|Photo by Marianna Bartholomew|
|A Filipino friend made my husband and I Pancit. |
Pancit means "noodle" in their language.
Photo by Chboogs Putipina.
In college, friends joked I was an honorary member of the Asian Club, because many of my buddies were Filipino. I enjoyed standing eye-to-eye with someone for a change (I'm 5'00" tall), and liked their gentle ways. One Filipino welcomed my future husband and I into her apartment, and served yet another delicious chicken dish called pancit -- shredded chicken and vegetables on rice noodles. Ah, another dish to add to my "Friendship and Food" file.
|One of these days. I'd love to try replicating the|
handmade tamales a coworker at EXTENSION made.
(Photo by Tatsuroo at Photobucket.)
Fine meals punctuate memories like bookmarks. I'll never forget regional cuisines I sampled when writing about missions for EXTENSION. Maybe these events etched so deeply in my mind because I lived in an efficiency apartment in Chicago and cooked meals on a hotplate. In the South Dakota home of a granddaughter of the famous Black Elk, I was served the best meatloaf ever. (Okay, not a Native American delicacy, but it was so good. Several times, I've tried Indian fry bread, which tastes good, although it probably has about a million calories.) In a tiny Appalachian trailer, a little elderly woman sat me down and fed me succulent peach pie. On a Cajun family's shrimp boat in Louisiana, I sampled delicate crab just pulled from the waters and boiled up in a pot on deck. Every time, food presented a safe topic for conversation, until we established a comfort level and could wade into deeper waters. Missionaries have a special name for this: pre-evangelization. It means being present to people, sharing meals and lives, to lay a foundation of trust and friendship.
On assignment at Brother Thomas Pettite's homeless shelter -- Lazarus House in Lawrence, Massachusetts -- I felt overwhelmed at first by the dozens of clients who poured in at mealtime. Volunteers and the homeless shared prayer time in the chapel, before enjoying a delicious, hot meal. I remember mashed potatoes were on the menu -- and birthday cake, for one little, homeless girl. The weary clients bending over coffee put aside troubles to smile and sing for the girl. After the meal, I sat on the stoop with a young blond man who said he had spent much of his childhood "under the bed instead of in it," because of alcoholic, abusive parents. Freshly-emerged from sleeping under bridges, he was articulate, gentle and steering toward a better life. He helped me see how homelessness affects every demographic.
A comforting meal and a birthday cake
lightened up the atmosphere and got
people talking at a homeless center
I visited in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Befriending people of all cultures can be delicious as well as fascinating, because gabbing about our various backgrounds so often takes place around a table laden with unique dishes. Even so, have you ever felt out of your element trying to bridge the cultural divide? I did, years ago, when I was invited into a Mexican-American's household for dinner. I felt shy and overwhelmed as one of two Anglos (my two-year-old daughter was the other), amidst a sea of Spanish-speakers, and never got over that feeling all evening! Of course, it didn't help that this was a new, next door neighbor, and I had accepted a spontaneous invite over the fence to come share a family barbecue. It was a mild, summer evening, and I responded so eagerly, I stepped through the gate without any shoes. The event started with the sweet mother and I chatting, but her children, their friends, and then, extended family, poured in at an astonishing rate. My husband was in bed with a migraine, so I spent the evening trying to hide my feet, checking on my husband through our bedroom window screen that faced our neighbor's house, keeping my active toddler from knocking everything over, and doing a lot of nodding and smiling.
When we feel that awkward, I guess we just have to laugh it off and try again. Later, my husband and I attended a feast day celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe at a Chicago Hispanic parish. This time, I felt welcomed and comfortable as I watched the colorful procession honoring Our Lady. Children wore festive, traditional dress and a mariachi band strummed. The feasting later in the parish hall offered great company, and food better than at my favorite Mexican restaurant.
|Honoring Our Lady of|
Guadalupe is often
accompanied by feasting.
A Catholic, Anglo friend hosts "Secret Garden" gatherings at her city property. Married to a Catholic, African-American husband, she invites women of various backgrounds and faiths. Her five children play host to pre-teen and teen guests, while women congregate under trees, and in outdoor "rooms" contrived from strategically-placed, salvaged architecture, wild ferns and blooms. Conversations spark as dusk falls. Faces flicker from the light of two brick fireplaces and dozens of candles. Tempting dishes are laid out on an assortment of fine linens, (gleaned from creative resale shopping).
Oral traditions proliferate on these evenings, and people chuckle about the time an errant raccoon reached a hand from outside the circle onto one of the tables to snag a snack, or heavy winds threatened to peel the tarp off an outdoor party room. Perhaps these "Secret Gardens" have continued over the years because it's so much easier befriending someone new in a mysterious space resembling a scene from Narnia, and over a heartening bowl of tortellini soup, white-chocolate covered grapes, or chocolate ginger cookies. Newly-met guests at a Secret Garden this past Friday recommended good reads to each other, from The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, about prisoners escaping Siberia, to the inspiring writings of Immaculee Ilibagiza, who personifies forgiveness, after surviving the 1994 Rwandan genocide (she escaped by hiding 91 days in a tiny bathroom with seven other women).
Not everyone has a solid familytradition of eating together.
Father Leo Patalinghug
created this inspiring
cookbook to teach people
how to build healthy relationships
by preparing and sharing good food.
Comfort food is a great icebreaker, a natural conversation-starter -- and it's becoming more rare as people with frantic schedules jam in fast food meals. Preparing and enjoying home-cooked dishes and serving them up in style is actually a virtue, and one to be shared! And if it helps bridge a cultural divide or two (or even helps heal relationships within our families), all the better!
See these sites, where Jeff Young (The Catholic Foodie) and Father Leo Patalinghug (Grace Before Meals) blog about a growing movement to encourage families and friends to draw closer to their faith and each other, by cooking and eating together: The Catholic Foodie; Grace Before Meals.
(To come, Part II: Bridging Cultural Divides through
Faith and Fine Arts)