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Edgewater's Refugee Girls Share Stories Of Struggle Through Cooking Class

By Linze Rice | July 3, 2017 5:47am
 Teenage girls who are refugees in Chicago planted vegetables outside the Broadway Armory, the site of  cooking classes that explore foods with significance in their countries of origin.
Teenage girls who are refugees in Chicago planted vegetables outside the Broadway Armory, the site of cooking classes that explore foods with significance in their countries of origin.
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Provided/Peterson Garden Project

EDGEWATER — On Jan. 1, 1804, slaves living in the French territory of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, finally tasted freedom. They also tasted soup joumou, a pumpkin-based dish considered a delicacy among French slaveholders, who prohibited blacks from eating it.

After that day, the dish would be known as Haitian Freedom Soup.

"Feasts Of Resistance," a new series of cooking classes open to the public, seeks to explore the history of similar foods as symbols of strife and struggle. The classes, organized by Edgewater community groups Peterson Garden Project and Girl Forward, will replicate dishes that were "created or affected by social or political unrest."

Not only do the dishes represent recipes borne out of historical and modern day oppression, they also represent countries that many teenage refugee girls fled on their way to Chicago's Far North Side.

Helping teach and prepare food for the cooking classes will be students in a summer camp held by Girl Forward, a nonprofit that provides resources and programming for refugees.

Food helps connect the students, who hail from about two dozen countries, said Emily Kane, director of educational programming at the camp.

"Everybody has food, all cultures," Kane said. "I think food is a really great vehicle to be able to explore the perspective and experiences of other people in a really hands-on way, and it's great in a classroom setting."

Chef Alvin Yu, a cook, organizer and board member at Peterson Garden Project, had earlier discovered through his work organizing and mentoring youth in Uptown that, "If you have food for kids, they will always show up."

Once he understood that, deeper connections could begin to take root, he said.

"Initially it was just food that represented their cultures, but then as a deeper dive, we looked at food that had a legacy of oppression, food that was borne out of struggle, food that was borne out of war," Yu said. "And there were stories behind that."

Girl Forward girls plant on Broadway. [Provided/Peterson Garden Project]

The collaboration between the groups resulted in the Feasts of Resistance project, which also opened the experience up to the public and serves as a way to help financially support future programs at Girl Forward.

Earlier this year the teens planted vegetables and herbs in planter boxes outside the Broadway Armory, where the classes take place. 

Beginning July 10, they'll return to harvest their crops and then use them during cooking sessions, where they not only get to share their stories with people who sign up for the classes, they'll also cook dishes that have personal and cultural significance to them.

It's "really an opportunity to explore food and culture, but in a way that our girls can kind of lead the charge on," Kane said. "I think what's really powerful is that [Peterson Garden Project] decided to make this class public, so not only do our students get to engage in this, but our community does as well, which I think is such a huge form of advocacy."

Classes are $75 each and will run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. for three more Thursdays at the armory, 5917 N. Broadway. 

This Thursday's session will center on Haiti  with the making of pumpkin soup; a July 20 class will focus on Nepal and Burma, and the final lesson on Aug. 3 will look at the foods of West Africa and Cape Verde.

Chef Alvin Yu watches over an earlier Filipino cooking segment. [Provided/Peterson Garden Project]

"Recipes are borne out of necessity," Yu said.

Take for example Burmese bachelor xchicken, a chicken curry dish that grew from food scarcity in Myanmar (formerly Burma). 

According to legend, men who became hungry while guarding villages from government troops overnight would snatch chickens from nearby farms, along with herbs and vegetables, to feed themselves while on duty. 

Though food was available, the oppressive government would often hoard it away from the people, Yu said.

Similarly, in West Africa's Cape Verde region, former slaves under Portuguese rule were allowed to cook, but not eat, coveted meats like sausage and pork that slave masters imported to the island.

"Only the slaves cooked it, but only the rich could eat it," Yu explained. 

Cachupa was made from "leftovers" that began when slaves could wrangle bits and pieces of the meats unwanted by slave masters into a dish with eggs and vegetables.

Despite originating as a meal for survival, today it's one of the island's most famous meals.

Now, these and other stories will be shared among the community, which Yu said can help to "bridge the gap" between people of different backgrounds, while also empowering the young women.

"If we can open up peoples' eyes to the fact their cultural heritage and their legacy has some of these roots, then we can start to find more commonalities between us than we do differences," Yu said. "Food is a good access point for people because if you're going to sit at somebody's table and eat somebody's food, it would be very hard to hate them. ... If I understand your food as part of your culture, it's the first step in bridging the gap."