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Dining across Differences

Katie Cowart

Commensality is the act of gathering to eat and drink. It is a fundamental social activity to create and cement relationships. Virginia Nazarea, professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia, takes this idea and uses it to discuss the creative responses of humans after the dislocation and placelessness that often comes with modernity and globalization. 

As people, especially immigrants and refugees, move and change their surroundings, they can experience strong feelings of loss and alienation. Nazarea explores the idea of the kitchen and garden as sanctuary for displaced people. 

“Cooking and gardening are foregrounded as dynamic manifestations of cultural memory and embodiment,” said Nazarea.

To teach this, Nazarea brings students together to cook, eat and discuss in her “Roots and Rooting” class. The course summons “roots” and “rooting” as metaphors for re-territorialization and cultural revitalization among indigenous peoples, refugees, and immigrants.

“As people are moved around, they lose their connections with their homes, but food can be cooked anywhere,” Nazarea said. “Displaced people particularly are able to reconnect when they grow and make the food from their home countries. They remember through food.” 

Each week a student or group of students are assigned a theme such as festival food, comfort food or fusion food to guide their cooking for that class. The class takes place in a three-hour block, allowing plenty of time to cook a dish from start to finish. The students who are not cooking, will gather around and watch and ask questions as their classmates prepares the dish. 

“I encourage the students to use all of their senses. Smell the food, see it browning, hear the sizzle, and the best part, tasting it,” said Nazarea. “What is the texture? How do they feel while they are eating it? What would they have chosen to cook for the theme? We are not just learning to cook, but to connect, to remember.”

To encourage the act of gathering, the class also has a “Commensal Table” potluck. The students help decorate the area to give it a celebratory atmosphere, and they each bring a dish and a guest.

“Some brought their roommates. Some brought their parents, friends, grandparents, office mate. It was a diverse group,” Nazarea said. “It was a diverse group of people all coming together to eat and talk and connect.” 

In addition to cooking, the students also spend time with the gardening aspect of the class. 

“For two semesters, the students were involved in a healing garden initiative in the Latin American Botanical Garden,” Said Nazarea. “They have also helped start a seed library in the Pinewood Estates. We were able to gather seeds for exotic plants that the residents might not have been able to access on their own.” 

To end the class, Nazarea puts together a cookbook of all the dishes the students have made so they can recreate them later and remember the time they spent together. 

“The idea, our hope is, that these recipes can inspire more sharing – not just of food, but of community and our connection to each other. Sharing recipes that have been passed down through a family creates intimacy,” she said. “Meals are a specific way of bonding that transcends any one sense and creates a combination of them all that satisfies us more deeply. They can truly nourish us.”



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