How Potlucks Can Build Bridges
Sometimes the simplest idea provides an opportunity to learn more about people different from us. Every year a friend of ours hosted an annual Easter potluck and the dishes ranged from deviled eggs to a German apple cake. Often, there was a story behind the choice that was a favorite family recipe. I loved hearing people reminisce about the time when they were a kid and that dish gave them such happy memories.
When friends gather at our dining room table, I always like each guest to share a fond memory growing up of a favorite dish made by their mother, father, or grandparent. Especially for a holiday main course, usually served on Rosh Hashanah, Passover, or on the Sabbath. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
My friend Ty always talks about his Czechoslovakian grandmother’s pierogies (handmade dumplings stuffed with either potatoes or cream) and kolaczki cookies (a puffed pastry filled with apricots, cherries, or poppy seeds). Grandma Hreben came to America in 1923 and never learned English so the way she showed her love was through cooking food from the old country.
“Because my grandparents were not wealthy, the way they brought the family together was through food, cooking, and baking,” recalled Ty. Ty and his siblings bake kolaczki cookies to this day because it connects them to their culture. “Whenever I am stressed about throwing the perfect dinner party, I remember that it’s really about the love and time spent making the food.”
Food teaches us so much about cultures different from our own. In recent years, I have become a more educated cook (not quite a chef yet) and have learned so much about food from shows like Top Chef and Chopped, where the judges explain where ingredients come from and how they were used in their native countries. And who can forget Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and later her television show, The French Chef, which introduced this beloved European cuisine and French culture to everyday cooks on this side of the Atlantic. The late celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain spent much of his career taking viewers along for the ride as he explored the culture and cuisine of faraway places like Thailand, Peru, India, and Russia.
I am embarrassed to say that I never knew much about how some of my go-to foods came to be everyday staples around the world. Most recently CNN’s series, Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, part travelogue, history, and cooking show, schooled me in ways I never expected. In every episode Tucci served as an ambassador for all things Italian as he interviewed chefs, food producers, winemakers, restaurateurs, guides, historians, artists, and activists about foods we all love but may not have known their origins. "I'd like people to see that incredible diversity, and how it came about—from geography, from invasions, from the influences of the Arab world, from the Spanish, the Normans, the Austrians. It's an incredible culinary melting pot," said Tucci.
I was surprised to learn that sardines were used as a symbol by political activists in 2019 fighting against the hate cultivated by the far right in Italy. Did you know that pizza was originally sold in the streets of 16th century Naples as the dish of the poor people, not considered a kitchen recipe for a long time? If you have not seen these amazing episodes, add it to your watchlist today!
The last example I will share revolves around our friend Grace whose parents emigrated from Korea in 1967. Like many first- and second-generation immigrant families, her parents assimilated in countless ways to fit in with their new neighbors. However, her mom’s holiday tradition of making filled dumplings was an important part of Grace’s cultural upbringing because across Asian cultures they are said to bring good fortune in the coming year.
Now with a family of her own, Grace has continued this tradition for the past 15 years, sharing it with close friends by hosting what is now known as “Dumplingfest” every New Year’s Day. My husband, Greg, and I have been fortunate to join this joyous party that starts mid-afternoon and lasts until midnight. The guests are eager students as Grace teaches us how to place the filling and fold gyoza skins into half-moon pockets of pure heaven.
So, the next time you plan to host a potluck dinner, ask those on your list to bring a dish that reminds them of their cultural heritage and have them share a story about why they selected the dish. The simple practice of breaking bread with others may be the easiest way to create common ground with those around us.▼
Wesley Combs, a CAMP Rehoboth Board member, is a diversity and inclusion expert, executive coach, and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community..