we did not have a large supply of basmati rice in this country. And the Afghan's were really in need of basmati rice. They couldn’t use Minute rice or Uncle Ben's. And it spurred a whole industry of growing different varieties of rice.
MENDELSON-FORMANSimilarly, El Salvadorian's who use a lot of cream and cheese, could not get passed customs with the dogs and had to find a way to bring in cream. And so one entrepreneurial Salvadorian began to search out a dairy. And, now, in Delaware, there is a supply chain of cream and cheese, made specifically for these dishes. So not only do immigrants bring new foods to our tables but they increase the economies activities by, basically, creating industries on their own.
NNAMDIWe've spent a lot of time on Food Wednesday's talking about the social, cultural aspects of food but coming together to eat is really gaining traction as a diplomatic tool, as well. In fact, you're using the dining table to teach college kids about conflict, how so?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I think, eating and breathing are probably the two basic things we have to do in our lives. And students who are interested in development and in war and the conflicts around the world need to understand the origins of these conflicts, not only by learning the facts and the tables of the statistics, but they need to meet people who are the Diaspora's of these conflicts. And as part of culinary diplomacy, something you mentioned in the opening, which is what our state department promotes, we have, what I would call, reversed culinary diplomats in the Diaspora.
MENDELSON-FORMANThese are people who come to our land and they bring their own kitchen and their own table and then they integrate it into our own cuisine. So having, what we talk about in a class and students actually being able to see this integration happen before their eyes, as they go to restaurants, is a very powerful teaching tool.
NNAMDIYou take your trips on -- your students on weekly trips to local ethnic restaurants, they get to enjoy a traditional meal, they get to hear the owners speak about the history of their culture. I'd imagine many of your students are newcomers to this town and they have therefore never tried Ethiopian in injera or Vietnamese pho. What are these meals like for them?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, many of them keep on saying, it's amazing. And what's fascinating is they immediately go on Yelp because of the web generation they are and they write a review. So not only do we befriend the restaurateurs but they get a new taste of it. But, I think, what's interesting, Kojo, is the assignment I give them is that they need to find conflict cuisines I haven't explored. So, for example, their very enterprising. They found a Syria Leonine café on 9th Street in D.C.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd when they couldn't find the owner, they went to the Embassy and interviewed the cultural attaché. They found a Cuban corner I had never heard of that was the product of a young man who came to this country through the Peter Pan Diaspora. So one of the things is they explore they city, they explore the ethnicities and they get to taste the food.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. We'll start with Michon (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Michon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHONThank you. Oh, this is so exciting. I have a potluck group that friends and I started called the Favorite Chefs group. And we just enjoy -- we started it with Julia Child's birthday. And what it does is we just organically come up with a menu based on cookbooks that the author has written. But we also did one for Alexander Dumas who was a gourmet. And we had to go into the 19th century to come up with recipes. And somehow we pull it off and have a good time.
CHARLOTINAnd our rules are just that you should cook and each dish has a story and no criticism of the cooking part. But we just have a wonderful time, but we're learning so much about cultures and about history through this potluck group. And I wonder if those experiences -- similar experiences pop up with some of the work you're doing.
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I think that the idea of the potluck group, first of all, is an excellent way to explore cuisines, not only local ones but I wanted to just comment that the concept that Kojo was mentioning, and Bonny, of coming around the table -- commensality is the technical term as the academic in the room -- is historically important. The whole idea of mesa or table which is in that word, has a very important connotation diplomatically.
MENDELSON-FORMANSo even what you're doing with your friends, coming around the table has a capacity to build community which also builds peace. And I always wonder, you know, we recently came out of Ramadan. And one of the features of Ramadan is the iftar dinner. And I wonder -- I'd love to talk to people who came around that table as these horrific events were taking place around the world, to see whether we could have more iftar dinners beyond Ramadan as a way of people finding an outlet to talk about the conflicts that go on cross-culturally by also sharing their foods.
NNAMDIAnd this is not only occurring among people in neighborhoods. Using food to foster international goodwill is not necessarily a new idea but it's been catching on recently at the highest levels of government. Can you tell us about that?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, Secretary Clinton, when she was in the State Department, created something called the Culinary Chef's Corp. which essentially took our best chefs and used their skills and their skills and their talents to send them around the world, and offer not just what we would call plain American food, steak and potatoes, but to take Mexican chefs and Spanish chefs and introduce them to the diversity of American cultural diaspora by having them come and cook.
MENDELSON-FORMANThere was a group that went recently to Africa to cook in various capitols but the chefs corp. takes great pride in being the purveyor of the eclectic and diverse nature of American cuisine. And this is continuing in Secretary Kerry's State Department and I hope will continue for many years. It's a wonderful tool of what we call soft power in the business.
NNAMDIThis question for all of you, Johanna, Manolia and Bonny. Johanna, I'll start with you. Can you think of a time during your long career working with government and international organizations where sharing a meal helped to ease a tense situation or to break the ice among those who did not have much in common?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I think that I can think of many meals I've had at the United Nations when I worked there that often dealt with topics that were not necessarily the most pleasant. And certainly that delegates' dining room is one of the best places in which you can come together because you don't have to start your conversation with the negotiation issue. You can say, isn't this a lovely dish of X or Y and begin that.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd I think that whether somebody comes from Asia or Africa or Latin America, there is a commonality of interests in tasting something new or different. So it opens the door to communication in a way that just sitting at a table and having a cup of coffee will not do.
NNAMDIAnd Bonny Wolf, I suspect it helps with neighbors too.
WOLFWell, I was just thinking of when I moved to Washington nearly 30 years ago from Texas, although I'm from Minnesota. And we had a party in our ally every summer where we ate crabs. And I had never had crabs. And the -- there's regional compatibility too when you're all trying something new and you can talk about that. And it's a way for neighbors who just because they live near each other doesn't mean they know each other or have anything in common. And these were wonderful ways to get to know your neighbors in an urban neighborhood.
CHARLOTINWell, I think one of the key ways that food plays a role in immigrant communities is around organizing. We saw a lot of organizing the immigration reform as it's still going on. But one of the things that women and elders do in this scenario is to feed these activists and to feed the advocates. And folks come from all different walks of life around the table or around a potluck to do this hard work of sort of gaining more rights here in the country that they've adopted in their adopted home.
CHARLOTINAnd so I think one of the major ways that food plays an important role in the immigrant organizing movement is it becomes a place where different people can bring their different cultures to the table, provide resources as they are engaging the struggle for a better life here.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. In the meantime you can still call us, 800-433-8850. When can sitting down to a meal ease tension? Have you ever experienced a breakthrough with someone over a meal, 800-433-8850? Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation on community food sharing, tradition and change. We're talking with Manolia Charlotin, managing editor of "Feet in 2 Worlds," a multimedia journalism project focusing on immigrant issues. Johanna Mendelson-Forman is scholar in residence at American University School of International Service and senior advisor at the Stimson Center. And Bonny Wolf is editor of "American Food Roots and a commentator on NPR's "Weekend Edition."
NNAMDISince we're talking about communal eating, I have to bring up what seems to be a more common sight at restaurants these days, communal tables. Why do we both love and fear the sight of communal tables? We're now even seeing them at McDonald's, Bonny.
WOLFWell, I think that we fear anything that's unknown. And if you sit down at a table with a lot of strangers, there's a chance that you'll have to talk to them. And that -- but that's also what makes them wonderful. And I think appealing. And I think that contemporary eaters are much more comfortable with that than past generations.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Barry, speaking of the fear, who says, "My husband is from Central Europe and he's horrified, not only by the offerings of the potlucks in our neighborhood, but the whole idea of sharing communal dishes. Do your panelists know of the potluck tradition as uniquely American or do many other cultures have this kind of food tradition?" I'll go to you Manolia Charlotin.
CHARLOTINActually, this is actually pretty common where folks bring food. One of the things I can think of -- I mean, it's a little bit more somber, but when a family member passes in the transition stage during the wakes, families bring food together. If you're from Latin America and the Caribbean, this is a major tradition where people bring food as a way of supporting and as a way as communing with the family and mourning with the family. So we see this sort of potluck of people bringing food to a particular place to share together. It's a -- I think it's more of a global tradition than we realize.
MENDELSON-FORMANSo if you think about it, in Mexico and day of the dead, the focus on food is central because you use the food to bring nourishment to the spirits and also to those who are living. And you see it in cemeteries around the world. Not only in Latin America but in Asia you'll see offerings left on the tomb themselves because it's a way of easing into the other world. Egyptians, mummies are found buried with food. So it's been, you know, historically a common way of bringing things together.
NNAMDIDo you think eating should be more communal in this country? Give us a call, 800-433-8850, or not. You could also send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Bonny, can a cuisine that we have received from immigrant communities, I will say sushi or pupusas, become such a part of our own food culture that we forget that they were ever even imported in the first place?
WOLFOh, absolutely. I think that anyone under the age of about 30 has no idea that sushi is not an American food. And it is something for someone of my generation which is slightly above the age of 20, that is a very -- still seems a new thing. But these things become the ingredients -- as Johanna was saying, you now see all sorts of Salvadoran cheeses and products for marking Asian foods and Indian foods that we never saw in the supermarket before. You can get five kinds of basmati rice.
NNAMDIWell, it goes the other way too. I had a young student at Georgetown University profess shock and surprise that Kentucky Fried Chicken was not a Caribbean product because it's been now for so long. Johanna.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd, you know, Kentucky Fried Chicken is the meal of choice for Japanese on Christmas Eve. And you have to put your order in in advance. But that brings up globalization and the impact globalization on our food chain. And I think there's another factor that we forget as well. If you go into a McDonald's in India, you're not going to get a hamburger because of their restrictions on the eating of cows. You're going to get some vegetarian burger.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd the question is, to what extent are we impacting through our own food culture other cultures as well? And I think it's probably a subject for another show, but the commercialization and globalization of the American mega food industry has a tremendous impact on other cultures.
NNAMDIAnd Johanna was talking earlier about placing food at burial sites, Bonny. I'd like to come back to Utah for a second with that because it's well known for its food design to feed the masses. There's even something in Utah called funeral potatoes.
WOLFAh, yes, there is.
NNAMDIWhat are those and why is this state ground zero for community food?
WOLFWell, because there are large families and because it's 60 -- 60 percent of the state are members of the Mormon Church, there are -- food is a very big part of community activity. There are a lot of communal activities. And there is a whole tradition of funeral foods. Books have been written about funeral food, the particular things that people bring to funerals. And funeral potatoes are sort of cheesy hash browns. And they're usually served with ham, rolls, salad, cake and of course Jell-O.
WOLFAnd the -- I read something in a magazine that's from the Church of the Latter Day Saints saying that not all funeral potatoes are created equal. And every Mormon has a favorite version. And the big question is, cornflakes or no cornflakes.
NNAMDIThat's the big question?
WOLFThat is the big question.
NNAMDIOn to Anthony in Baltimore, Md. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANTHONYYes. I'd just like to thank you very much for this subject. It's a beautiful subject. And I'd like to regale with an experience I had in the early part of this century in 2003 when the Ambassador to Tanzania Charles Stith was replaced by Robert Royall during the early part of the Bush Administration. Well, Robert Royall being from South Carolina was brought into Tanzania. And a bunch of student interns that I worked with, you know, they were going to miss their African American ambassador who was leaving, you know. He had really integrated himself into society well and had gone through the bombing and everything.
ANTHONYBut he seemed to be at a loss. And Robert Royall was finding it hard to get in to their personality. And at one meeting -- and we were at the New Africa Hotel -- I was sitting across from a bunch of students and I started telling them about rice and how rice is a staple in America because of African immigrants. And people were shocked. The thought, what, African immigrants? And I said, well that's why the rice companies of South Carolina had Uncle Ben as their mascot because rice was grown by slaves to feed themselves originally in America. That's how rice became a staple.
ANTHONYAnd Robert Royall, being from South Carolina, having been the Chamber of Commerce secretary there, began to explain the history of rice in America which his family happened to have been quite a part of. Projecting American personality overseas through food. Yeah, it does work.
NNAMDIJohanna Mendelson-Forman, the kind of thing you teach your students?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I think that the origins of food and how they manifest themselves in this country are endlessly fascinating. And it's interesting, we have Manolia on the line because one of the things that people think about in Haiti, just to give you an example, is that there are no restaurants. And Manolia can tell us that there are not only restaurants but people do eat. So even when there's conflict or even when there's famine, there is a way to find food.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd I've always been interested in understanding why, in the Washington area, we really don't have Haitian restaurants, given the number of Haitians that have come to our area. But I do think that using the food of conflict and using the food that we take for granted as being quote "American" and then understanding the origins are important. People don't realize that corn, tomatoes, peppers, turkey -- turkey is something that comes from the Americas -- are thing that we have used and transferred to other parts of the world.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd so the story about the rice is fascinating. And also gives you a teaching moment for students who have no understanding of the origins of where they -- food they consume comes from.
NNAMDIFull disclosure here, when we broadcast from Haiti in the year 2010, Johanna Mendelson-Forman was, well, one of our guides so to speak in Haiti. And we did go to restaurants while we were there. Minolia, what are some traditional dishes you can expect when the Haitian community gets together?
CHARLOTINWell, I will say this. I will address Johanna's point really quickly first.
CHARLOTINSo the Haitian community is diverse, like any other community here in this country. And so where you find the most Haitians is where you tend to find the best restaurants because there are the most restaurants. And so here in New York we can boast some amazing Haitian restaurants and the same goes for Miami, the same goes for Boston. But I think actually on this sort of outside of Haiti and outside of the U.S., I think actually some of the best Haitian restaurants are in Montreal actually in Canada.
CHARLOTINSo that's just my own take as a Haitian person. In terms of food in Haiti and in terms of how Haitian cuisine is displayed here, well, when I was a child I didn't know that Goya was sort of like a Latin American Caribbean thing. I just thought that everyone cooked with adobo. And everybody I knew cooked with adobo. If you were black and brown and you grew up outside of Boston and New York, like I did, you -- that's what you -- it was a main dish.
CHARLOTINAnd things like using jasmine rice, for example, you know, that's been a staple of the Haitian rice and beans is to use jasmine rice. But a lot of Haitians now use basmati for example. One of the things I was telling the producer of the show, Elizabeth, is that Haitians have adopted different dishes into their staples. So if you go to a Haitian dinner or a dinner party, for example, you will find the lovely black rice, the djon djon that we all love. But you'll also find lasagna. As someone who grew up in a place where there are a lot of Italians, I can tell you Haitians make some of the best lasagna period, hands down.
CHARLOTINSo this is sort of a way that I think not only do immigrants bring their own sort of contributions to the American table, but they are influenced by and adopted into their own cuisine. So when you go to any immigrant's house, you sort of have to keep an open mind because you may find the best of something you didn't expect.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones to Tina in Columbia, Md. Tina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TINAHi. Well, I was sitting here actually at a McDonald's parking lot.
TINAAnd I'm listening to this, but I wanted to share the fact that I just went on a long train trip, an Amtrak trip, from Union Station to Cincinnati for a music teacher conference. And I was unaware of the fact that because I got a little sleeper car, we would have a dining car and we would all eat together. And it was absolutely fantastic all the way up.
NNAMDIWhat did you enjoy most about it?
TINAWell, it was a 14-hour trip first of all, so we had literally three meals a day, you know, on the way up. And then on the way back home the same thing happened. And so everybody from the sleeper car comes into the dining car to eat because your meals are included. And by the way, I would highly recommend those Amtrak trips. It was very relaxing.
TINAAnyway, so we're sitting there and it was pretty much the same people. It was sort of like staying at a B & B. The same people would come in but we all mixed around and they just told us where to sit. And at first everybody was kind of shy. But then we all started talking and it was just absolutely amazing the people I met because the train generated in New York, it went down through Philadelphia, picked up more people. It picked up more people in D.C. Then it went out through the mountains in Kentucky and Ohio and so on.
TINASo we were meeting people that were getting on and off from all those places. There was a woman from Albania who was going all the way to California. And she shared all kinds of things. So I just highly recommend this to people. All of us were saying...
TINA...all of us were saying that we liked the fact that we -- it was one of the only places we knew of where strangers really could talk.
NNAMDI...can eat communally. Okay. Thank you very much for sharing that experience with us. Bonny, at American Food Roots you spend a lot of time looking into food traditions around the country, but you've also found a lot of interesting stuff going on in church basements and community kitchens in this area. I was particularly interested in what happens each year at the Armenian Church in Friendship Heights.
WOLFEvery year for I think 65 years it's the St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church in Friendship Heights. In the fall the women of the parish get together and they -- maybe some men but I think it's mostly the women...
NNAMDIWe'll get to that.
WOLF...and they serve lamb kabobs and phyllo dough stuffed with feta and mozzarella and humus and bulgur salad. And then in another room there's a table with baklava and walnut rolls. And it's -- this goes to what Johanna has been saying too, this is a community. They're Armenians who early in the 20th century were dispersed all over the world after much war and conflict. And their cuisine reflects a lot of the flavors that were picked up in their travels.
WOLFSo the church food has a distinct middle eastern flavor and it's mixed with influences from France and Lebanon, any places that had large Armenian communities. And they say that they don't have any written down. They're just passed down orally, which is my fear about a lot of American -- a lot of food is that it's going to be lost because it's an oral tradition. But it is the way these churches and these kinds of communal things are the way that the cultural traditions are handed down and the heritage is continued.
WOLFThere a Cambodian New Year celebration in the spring in Silver Spring at Silver Spring, Md. at a Buddhist temple. And everyone comes with multi-tiered lunch boxes. I think they're called tiffins in India. And they have rice and protein and vegetables. And they go inside and the Monk blesses the food and then they all go outside and have a communal picnic.
NNAMDIShould mention that the next festival at St. Mary's, which sounds delicious, is October 1 through the 4th. We have a link on our website kojoshow.org to the church. Johanna?
MENDELSON-FORMANNo. I was just -- as Bonny was describing that I was thinking that in this area we have so many different groups that have festivals, from the Adams Morgan Hispanic Festival to the -- of course the Greek church. But one of the things I thought would be useful to talk to the audience about is what is a cuisine, because a cuisine is something that you can replicate. There actually is a method to it. And the anthropologists who think about cuisine say, if you can replicate it again, and it doesn't have to be written down, then in fact you're created something that people can identifiably say is either Armenian, is Salvadorian.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd so it's not -- it's in the eye of the beholder but it's also something that generations can continue. So I'm less worried about the writing down than I am about the repetition.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of churches, we got an email from Carol in Garret Park, Md. who writes, "Our very diverse church loves potluck dinners and we love to be together. My standard offering is stuffed cabbage rolls made with ground turkey. Our Ethiopian foster son said the dinners were the best part of church. They would eat through the main courses, go for dessert and be cleaning up leftovers while we were trying to clean up. We've had Congolese greens with pork, sushi, pot stickers, Malagasy dishes and food from 40 countries. So we learn a lot about one another. This has been an education for the children who are encouraged to eat a more healthy diet also."
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our Food Wednesday conversation on community food sharing, tradition and change. You can still call us, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Food Wednesday and we're talking about community food sharing with Johanna Mendelson-Forman, scholar in residence at American University School of International Service, and senior advisor at the Stimson Center. Bonny Wolf is editor at American Food Roots and a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition. And Minolia Charlotin is managing editor of Feet in 2 Worlds, a multimedia journalism project focusing on immigrant issues. Minolia, at Feed in 2 Worlds, you found some women who are bringing Americans to the immigrant table through a program called League of Kitchens. Tell us about that.
CHARLOTINWell, this is a fascinating work that our partner League of Kitchens is doing. So essentially you get to walk into a woman's home and she will teach you how to make a traditional meal, whatever country she's from. So they're from Korea, India, if you want to learn how to make Bengali food, Afghan food. We'll actually have some of these at our event on August 26. I have to do a plug.
NNAMDIAt the New School in New York City on August 26...
CHARLOTINThat's right. We have a coming...
NNAMDI...6:00 to 9:00 pm.
CHARLOTIN...a coming to the table. Yes, exactly. And so League of Kitchen, what they do is they get these amazing women to come and teach at workshops. So you get to learn how to make these meals inside someone's home. Like for instance, one of the Korean cooks, she actually make her own soy sauce from scratch. And she shows you how to do it. She grows the beans in, like, her outdoor porch. And she shows you how to make it.
CHARLOTINAnd one time, one of our other partners (unintelligible) who is a Haitian culinary artist, she was teaching a class and she had a Korean woman in her class. And she said, oh, so basically soy sauce is like the Haitian epis which is our version of sofrito, for example. So, you know, the sort of base of learning how to cook is really fascinating. The League of Kitchens is bringing folks to different cultures.
NNAMDIBut we have all of these famous male chefs, Johanna, Manolia, Bonny. Do you find that women have traditionally been in charge of cooking for the masses and that they still are, Johanna.
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I think this is a very interesting point and we were talking about this before we went on the air. The food anthropologist Sid Minsk (sp?) commented in a review article that the reason we didn't hear about women is that most anthropologists were men until about 1950, Margaret Mead the exception. But that women had always been in the kitchen whether or not we were looking for them there, that's the case.
MENDELSON-FORMANBut I do think that the absence of women in the writing or the literature should not let us forget that women have been the main sources of sustenance, not only through their own bodies but as well as feeding others. And they also set the tone for the rest of the community. And people who were known as good cooks in a community are worth 40 cows in some communities versus someone who can't, you know, bake or do anything. So there's not only a value to their presence but their economic value as well.
NNAMDIBonny Wolf, is this a historical record with which you concur?
WOLFOh, absolutely. Johanna and I were talking about this before the show that there was a time in early feminism when women did not want to be associated with the kitchen. And it was -- it's unfortunate in retrospect because much was lost I'm afraid. But I think that it's being redressed now. And it's being embraced as -- food is just a wonderful window into the whole world. It's a way to see everything. And it's -- I'm glad we're looking through that window.
NNAMDIMinolia, you too feel that women are found -- women have traditionally been in charge of cooking for large numbers?
CHARLOTINYes. I think it's part of the nurturing role that a lot of women are actually just socially conditioned to take on, to be frank. Because if you grow up and you see your grandmother and your mother cooking for a wedding, cooking for a birthday party and/or a wake or a funeral, it's sort of encourage for the young girls to stay in the kitchen.
CHARLOTINHaving said that though I think, you know, men have sort of been breaking this traditional role as well, because there are a lot of men, especially sort of now, who sort of are going beyond sort of the typical chef. You know, either it's a male chef or a woman cook. I think there's a lot of men who are embracing cooking. We actually have -- one of our stories is with a podcasting called About Men Radio. And they talk about all the recipes they learned from their mothers and their grandmothers and how those recipes and that time with them actually helped shape their cultural identity.
CHARLOTINSo I think that women, whether they're in the kitchen or not, they play this sort of nurturing role. And when you think of food you think food is consolation. Food is tradition. Food is a spiritual element. Food can be healing. And I think that women sort of tend to play this more nurturing role, whether they're in the kitchen or not.
NNAMDIHere now is Billy in Hyattsville, Md. Billy, you're on the air. God ahead, please.
BILLYHow you doing? So I was -- this is a fascinating conversation. As someone who married into a Guatemalan family, I've learned a lot in the last five years. And one of the most interesting things that I've noticed is that when you go to like a haughty-taughty grocery store and then you go to like a -- I don't want to say it negatively, but like a lower -- like a mega mart, a world market so to speak, they both have outstanding butchers.
BILLYYou get at like a Whole Foods or you go to a mega mart and then you go to like Shoppers or a Giant and you don't have butchers. And I find it interesting when you go -- like when I got to mega mart not only is it Latinos but you have the Caribbean, you have African people getting cuts of meat that you can't get anywhere else. And it's a lot of fun. I mean, everybody, you know, is in line waiting but there's nothing like that compared to the middle class average grocery stores people go to.
NNAMDIUnderscoring the point that we've been making, Johanna Mendelson-Forman, when people cannot find here they -- what they expect to find here then they create it themselves.
MENDELSON-FORMANThat's absolutely right. And either they bring it in illegally or they bring it in and then they cultivate it. And I think that's an important component often that our commercial people misunderstand. And one of the things that embassies are doing right now is they're actually very proud of promoting the investment by immigrants into the United States all of these agricultural commodities.
MENDELSON-FORMANWe just had the anniversary of Goya foods, which Minolia referenced. Goya was one of the oldest food lines that was created in this country to address the expansion of the Hispanic food market. But they're not the only ones.
NNAMDIOn now to Michelle in Silver Spring, Md. Michelle, your turn.
MICHELLEBeen a longtime listeners, first time caller. And I wanted to tell you about when we lived in Israel in 2007 when my husband was director of USA for west bank in Gaza. During Ramadan the staff organized a staff iftar. And we had it in Jaffa and there were Israeli Jews, Muslims and Christians plus on the staff, Palestinian Muslims and Christians. And we all sat and had a wonderful meal. Our daughter who lived in Jerusalem came and she said, dad, you don't see this anywhere else?
NNAMDIFascinating. And obviously around this table there's a feeling that there needs to be a lot more of that.
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I think there always needs to be a lot of different cultures coming together. Iftar gives us one reason to do it. But I think it's always useful, especially on a university campus where you have these kinds of opportunities. And I just mention one thing. There's a program called Slim Peace which I reference, which was bringing women from Jerusalem who are Palestinian and Israelis together around a Mediterranean diet.
MENDELSON-FORMANThis group has expanded and now they're working in Portland, Maine with Somalis. They're working in Chicago and they're working on the American University campus this year to bring different international students together, not so much because it's an international Weight Watchers concept, but because it has this peace-building component to it.
NNAMDIGot an email from George in Manassas who writes, "Listeners enjoying today's show about eating together may want to look at the PBS documentary Welcome to Shelbyville" in which cooking together and eating together play a major role in the native whites, African Americans and Hispanics reaching out to newly arrived Somalis in Shelbyville, Tenn."
NNAMDIJohanna, when you started your career in international affairs, did you imagine you'd be teaching a course on gastro diplomacy, the study of food and its role in human relations, an area that's now getting a lot more academic scrutiny?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, one never imagines where life will take you. And the road to this conflict cuisine had many detours. But I think that what I find is that the resonance this topic has, not only in the academic community but in the general public, only reinforces the need to continue working with people like Bonny and people like Manolia because this is a way to connect.
NNAMDIRandy in Washington, D.C. You're on the air, Randy. Go ahead, please.
RANDYYeah, we started -- a friend of mine and I started a hiking group and we always wind up with -- after a five- or six-mile hike with a potluck. And I wanted to get back to the nature of potlucks. A lot of them are overly organized. Our potlucks are purely potlucks and they're always great, even though occasionally we might have, oh, four starch salads, you know, and potato, rice and pasta.
RANDYBut we never notice it until like halfway through someone says, oh, you know, these were all so different. And I just think potlucks are the way to go but don't be anal, don't over organize them. I mean, I have someone who invited me to a potluck. And because my last name starts with a C I was supposed to bring something that started with a C.
NNAMDIWell, that is an innovative approach to potlucks but I can understand what you're saying. Don't be over organized about it. We're running out of time very quickly. I'd like to share a few of the emails and tweets we've been getting. Dave writes, I hope someone mentions the important tradition in the Sikh religion of sharing a meal. I'm not a Sikh but my understanding, this is both an act of communal charity and of egalitarianism. Everyone sits together and eats."
NNAMDIDonna writes, "I live in a neighborhood in Bethesda where most of our neighbors are here with embassy staff or the World Bank. For many years now we have a potluck block party at the beginning and the end of summer. It gives us a chance to know who we live near, make friends and share the native dishes of our neighbors. It's a place where everyone seems so involved in day-to-day work, it gives our little street a chance to feel connected to a neighborhood."
NNAMDIAnd underscoring a comment I made earlier, we got a tweet from Kim who writes, "The most delicious KFC I've ever had was in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Absolutely delicious, but no biscuits though." Sorry about that, Kim. I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Minolia Charlotin is managing editor of Feet in 2 Worlds which is a multimedia journalism project focusing on immigrant issues. And the hash tag on Twitter for that organization is fi2w. Minolia Charlotin, thank you for joining us.
CHARLOTINThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJohanna Mendelson-Forman is scholar in residence at American University's School of International Service and senior advisor at the Stimson Center. Johanna, always a pleasure.
MENDELSON-FORMANGreat to see you.
NNAMDIBonny Wolf is editor of American Food Roots and a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition. Thank you for joining us.
WOLFThank you for having me.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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