Food as the Great Connector

I absolutely love how food brings people together. No matter what differences we have, sharing in the rich culture of food (growing, cooking, baking, eating) unites people and breaks down barriers that stand in the way.

For the past 18 years, the same Hmong family has lived next-door to us. Hmong people are a small group from Vietnam who helped America in the war. Roughly 23 years ago they closed the last refugee camp and brought the rest of the refugees to Minnesota creating the largest Hmong community in the United States.

When my middle son was born 13 years ago, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. About a month in, there was a knock on my backdoor. When I opened the door, I was met by my neighbor, Ms. Yang, and her grown daughter. Ms. Yang doesn’t speak English, but she was holding a plate piled high with fresh fried treats and rice and meat. She held it out, never taking her eyes off me, never offering a smile. Her daughter Bee said, “My mom was worried about you. She saw you come home with a baby a month ago and you haven’t left the house since. She wanted to make sure you were eating and offers you this gift.”

I cried and put my hand over my heart and expressed my deepest thanks to them both. “Please tell your mother that this is the most thoughtful gift. I needed it. I have been too tired to cook.” I waited while she translated it to her mother. Then Ms. Yang gave me a nod and a smile, and a wave of the hand to eat up.

Even without being able to speak to one another, neighbors have the ability to learn one another’s habits and rhythms. We can use that gift to look out for one another, as Ms. Yang did for me at this moment.

Hands down that was one of the tastiest meals I have ever eaten. But more than that, Ms. Yang’s risk to make a neighbor a plate of food started us on a food-sharing journey that has lasted 13 years. When I had my daughter three years later, I got another plate. When her grandson was born, I brought over groceries. When her sons came home from a huge fishing trip, she brought over a bucket of fresh-caught trout. (I have never prepared fresh fish before and that was a huge learning experience!) When my garden’s harvest is large, I bring the surplus to her. When she grew Hmong melons, she gave me one to try. When I taught my daughter to make chocolate chip cookies, we brought some over for them to try.

Exploring this sharing relationship has been such a huge gift. Although we cannot speak to one another, we are connected through the bonds of motherhood and food. Although our stories are different, we are still the same.

Can you remember a time when sharing food brought you closer to someone else? Have you ever shared food with a neighbor, or has a neighbor brought food to you? How do you feel when you connect with someone over a meal?

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