Finding Common Ground Through Food: Phoenix Dinner Brings Together Diverse Community
If you ever want someone to open up, try asking this question: What’s a dish that’s close to your heart?
At a recent dinner organized by the national nonprofit UnidosUS, people of all ages, colors and backgrounds stood up and told their story — through food.
A smiley African-American woman in her 40s remembered the biscuits her grandmother would make for every meal. An African-American man a few decades her senior talked about hog maws and chitlins. A young woman from the East Coast described a Jewish dessert that “doesn’t look that delicious,” but swore “tastes amazing.”
In all, two dozen people were there, sitting alongside one another at a long table in an airy coworking space in downtown Phoenix. As they shared a meal of tabouli and tacos, each one is also shared a part of him or herself, in the form of these recipes.
The night was called a Recipe for Unity, and the group UnidosUS has put on these events all over the country. This particular dinner and discussion was also sponsored by a Phoenix-area nonprofit called Valle del Sol.
“In this environment, it makes everyone seem more relatable, because outside of spaces like this, there are hierarchies.”
Angela Florez, who’s with the local group, said they made a point to invite an equal number of liberals, moderates and conservatives.
“Ideologies and ideological splits are what’s creating some of the chasms that we’re experiencing in Arizona,” said the 41-year-old Latina, “and so the more that we can do events like this, the better opportunity we have to get to know the people who are carrying an opinion that may differ from our own and look for an opportunity to bridge that gap.”
And it definitely seems easier to bridge that gap with talk of cheese and chorizo than discussion of divisive issues.
Mitch Moore, a burly white man who described himself as a conservative hunter, didn’t talk much about politics there. Instead, the 46-year-old went into detail about how he can share a home — and a lasagna pan — with his liberal, vegetarian wife.
“And the meaty side goes on mine, and her more healthy, spinach, mushroom, veggie side is on the other,” he said, to the group.
Moore admits that sometimes his conversations with friends get limited to Jeeps and rifles. He saw the night as a chance to see beyond his own worldview.
“And just having that opportunity for the interaction is going to be what turns into be the crucial part of how our society is going to evolve,” he said. “We talk about civil discourse. I guarantee you, it’s very hard to find.”
But at this dinner, it was everywhere. It almost always started with a story, like Leanne Murphy talking about her family living on Dominica, an island in the Caribbean.
Smiling and projecting her soft voice for the small crowd, the tall 31-year-old described how people would come together to make fish broth.
“People didn’t have a lot of money, and so the community would come together around this big pot, and everyone would bring ingredients to contribute to the big pot,” she said.
And from stories like that, people started to talk about similarities. Common ingredients, common struggles. Murphy said she may not have understood some of the people here if she had met them in a different way.
“But in this environment, it makes everyone seem more relatable, because outside of spaces like this, there are hierarchies, I guess,” she said, “And it seemed like everyone was on an equal playing field here tonight.”
And everyone built that together, by being so open with one another. Kenja Hassan, a 45-year-old African-American woman who shared memories of making pancakes with her white grandmother, was impressed with how no one’s recipes were centered on travel or adventure.
“They were all stories of home, and they were all sharing, sort of like inviting you into their home, for a glimpse,” she said.
When you’re meeting people for just a few hours, a glimpse is all you get. But the organizers of Recipe for Unity hope that these dinners and conversations are going to continue — getting meatier each time.
To learn more about the nonprofits UnidosUS and Valle del Sol, visit www.unidosus.org and www.valledelsol.com. You can learn how to host your own Recipe for Unity dinner at http://weriseabove.us/recipe-for-unity.html.