What do Norwegian lefse, Mexican red cheese enchiladas, and Rosa Parks’s pancakes have in common?

By Valle del Sol

Recently, 23 people from different parts of the community in Phoenix gathered to share recipes that were meaningful to them, their families and their cultural background. While the dishes they described ranged widely, guests noted many similarities in the memories they carried through food. Through conversation about Norwegian lefse, Jewish noodle kugel, Mexican red cheese enchiladas, and even Rosa Parks’s pancakes, it became clear that continuing food traditions helped guests connect with their families and their roots, and that the recipes had been tied to families’ access to ingredients.

This meal was the fourth in the series of five Recipe for Unity events being hosted across the U.S. by UnidosUS and its Affiliates as part of the Rise Above initiative. Each Affiliate has had its own local take on the Recipe for Unity concept, designed to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to gain a better understanding of one another over food. The Phoenix event was organized by Valle del Sol and held at Galvanize, a co-working space that serves as home base for many small Phoenix businesses during the day, and catered by Conceptually Social. The Galvanize and Conceptually Social teams transformed a former industrial warehouse into a beautiful, modern convening space. It was the perfect backdrop for a gathering where Phoenix residents celebrated their differences and united over their similarities.

For many, the recipe was a family dish that had been passed down for generations, often originating around the time they had arrived in the U.S. or reflecting what their families had been forced to cook, like chitlins, with what was left to them after those in power had taken what they wanted from the animal. But many of the recipes had been adjusted since their creation. In some cases, this was because the recipes had never included exact measurements. My mother used to do them with a pinch of this and pinch of that,” said Wally Graham, describing his mother’s candied sweet potato recipe, a classic African-American dish.”

In other cases, the evolution of family recipes was a result of changing access to ingredients, based on changes in families’ economic statuses and in what was available regionally. Back in the day people in my family’s community didn’t have a lot of money, so the community would come together around this big pot – they’d contribute ingredients to the pot like fish, carrots, green bananas, onions and garlic,” said Leanne Murphy, whose family originates from Dominica. It’s a big pot of yummy soup that can be shared amongst many people.”

“I think it’s neat that most of us look back on our childhood and notice that most of the things we ate were what was available,” said Kenja Hassan. I wonder how childhood memories are going to change going forward for our children’s generation because they now have access to every ingredient.”

Other guests’ dishes weren’t inspired by family or childhood memories but instead by people who had an impact in their lives and struggle for civil rights. Disability rights advocate Jennifer Langdon brought a recipe for artichoke lasagna inspired by Ed Roberts, a civil rights leader you probably haven’t heard of, because our civil rights struggle is still missing and ongoing.” Jennifer then shared the story of how Roberts had overheard a doctor call him a vegetable” and subsequently decided he’d be an artichoke – prickly outside but soft inside. Artichokes have held a special place in Jennifer’s kitchen since her injury.

Across all origins and particularities of ingredients each guest shared stories of learning about food from the people they love. My greatest memories were eating at my grandmother’s house, with the biscuits she made from scratch,” recounted Chris Love. I tried to make it myself and failed at it miserably, but I at least have this recipe.”

Kevin Cronk shared a recipe for fideo soup, which he learned from his wife. She comes from a family of people who cook a lot. It’s my first real dish – before that, I didn’t really know how to cook. Now I can cook a real dish, and I have my wife to thank for that.” Mitchell Moore echoed that sentiment. I’m more conservative and Republican and enjoy hunting, while my wife is more liberal and a vegetarian,” he said. When we got married, I took her low-cal healthy Spinach lasagna and kicked it up a little bit with some flavor. The meaty side goes on mine and hers is more healthy on the other. That’s one way we get together.”

Laura Suarez recounted how specific recipes marked special holidays. We didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so my parents always tried to cook something delicious so we’d have an awesome birthday, she said. There was one birthday when my dad made tortas, and none of my friends had heard of that before. They were the best.”

“I loved the commonalities from these recipes about people coming together around food,” said Laura French. They show that love and kindness is the best ingredient.”

If you’d like to host your own event, sign up and download the Recipe for Unity toolkit for tips we’ve learned along the way.

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