Food as second language
Lynne Christy Anderson, a professional chef in Boston for almost 10 years and an adjunct professor of English at Boston College and Bunker Hill Community College, didn’t expect food to be the bridge to her immigrant students. But some of those students, whose culinary traditions helped ease their way into US culture, became her muses and protagonists of the book “Breaking Bread: Recipes and Stories From Immigrant Kitchens’’ (University of California Press). She also met other immigrants, whose voices come alive in the collection, allowing them to share their heritage. Anderson notes that her own history includes her grandmother’s lemon meringue pie, which though now a distant memory, still brings her happiness and comfort.
Q. Somehow food broke the ice in your classes.
A. I found that [students] were almost scared to be in school, and I just struggled to think of a way to connect. And food just kind of came naturally because I love to cook and eat. So I would ask them what they cooked over the weekend, what they’re cooking that afternoon, and they really started to open up. Oftentimes, it’s the only thing that they can hold onto when they lose language, family, and economic status.
Q. How did you find such a wide range of people?
A. You know I live in Jamaica Plain, which is a pretty diverse place. My kids go to public school here, there are families from all over the world in their school, so I would befriend mothers. Sometimes I’d just meet someone in a market.
Q. Why do you say food is our common language?
A. We would, a couple of times a year, do a potluck and everyone brought in food; they were quite proud of it. I would really see them just coming together, and maybe they couldn’t converse extensively the way you and I can, but they could smile and point at the food and say it’s delicious. I just think it kind of bridges gaps.
Q. Was it hard for these immigrants to find authentic ingredients for their recipes?
A. Some of them bring ingredients with them. Some of them forage for the ingredients, like the grape leaves and the mushrooms. Some of them have their families send things over. But actually, in terms of recipes, you can get everything here in a large supermarket, particularly if you live in a city. There are replacements that they either suggested to me or I that I kind of came up with doing Internet research.
Q. The families in your book undoubtedly value meal time. Do you think Americans have lost this tradition?
A. I think Americans are becoming much more aware of the importance of meal time and of healthy eating, but I do think that these cooks are different. I think they’re coming from a very different background. It’s just really been incorporated into their lives in a very beautiful way.
Interview was condensed and edited.