In the TMY Cultural Kitchen: Cooking up Traditions of Good Eats & Entrepreneurship

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Everything about the TMY Cultural Kitchen says that it’s a place to gather and see how food tradition and good eats happen in our city. When you meet Priscilla Mendenhall, director of the TMY Cultural Kitchen Pavilion, and sense her enthusiasm and commitment to our food culture, you’ll understand why.

As a relatively new Tucsonan (full-time since fall 2011), Priscilla is a career non-profit professional who has transitioned to social enterprise. With a degree in art history and a childhood spent overseas, Priscilla says her work and life have been eclectic — urban conservation in Montreal, contemporary arts and refugee cultural preservation in Paris, English in Madagascar, immigrant literature in Virginia and, two decades of immigrant and refugee access to health care in metro Washington, DC.

“Somewhere in all of this, I produced a documentary film on traditional Buddhist healing, managed several galleries, spent summers volunteering at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and coordinated/prepped food for innumerable events, among them a Tajik/American wedding reception held during a hurricane,” she smiles.

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

TMY is a reflection of and a gift to Tucsonans, according to Priscilla. “It’s a mirror of who we are, and gives us all a chance to learn what others are,” she says. “TMY is a unique celebration of the city’s history in which food traditions have played a major but perhaps “unsung” role.”

Plans for 2013 illustrate that this year’s Cultural Kitchen will be even more amazing. Priscilla comments: “While the festival has always been about food, hence the nickname Tucson Eat Yourself, this year’s plans are to strengthen the focus on heritage foods. We will do so in three ways: 1) specifically inviting food vendors whose products reflect their diverse culinary backgrounds; 2) including sales of homemade donuts, corn dogs and other quintessentially Anglo-American foods; and 3) expanding the number and depth of the Cultural Kitchen’s food demonstrations.”

The 2013 TMY Cultural Kitchen will be a full demonstration kitchen, offering stadium seating in a shaded structure on Jacome Plaza, according to Priscilla. The program will combine a focus on Sonoran desert agriculture with exploration of Tucson’s ethnic cuisines. “We will intersperse panel presentations (Sonoran wheat, Chiltepin peppers, Mexican street foods) with group demonstrations,” she notes. Priscilla plans a curry cook-off (Thai, Bengali, Iraqi), a “carp across cultures” (Swedish, Vietnamese, Jewish) and – individual sessions (Congolese lenga lenga, Russian borscht, Somali sambusas, Afghani aushak). Demonstrations will begin at 11am each day, and end at 8 pm. As with the entire TMY program, the Cultural Kitchen schedule will be posted on the TMY festival mobile device app.

“With demonstrators encouraged to share their historical knowledge, family food stories and recipes, and audiences engaged in Q & A while they enjoy food samples, the Cultural Kitchen will represent the best that a Folklife festival can offer — authentic exchange which invites participants into dialogue that educates, entertains and affirms. My involvement in TMY, and the Cultural Kitchen, is to accomplish these goals.”

Dishes & Stories

Priscilla came to Tucson with the intent of launching a refugee and immigrant women’s culinary enterprise, “featuring a menu of our mother’s recipes.” Because TMY’s Cultural Kitchen aligns perfectly with this goal, Priscilla is realizing a personal dream of creating Dishes & Stories. With TMY as fiscal sponsor, Priscilla’s social purpose business, Dishes & Stories, is coming of age. In addition to TMY support, the business has received a grant from the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, to initiate a culinary training curriculum and gluten-free bakery. “Both will integrate the extraordinarily rich food traditions of our co-creators, women from Iraq, Congo, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Somalia, as well as Mexico and El Salvador, many of whom demonstrated at TMY in 2012 and will do so again this year,” she remarks. Iskashitaa Refugee Network, tradition bearers as part of TMY’s Folk Arts pavilion, also is a partner organization with Dishes & Stories.

“From my perspective as coordinator of the TMY Cultural Kitchen, the festival and Dishes & Stories are part and parcel of the same Tucson movement to honor the diverse, family-rooted foodways of our community,” says Priscilla. “I came to TMY through an introduction to Maribel (Alvarez, TMY director). We met at a coffee bar and it was clear, after only a brief conversation, that we were in sync. She hired me that day and we have been champions of each other’s visions since that day.”

• The Edible Schoolyard project aims to have local gardens and kitchen become interactive classrooms, and it’s building an edible education curriculum and network around the world.
• Read about how food tells a story of culture and nature at the American Museum of Natural History.
• Report on the food culture of 2012 TMY, as reported by the Arizona Daily Star.

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