Growing up in a small, idyllic New England town, life was good. Summers in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s were spent in the lake, swimming, splashing and laughing.
I am forever grateful for growing up in a small Connecticut town with strong community values. Many kids from the sticks get an itch to see the bigger world, though, and I was no exception.
Everywhere I looked there were pizza shops and Caucasians—like wandering an empty canvas, void of color, interest or depth.
Diversity had only just begun to dabble its paintbrush in our neighborhoods—one interracial family, a handful of black households, some exchange students and the folks that owned the much loved Chinese restaurant.
I adored the poo-poo platter dish at the Chinese restaurant and also the handsome staffer, the owner’s son. Almond shaped eyes, caramel-honey skin and black satin hair that, until then, seemed to exist only in Pantene shampoo commercials—his features were so unlike mine and I wanted to know more.
As the years went on, I longed for more choices, experiences and especially more fascinating foods and the people and cultures associated with them.
Cooked in a pit of hot rocks on the beach, my first taste of flan was baked in an old coffee can. Chatting with the crew of this grey whale tracking adventure on an island off Baja, Mexico, it was sometimes a struggle for me to communicate. Heavy accents were something I had no experience with, but we ate the soulful, authentic food and it all worked itself out somehow.
Calendar pages turn at a rapid pace and my eagerness to meet new people from new places remains perpetual.
Fried alligator in a dusty New Orleans bar, late night whiskey with authentic Montana cowboys, scones at a dairy farm B&B in Ireland, bangers and mash with London pub-goers, cerveza after shark diving in the Bahamas, schnitzel in a German beer garden, salmon with fishermen in Alaska, champagne in Paris, unconventional roadside fare in Austria, fresh pineapple after swimming with turtles in Hawaii…
Closer to my now-home of Winchester, MA, my husband is on the Board of English at Large, a local nonprofit. Volunteers provide English language tutoring, helping learners improve language skills to adapt to American life and thrive. I’ve been lucky enough to attend organizational dinners. Everyone brings homemade food that represents their heritage. What an extraordinary experience—eating, chatting, learning about one another.
Winchester ABC (a chapter of A Better Chance, a national organization) provides academic scholars of color access to educational excellence. Our lives have been irreversibly graced by the boundless bond with our host-son, LaVon. He loves trying new foods and I love learning about some of his family’s favorites. Although my first attempt at Bajan Oxtail was not a rousing success—he appreciated my dedication.
Each of these food-life experiences has a story that involves wonderful, fascinating people—people who don’t look like me, sound like me or come from the wonderful little town where I grew up.
Large and small towns alike have been experiencing a great strain. Recent news has left my heart heavy. Racial tension and violence is bubbling up, boiling over, across the nation.
If I had it my way we’d have nationwide pot luck dinners, seated at family-style tables. Everyone would bring a dish and we’d just eat and talk—discovering our similarities and celebrating our differences.
Food has connected me to so many new experiences and marvelous people. Their backgrounds are initially unfamiliar to me but with good food and a little curiosity about one another, I find we connect with ease, erasing invisible lines that appear, at quick glance, to divide us.
I know it’s not that simple. I just wish with an all-consuming intensity that it were. Would you bring a dish and join me at the table?
* with gratitude to The Winchester Star for publishing this column on 7/14/16
chef mel has been creating food experiences for over 20 years. she embraces an "aspiring homesteader" lifestyle & grows over 40 types of edibles when she's not teaching classes & hosting farm dinners. she adores simplicity, new food & edible flowers. her writing reminds us there's wisdom & humor among the seeds, stalks & sauce pots. we're not perfect & that's okay - keep it genuine & journey on!