Culinary Connections, Comfort and Culture

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Priscilla Mendenhall, Tucson transplant, foodie and social entrepreneur.
Priscilla Mendenhall, Tucson transplant, foodie and social entrepreneur.

Food is a universal facilitator in festivals — Certainly, the multi-ethnic feasting in Tucson “Eat” Yourself” is proof of how much pleasure comes when differences are transcended through food. Priscilla Mendenhall, founder of Dishes & Stories (a refugee and immigrant women’s culinary enterprise incubated by Tucson Meet Yourself), coordinates TMY’s Culture Kitchen and once again promises us a bounty of locally-sourced good eats and demonstrations of cultural cooking practices. TMY attendees can expect an array of food demonstrations by talented home cooks, food entrepreneurs and winners of the first TMY Global Foodways award. Priscilla notes that the Culture Kitchen plans to integrate with Polish, Carnival and O’odham programming in interesting ways, and that, for the first time, TMY will incorporate a focus on food justice and sovereignty.

BorderLore asked Priscilla to comment on the synergy between food and authenticity. As we prepare for TMY’s 2014 Culture Kitchen and the tasting of everything from Jamaican oxtail stew and Congolese sweet potato leaves, to Kosovar fruit tart and Sonoran mesquite pancakes, we’re happy to share her notes:

Cooking with Authenticity
by Priscilla Mendenhall

Five cooks, a videographer and light technician, are packed into a small home kitchen in central Tucson. We are preparing food and being filmed for a crowdfunding video for Dishes & Stories, a refugee led women’s culinary social enterprise. Faeza, from Iraq, is coring squash, onions and eggplant with a traditional spiral-shaped implement. “Come,” says Faeza, “I brought this from Iraq because you cannot get them here. In Iraq, our dolmas are not just with grape leaves but also with other vegetables. You take out the middle and cook it with rice and tomatoes. They are very beautiful and delicious. Make sure you show people.”

Next to her, Manerva rolls Egyptian dolma, grape leaves only, seasoned with cumin, not mint, and no tomato. Marie, Congolese but in the United States for more than a decade, tries to persuade Yewbdar, recently arrived from Ethiopia, to chop onions in the food processor. Yewbdar laughs but keeps cutting with a chef’s knife. She is fast — we call her the human cutting machine — but the machine is always faster. Moreover, by time she finishes, the onion fumes have made us all cry.

For the women of Dishes & Stories, cooking with authenticity is not just “doing” – it is who they are. Preparing recipes taught to them by their mothers, grandmothers and aunts is a reminder of a painful past. It is also a powerful connection to the present and as we build the Dishes & Stories business, the key to our future. They share stories of learning from the elders. They talk about trying to find money to send home so those left behind can eat. They carefully platter for catering clients who intentionally seek us out to celebrate with authentic, home cooked foods, clients like Literacy Connects honoring their volunteers, Safford School announcing their International Baccalaureate Program, the Southwest Folklife Alliance launching their new organization. They plan trips to Hajibaba, the Middle-eastern and African wholesaler in Tempe whose products are far less expensive than those in Tucson. They spend weeks studying for the Pima County Food Handler test, trying to grasp “salmonella”, the “danger zone” and “time and temperature control” when their countries lacked refrigeration and many foods were served room temperature, “without making anyone sick.”

Four Founding Cooks
Four founding cooks of Priscilla Mendenhall’s Dishes &
Stories enterprise:Faeza, Marie, Yewbdar, Manerva

Faeza, Manerva, Marie and Yewbdar succeed. They manage the past, which intrudes daily on their TV screens, by keeping busy to the point of exhaustion. They co-develop a culturally inclusive basic culinary curriculum, explain their dishes to guests at a catering, conduct food demonstrations at TMY, plan the cooking classes recently funded by a grant, orchestrate a pop-up dinner at Prep and Pastry and try to grasp the details of a four-page excel spreadsheet that articulates our vision for Dishes & Stories future. Their food handler certificates are framed, hanging at home in place of the school and professional diplomas they had no room to bring.

Authenticity, for these women, is not the canned dolma at TJs or the “white” injera made from wheat and corn because teff is too pricey. But, it may be the “ful” made from pinto beans rather than favas as pintos are much cheaper, easier to find and “taste just the same” or “sukumawiki” made from Costco spinach rather than amaranth because “I can’t afford to water the amaranth in my garden”. Authenticity for Dishes & Stories’ cooks lies in a shifting and sustaining balance: retaining control over a recipe while negotiating presentation; preparing dishes by hand but utilizing machines to speed up the process; showcasing each person’s traditional foods while learning to explain those of their colleagues. In this creative tension, we argue, we laugh, we trash kitchens, we schlepp food, we get worn out and, we start again. Mostly, we gather in our own community, and in the communities we reach with the authentic foods that we create.


  • The new journal of Graduate Association for Food Studies includes articles on food justice and activism, gender, patriarchy, food propaganda and an analysis of best practices for farmers market incentive programs:

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