By BOBBI BUCHANAN
Helping immigrants gain confidence and assimilate into their new community is one of Aimee Zaring’s driving passions. She has been an English language instructor for over six years and has taught English to immigrants from over 25 different countries for Catholic Charities, Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Jefferson County Public School’s Adult Ed ESL program, and Global LT. In her work, Zaring discovered the one commonality that unites all people—food. From that idea, her book, Flavors from Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods (University Press of Kentucky), was born. Zaring is a founding member of Global Commons, a nonprofit dedicated to bridging the Louisville area’s international and local communities through transformative educational opportunities and cultural proficiency training. She is the recipient of two artist enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and is a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in numerous publications, including Adirondack Review, Arts Across Kentucky, Edible Louisville, New Southerner, The Courier-Journal, and The Rumpus.
Aimee Zaring will be a featured reader at the Homegrown Art, Music & Spoken Word Show at Cedar Grove Coffee House in Shepherdsville, Ky., on Friday, Aug. 21. The event, including open-mic performers and a micro-exhibition by artist Ryan Case, runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Bobbi Buchanan: Although your book about Kentucky refugees and their stories, Silas House writes that it ”will make you realize that we all have much more in common than we think.” Was that your intention, and how do these stories reveal what we have in common?
Aimee Zaring: Flavors from Home evolved out of my wish to share some delicious, unique ethnic recipes and to document what I had experienced during the potlucks at the school where I taught English to refugees. At these potlucks, people from all different races, faiths, nationalities, ethnicities, and social statuses gathered together around food, and I witnessed firsthand the melting away of all the outward and superficial barriers that tend to divide people. I hoped that sharing these refugees’ native foods might serve as a means to bring people together, or at least to begin a dialogue. But I not only wanted to explore food as a universal language, I also wanted to specifically look at how people’s native foods serve as a source of comfort, especially in a foreign land. It took a while (many visits to refugees’ homes and in-depth interviews) for a theme to really emerge, but this is what I feel is the glue in these stories: food as refuge. And we all have those foods and meals that, when we just think about them, instantly transport us back to another place and time. I’ll never forget the sheer joy on one of my Iraqi cook’s face as she described her favorite food, masgouf, a specially seasoned smoked fish, which is very hard to duplicate here in the states.
Another thing that emerged while writing this book—and a point of commonality—is that all of us, if we live long enough, will go through major transitional phases in our lives where we must say goodbye to things we love and hold dear and start anew. Granted, most of us will never experience something as traumatic as being forced from our homelands, but we can all relate to the story of self-reinvention (if only on a small scale), and refugees offer us a wonderful model of how to adjust to a new situation or whole new way of life with grace and perseverance.
BB: One of the refugees you profile in the book says that food says a lot about a culture. When I think of American food, I think of hamburgers and hot dogs—junk really is all that comes to mind. Is my opinion jaded? What are the meals or entrees that you think best represent American culture?
AZ: A lot of people, including immigrants, equate American food with junk or fast food: quick, processed, fried. I think that’s why a lot of new immigrants choose to make their native foods at home and rarely eat out. They are very distrustful of food that comes from unnatural and unknown sources (as well they should be).
But when I take the time to really consider American cuisine, I realize it mirrors both the good and bad about our culture. Fast food represents just a sliver in our American pie. We have such rich cultural heritage, and there are such interesting fusions in our cuisine—it truly reflects the melting pot that America is.
I often asked refugees in my interviews which American foods they liked best. Several people mentioned American salads (mainly tossed leafy greens with lots of vegetables), and Italian food. The latter surprised me—that the refugees would identify another country’s cuisine as “American.” But that just points to how deep and diverse our culinary roots are.
I like your last question. It reminds me of a good discussion I had recently with book club members in Mississippi who read Flavors from Home. We all went around the room and shared what foods we would select as our personal American comfort foods. I was amazed at the vast differences in our answers. One woman who’d grown up in the Northeast mentioned seafood chowder. Several from the Deep South mentioned barbeque dishes, stews with game meat, and a good mac-and-cheese. One person, whose family hailed from Holland, mentioned a dish from that country. My mom and I mentioned traditional dishes from our region and our cultural heritage—German potato salad, cheese grits, Kentucky Derby pie. A dish that one person defines as “American” in one part of the country, another person from another region might never have even heard of.
BB: Has food always been significant to you? In growing your own herbs and vegetables? In preparing your own meals? Have you always been an adventurous eater?
AZ: I’m a city girl so my family never had a true garden. I remember trips out to local nearby farms to pick strawberries and stops at roadside produce stands (before the days of farmers’ markets). Both my grandmothers had various fruit bushes in their yards, and one would make rhubarb pie every summer. As a little girl, I remember marveling at using the ingredients one had grown in one’s own yard, with one’s own hands, to create a dish or meal. It’s something I really grew up appreciating, perhaps because of its rarity.
I would definitely say I’ve become more adventurous in my eating (and cooking) as an adult. I’ve always loved all kinds of food, but writing this book made me even more willing and interested in trying new things, for example, goat. Five years ago, I probably would never have tried goat meat, but goat is used in several recipes in the book. I really like it and contend that sometime in the future it’s going to outsell other meats in the U.S.
BB: What would you say to people who feel that refugees (and immigrants) in this country should adapt to American culture—including the American way of eating?
AZ: From the moment refugees land in America, they are asked to adapt to American ways. And while it’s true that refugees must adapt to many American ways to increase their chances of success here (including the formidable task of learning a new language), what I found so interesting in writing this book is how native culinary traditions are usually the last to fade—if they ever do. Nothing dictates that a refugee must give up their native foods, and because of the widespread availability of international ingredients—through ethnic groceries, native produce grown in individual or communal gardens, and online shopping—there is no compelling reason to alter their dishes and culinary customs. Cooking meals from their homelands is one easy way refugees can reconnect with their heritage. Cooking and eating is a multi-sensory experience, evoking all sorts of memories and emotions. It’s the easiest and cheapest direct flight back home.
BB: Racial and ethnic intolerance has heightened in recent years. Have you, in the making or promotion of this book, or any of the people you profile in the book encountered prejudice?
AZ: When my publisher was first pitching my book to regional bookstores, one representative in the Midwest said he didn’t think this book would sell because he didn’t think anyone would be interested in refugees, let alone their food. Call this what you will—prejudice, narrow-mindedness, or perhaps just a missed opportunity—but I’m happy to prove that bookseller wrong with the sale of each of my books.
As for the refugees, some did share stories of feeling discriminated against for various reasons—the clothes they wear, their accents, etc. They also complained about being stereotyped. I think it’s particularly rough for refugees who come from once thriving cosmopolitan cities like Baghdad and who have advanced degrees and extensive resumes. There are doctors, lawyers, and mechanical engineers in my book who can’t find jobs in their fields in the U.S. and who must often take entry-level positions in factories because they are mistaken for being uneducated or unqualified.
BB: How do you see Flavors from Home in the larger context of our country, its history, and the current state of affairs?
AZ: I feel like this is a book that transcends time and place. Yes, it’s timely with all the recent debate on immigration reform, with refugee numbers worldwide being at an all-time high, with our own exacerbated race relations, and so on, but all these things point to the larger issues of fear, ignorance, hatred. These things are universal and represent the baser of our human instincts, which we must all learn to rise above—starting in our own homes and relationships—if we ever want a more peaceful world. Flavors from Home is an invitation to reach across the table, so to speak, to break bread with both friend and “foe.”
BB: What do you hope people will do as a result of reading this book? What do you hope to inspire?
AZ: Ultimately, I hope Flavors from Home will serve as a launching point for dialogue between people from diverse backgrounds who otherwise might not have a reason or opportunity to communicate with each other, or who literally can’t communicate because they don’t speak the same language. Food is something we all share in common and can enjoy together, and often no words are necessary. Food is its own language and can transcend barriers. I’ve seen time and again the goodwill that a fine meal can foster when people simply sit down and break bread together.
I hope, too, that the book will help educate readers on the many different cultures and ethnic groups that have been added to America’s melting pot over the past half-century. And I hope the stories will inspire people to persevere, even when all hope seems lost. Native-born Americans will no doubt walk away from these stories with a greater appreciation of our great nation, especially after viewing it fresh through the eyes of refugees. Yes, there’s a lot that’s wrong with our country, but there is also a lot that’s right, and refugees remind us to never take for granted our most basic freedoms.
And of course I want people to try these delectable dishes and perhaps even discover, as did I, a whole new world of comfort foods.