I am a learner in the world’s best classroom on this night. I’m listening to stories about how to make Jamaica from Guatemala and Picadillo from Costa Rica and Injera from Ethiopia and Gateaux from West Africa and Chicheme from Panama. Even more inspiring than the methods and recipes are the people giving me instruction—jumping and eager to share with every opportunity how this dish belongs to them and their country and their home. I hear people whose voices I’ve never heard before. Tonight everyone flies high their flag and speaks loud with courage—it wells up from some big place inside us that longs to be shared and to be understood. “And we wear these clothes. And we speak this language. And we dance like this. And we cook like this,” they all said.
Pushing through the crowd in Walker takes me back to a crowded market in Kashgar, China. Elbowing by the booths to peek into the pots of boiling mutton tripe and brains, the cauldrons of Lagman, the platters heaped with Polo, the smoky charcoal filled gutters where skewers of lamb rolled over the flames, I took a bite of the ropy, thick noodles and a morsel of charred lamb and a spoonful of greasy rice and carrots and began to learn these people. Tonight I’m learning about my friends by taste and by texture, chewing the nubbly grains of corn in Chicheme and swallowing the milky, cinnamon-seasoned drink.
Joy is ladling and smiling, and passersby smile too—either from the spicy Pakistani dish or her piercing, loving hospitality. Jo instructs and motions how to make Guatemalan Jamaica, steeping deep red flowers in boiling water to get a purple-red, tart tea of sorts. Selena warmly hands out samples of curry with coconut milk and Garam Masala and Turmeric and a symphony of other spices. There are egg tarts from Hong Kong and, against the rules and shamelessly, I eat two as I learn about Amelia’s family’s new home. Elisabeth shares gently the background of Chicheme, a drink she made with corn and milk. Jose and John tell me about making Picadillo, smashing cooked pork and potatoes and salsa together to make the smooth savory dish. I suck the metal straw that dives deep into bittergreen, earthy Brazilian yerba maté leaves. Tekste and Ethiopia serve up tangy Injera topped with mashed lentils and a dark, chocolate-colored, spicy sauce with chicken. They’re too swamped to let me in on any secrets. There is a table spread with Chapattis and Chai from East Africa, particularly Uganda and Kenya.
There, I hear my friends relive the hour leading up to the food festival.
“We were so African tonight.” prefaces Claire. I think to myself, “tonight?” these girls, raised in Nairobi, show their vibrant Kenyan colors and leave a glowing trail when they walk.
They prepared the Chapattis and all-milk Chai in the same scrunched townhouse kitchen where they were making Gimbap—a Korean sushi-like compilation—for their own supper and I’m picturing and laughing as they describe the scene. There isn’t a spare square inch of counter or stovetop. There’s someone stirring the milk so that when it boils, it won’t overflow and seep into the burner. There’s someone rolling Gimbap. There’s someone rolling out the oily Chapattis. There’s someone dumping sugar into the milk on the stove. There’s someone mixing more chapattis and flour fills the air. And during all of it, I imagine a chorus of franticked, highpitched, happy screams with accompanying sizzling pans and bubbling milk—now overflowing because someone had to turn their back for a split second and the milk boiled. Later I would receive a photo from Kristiana, verifying what I had laughed about and pictured—a decimated kitchen.
Lance, from Djibouti, is sitting at the East African table with the girls and he’s got his supper in front of him with a little bit from every table in the whole place, traversing continents as he moves to the next section of his Styrofoam plate. He drinks the last drops of Chai from the pot, tipping it above his face as not to miss a milky, sweet drop. He’s got it right.
After years of picky eating, I’ve made it a personal policy to like everything, to eat whatever someone offers me and savor it. I have found that there is no faster way to a lonely ignorance than by refusing the food someone offers you, and there is no faster way into another’s life and story than to eat it, licking your fingers and sucking your teeth all the way.