It’s one thing to try and learn how to cook Indian food using a cookbook at home. Believe me.
Maybe you do have all the right spices and other ingredients but we all know that there’s nothing like watching someone from India prepare it right in front of you while you get to ask questions. You see the process and then you taste the results. Some people even pay hundreds of dollars for this privilege.
Thankfully, the St. Albert Community Village has a biweekly program that’s open to the public to get the same experience from people from dozens of countries, ethnicities and cultures around the world.
Better yet, it’s totally free.
The Cultural Kitchen just started its fifth season with an atypical Canadian night featuring beef stew and bannock. In the past, I’ve enjoyed delicious Caribbean fare, incredible and authentic tortillas from Mexico, and the unbelievably good kashk, an Iranian dish that, up until that moment, I didn’t even know existed.
I didn’t know what to expect that first time I went but I’m sure glad that I did. It made me want to keep coming back for more and I’m not alone in that sentiment.
Serving a need
Bringing people together is what Angie Dedrick does. After all, she’s the city’s neighbourhood development co-ordinator. She nurtures neighbourhoods by creating neighbours.
Back in 2013, she found herself working with residents of the Sturgeon Point Villa apartment complex. That’s where she discovered the need for this type of programming.
“I was having trouble connecting with people but what I learned was that there were a lot of new Canadians who lived in that building and through a few different conversations, I learned that there was some interest in cooking together,” she said.
At the same time, Suzan Krecsy, the director of the St. Albert Food Bank, was in contact with a recent client who no longer needed the services of the food bank but wanted to give back somehow. She offered to do a Mexican cooking night.
“We had so much fun that first night that one of the ladies who came said, ‘I’m doing it next week.’”
And so the second night featured the food of Sri Lanka.
The rest as they say, is history.
“It just evolved very organically and that’s what we wanted. We didn’t want anything formal. We wanted the participants to drive the ship, however they wanted to present their country, their culture, they could do it.”
It’s a fantastic cultural melting pot, not to put an obvious pun on the table here.
What started off with a small and casual group of people cooking, eating and talking has now grown to a larger but still casual group of people cooking, eating and talking.
“More than 100 families have come through the cultural kitchen, and it grows every time,” Dedrick said.
Families are the backbone of the program. You can see three different generations of one family all in the same room as people bring their kids and even their parents.
“You see these kids from all these different ethnic backgrounds playing together. It’s so cool,” Krecsy continued.
“There’s a core of three or four women that have been there since year one that are the really cohesive group. It turns into a bit of a support group when somebody is going through a hard time or somebody’s having a baby or something. There’s lots of support there and it carries on outside of these walls, which is something that we really wanted.”
“I think what’s happened over time is it started as a way to connect around food, but it’s grown to be more about community. People come. They bring their kids. Everybody’s welcome. Over time, we get to know each other. We’ve celebrated marriages; people have had babies. We’re passing the babies around while we’re eating. Sometimes the person who’s cooking has to holler so that people will listen to what they’re doing and come and try some. I think that’s part of what’s helped it to grow is that community piece of it. There’s friendships and relationships there,” Dedrick said.
Krecsy also likes that it helps bring people in to learn more about the St. Albert Food Bank and Community Village’s programs, such as an upcoming series of three free Family Law Workshops, the first of which will focus on child custody and parenting. It took place on Sept. 20.
“They can come in and learn about our programming but what we get from them far exceeds whatever we can do for them: that feeling of community and being able to welcome them in. What we learn from them is absolutely incredible.”
A gustatory passport
It’s not just a bunch of people standing around while someone cooks in front of them and then the food gets handed out. It’s a multicultural community of diverse peoples learning about each other, sharing their stories, and becoming a new community of friends.
The next Cultural Kitchen is Tuesday, Sept. 26 with a presenter offering food from her native Jamaica. Ecuador, Russia, Nigeria, and India are all on the list. Salivating yet?
As the community grows, the map keeps expanding with new entrants stepping up to the plate.
“There’s a culture of safety that comes in with food. It just creates that safe environment and they can share,” Krecsy said.
“I think we’re touching people who are missing something in their lives. The food is an easy thing because we all eat. You come and you realize that there’s so much more than food. It’s about community. Food opens the door to us having a relationship with someone we might not otherwise connect to,” Dedrick added.
“Then you realize that we’re actually not all that much different. We may have different skin colour or a different culture but in the end, we all eat and we all have challenges with our families and our kids and we can all learn from each other. Food is just that medium that levels the playing field.”
The next course
A larger and more public event is in the works for the Alberta Culture Days weekend. St. Albert can expect to see the Multicultural Fest in Lions Park, although details are still being worked out. It’s going to be like a Cultural Kitchen outreach, Krecsy prompted.
“There’s going to be dancing and all sorts of neat cultural awareness happening. Some of our ladies will be Cultural Kitchen Ambassadors. They’re going to be at tables and they’re going to be talking about their cultures, they’re going to be talking about the Cultural Kitchen and their cooking. They’re going to be taking some sweets because it’s all about me and I asked for that,” she joked.
People can learn more by signing up for the newsletter or checking out upcoming events on the calendar by visiting www.stalbertcv.com/community-kitchen-program.