Potlucks & Culture Kitchens: My Kind of School

When I first dreamed up Open View Gardens, I wanted to help expand our sense of what we grow and eat locally, and to encourage community building by exploring our culinary diversity. As our mission reads: “Growing food grounds us in the relationships between earth and nourishment; preparing food brings us into relationship with our culture and community; sharing meals brings us into close contact with those gathered at the table with us.  What better way to build healthy inclusive communities than through growing locally and cooking globally?”

In addition to offering cooking classes, ingredients through a subscription series, and ongoing blogging (including guests) about food issues, I had big dreams:  a community kitchen (including a shared wood-fired oven along the lines of the community bread ovens in Fes, Morocco) where people cook/bake/preserve their products for the marketplace, but more importantly, bring their ideas, stories and expertise to one another as they cook side by side.  I also had hopes for a community experimental garden on our front ten acres where folks share seeds and land stories and gardening know-how from around the world as they weed side by side.  All of this might yet happen, but the fact that our land and barns are two miles from a small rural town (and not smack-dab in the middle of a big town) among other challenges has given me pause–do I really want to encourage people to get in their cars to drive out here?  Should I really drill a well, build ovens and turn the front barn into a kitchen in such a rural spot?  Should I look for space in town?  Is this even a good idea? Would anyone in this town, in this era even use a communal oven? My ideas might be better suited to a diverse urban environment, say, where my daughter lives in Brooklyn.

But luckily, there are other places to share, to learn, to experiment with others out here in rural Vermont.  Simple places, like in our homes gathering together, and on our computers, gathering together.

At potlucks, for one.

We held a potluck recently to celebrate Imbolc, and it was a wonderful learning feast.  I didn’t ask people to follow a Celtic theme (being Irish-American and having lived in Ireland, I wasn’t too keen on an overly Irish-y spread-ha!) or to bring specific courses–I figure it’s always a good idea to let people bring what they want to bring, and if we have thirty desserts, oh well!  I made Woodland grog (from my own brews & elixirs), David Chang’s Bo Ssam to bring a bit of Korea to the table (absolutely incredible and easy–people huddled over the stove to pick at the hot bits that didn’t make it to the platter and at the kitchen island late in the night to finish it off),  Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Grilled Kumquat Chicken for some spicy-citrusy  Thai flavorings, Suzanne Goin’s  Wild Mushroom and Gruyere Tarts for a taste of California for the vegetarians, and David Lebovitz’s incredible Fresh Ginger Cake (in keeping with the Celtic celebration in case no one brought dessert).  Everything else–a smorgasbord of wonderments– was brought by our guests.

Yes, we ate ridiculously well, but even more satisfying, I think, was the talk around and because of the food shared by everyone–stories about soaking but not cooking lentils for a salad, the flavorings in a delicate raw carrot and radish dish, the mixing of kale and potatoes in a 21st-century reading of old Irish ways, the stew with neither garlic nor gluten to meet the allergy requirements of one eater.  If I had made everything, no way would the talk have been so rich or lively–everyone was interested; everyone contributed. The tasting talk soon led to discussions of best ways to over-winter rosemary and to dry lemon verbena, of family recipes versus cookbook concoctions, of root cellars and gardening practices in this changing climate, of school gardens such as the new Denver Learning Garden,  and soon to serious talk of culture, world events, and politics around food.  At that point, and upon observing what people chose to bring and to put on their plates, I suggested everyone read Elizabeth’s first post for Adios Barbie on gender, body image and food. (I hope you’ll read it, too! And comment! )

What a great evening.  It started me thinking not of what I hadn’t yet accomplished in my work, but of all that I’ve learned through gatherings and experiences here in my local community and through other sorts of potlucks, too, where culture, food and learning come together…online.  I thought about the online learning potlucks like those offered by the generous food websites of influential magazines such as the sensible, health-minded, non-star-studded (yes, I like that) Eating Well with its huge compendium of free recipes and tips for good health, and of course the gazillion foodie blogs and celebrity chef websites.  Lots to learn from all of them in this open school for the inter-cultural cook. As readers add their own content, such sites rise far beyond the stars or experts, morphing into communities of practice for the dedicated, curious participant.

And then I came upon Culture Kitchen SF.  Just yesterday, Elizabeth sent me its link, and here, in a beautiful site, is exactly what we wanted to do on Open View Gardens, but better!  Their simple mission is “To spread culture through food.  Empowering people to learn and share authentic ethnic cuisine,” which they do through engaging local cooks, many of whom have immigrated to the States, to share their expertise in their culinary traditions from Afghan to Vietnamese, Colombian to French.  Like us, they offer a subscription series and a blog and cooking classes–  but unlike us, their teaching cooks have roots in the traditions being shared.  Their stories are not so much those of the travelers to such cultures but of the sons and daughters of those cultures who have traveled away and are now are influencing the food and culture of their new homes.

As I prepare to head to Morocco and Italy for two months, and as I listen to Elizabeth tell stories of cooking with the immigrant women in Venice, I’m thinking about exploring not just the traditional cuisines of the places I will spend time in soon, but the ways in which those cuisines are changing.  Just as I am as likely to make Korean pork or Thai chicken as I am Irish or Vermont anything, what are they making now in Fez, say, that blends in some of the new cultural influences in their lives?  As Mourad Lahlou says in the introduction to his splendid New Moroccan (about which I’ve blogged): losing-sleep

“And so, dish by dish, and year by year, my food evolves. I started at Kasbah with a somewhat obsessive attitude about showing people real Moroccan food, done the authentic way.  But there we were in California.  It’s just not possible.  The ingredients are all different–even the ones flown from Morocco don’t taste the same by the time they arrive…So, before long I was doing the Moroccan version of what so many inventive northern California chefs have done.”

And so my ideas about a community garden and kitchen and website are evolving, too, slowly, to suit this land, this culture as it changes as well as ideas I encounter on my travels and in my studies.  We’ll see what comes of this next series of cultural potlucks I experience away from home!

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Categories: Culture, inspiration, lessons

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