Aimee Zaring is an ambassador for immigrant communities in Louisville. She has taught English for years through Catholic Charities and is the author of the book “Flavors From Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods.”
This Thanksgiving week, she sat down with WFPL News to talk about why the kitchen is such an important cultural place, and what exactly it means to have a place to call home.
“There’s that adage we like to throw around, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ But one might argue for these refugees, home is where the food is,” Zaring said. “I think we can all relate to that experience of eating a particular food or dish, and we’re just instantly transported to another time and place.
“I think that’s what it’s like for these refugees,” she said. “It is really a lifeline back to their homelands and their past history and culture.”
Here’s an excerpt from “Flavors From Home,” Zaring’s recent book:
Something curious happens when you talk to someone from another country about their native foods. I once told a Pakistani student in my ESL (English as a Second Language) class that I liked Boorani, a layered eggplant and yogurt dish from her region of the world. Her eyes widened beneath the hood of her hijab, and she gasped with delight, “How do you know about Boorani?” I received a similar reaction when I went shopping at an ethnic grocery store one day to get ingredients to test a recipe. An African customer at the counter, noting my purchases, raised his eyebrows in shock. “How do you know about cassava leaves? Are you married to an African?”
The Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
I have always believed, and have found to be true while working on this project, that food, like a smile, painting, music, or dance, is a kind of universal language. A “heart” language.
Over the years, through my involvement with Kentucky’s refugee resettlement agencies, teaching ESL, and particularly in writing this book, I have made many new friends from countries as close to our shores as Cuba and as far away as Vietnam. I’ve had the honor and privilege of being invited into my new friends’ homes. I’ve laughed with them, grieved with them, celebrated births and weddings with them. I’ve even cried tears of joy with them as they’ve been sworn in as U.S. citizens.
And I have eaten with them.
And eaten some more.
If death is the great equalizer, I’m convinced food is the great unifier. Some of the stories my contributors told me, recorded in FLAVORS FROM HOME with their permission, might never have been shared if not for the social, pleasurable, nourishing, comforting, healing, and even sacred attributes of preparing and eating a meal together. The kitchen was our safe place, food our common ground.
For most of the refugees I know, preparing their native dishes in their American kitchens is like a lifeline to their home countries — one of the few ways in which they can find comfort in an unfamiliar land, retain their customs, and preserve a sense of identity. In essence, these dishes represent a new brand of comfort food in America.