My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bridging cultural divides can be delicious

Photo by Marianna Bartholomew
Through junior high, my best friend was a black, Haitian-American girl named Gina. We sang in our Catholic church choir and whenever we were together. Her voice was as smooth and rich as hazelnut latte. Both her parents were cultured, well-spoken doctors. Aunt Regi helped care for the family, and when I visited, this ample Haitian in cotton housedress grinned and embraced me. I don't remember how much English she boasted, but I thought her French beautiful. For dinner, Aunt Regi fed us herbed chicken, fried plantains (like bananas, but not as sweet) and warm coke. If friendship had a taste, it would be that savory chicken! I wish I could replicate that meal just once. I've tried, but lack this jovial woman's hand with the spice jar. I'm actually test-driving a new recipe for Haitian chicken tonight. We'll see what happens!
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
(Photo by Tatsuroo at Photobucket.)
At EXTENSION Magazine, I worked with African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Anglos, and pot-luck parties were spectacular. I threw in my own contributions of Shoo-fly pie and Irish soda bread (from my Pennsylvania Dutch and Celtic heritage), tried okra in my first authentic soul food, learned to crave handcrafted tamales in their cornhusk sleeves and the sweet custard flan, and sampled refreshing Asian salads, homemade pierogies and kolaches. Savoring everyone's favorite dishes, I gained wonderful memories, good friends and an extra pound or two! (These days, I bring Boursin cheese to parties -- adding the French herb chervil -- a nod to the third part of my ancestry).

Granddaughter of Catholic catechist
and Oglala Sioux Nicholas Black Elk
(cousin of Chief Crazy Horse),
welcomed me into her home and
served up the best meatloaf I've
ever had! I'll never forget her warmth
and hospitality. Photo above shows
Black Elk with his wife and daughter.
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.
On the lighter side, my kids still cherish the night we dined with a Thai co-worker of my husband's. I always thought it was so brave of a bachelor to host a family of five. He cooked up Pad Thai and other savory dishes, and my family reciprocated later with barbecued ribs and apple pie. Years ago, another co-worker of my husband's invited us for Indian food. Although the roof of my mouth nearly blew off from the spiciness of the dishes, they were tasty and unforgettable, as was the scarcity of furniture in the spacious home, and the quantity of silk pillows and mats.

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.
Food and friendship just seem to flow, one into the other. Often, we first experience this reality in a warm home environment (thanks, Mom!), and learn to extend this hospitality to others. A friend of Italian heritage, her mother, and her daughter, an Anglophile, just hosted my 17-year-old daughter and me for an elaborate "tea." Cucumber and roast beef sandwiches, orange spice cake, champagne grapes, pumpkin crackers, and lingering conversation over our tea, made a real event of the afternoon. Inter-generational talk about fine literature and art flows on such occasions, and I'm always excited to see how much great literature our daughters have read, and the fun they have discussing various plot lines, historical periods, etc. It's a treat swapping gardening ideas with the mom, an artist who's recently turned her back yard into a sanctuary for native prairie plants. It's also fascinating to listen to the grandmother -- of Italian heritage, but raised in Argentina -- speak a combination of Castilian Spanish and English. She abounds with tales about how her mother, a resident of Argentina, got trapped in Italy for seven years during World War I, and was taken in by cloistered nuns in Florence. 

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 family
tradition of eating together.
Leo Patalinghug
created this
cookbook to teach 
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)