Our Table of Memories: Food & Poetry of Spirit, Homeland & Tradition
Our Table of Memories invites readers to consider the spicy, delicious connections between food, poetry and stories. The food-themed poetry and recipes are part of an exciting first-time collaboration between Project Feast and the Stories of Arrival: Youth Voices Poetry Project. Both serve to help refugees and immigrants share their strengths and experiences, and by doing so, literally and metaphorically nourish the larger community.
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Read Merna’s introduction and a sampling of eight poets from Our Table of Memories, the most recent Stories of Arrival Poetry Anthology in collaboration with Project Feast.
A Note from Merna Ann Hecht
Project Founder, Co-Director, Teaching Artist, and Book Editor
For the past six years it has been an honor for me to work with young refugees and immigrants from many different parts of the world. Their stories, many of which involve harrowing struggles, are also important stories of hope. The privilege of observing the vision and creativity of these young people and understanding first-hand how much they have to contribute to all of our lives has been a source of inspiration to me. Poets and peace-makers, they have learned how poetry transcends the daunting task of expressing oneself in a new language. They have taken up pens and pencils, spoken with honesty and vulnerability and discovered their own pathways for bringing the language of their hearts to the page.
This year, in collaboration with Project Feast, our students have crafted poems drawing from memories of food in their homelands. For all of us it has been a fascinating culinary journey. As I poured through the students’ recipes, I was struck by how each family seems to have its own way of preparing a dish common to its region. Such particularity serves to remind us there can be no single lens for understanding the often minute details of difference within families and cultural traditions. Food is sustenance, but it is also a transport back to homelands, grandparents, childhood and important rituals that define and express who we are.
Recently, one of the students in our poetry project said, “When we began the project, we were students, but now we are poets.” And it is true. Poem after poem evokes memories of place and all that flourishes there— gardens, family and community bonds, cultural traditions and sacred festivals. These poems abound with bright flavors, but they are not without the bitter tastes of hunger and warfare. A pomegranate becomes a symbol for the taste of war with the line, the red of the blood, like the color of a pomegranate. A poem about a cucumber in the poet’s homeland ends with deep emotion, Goodbye to you, cucumber of my country / I will remember that sunset over you, / like two halves of a once whole heart. From writing about the taste of a lemon in a home country comes the lines, When I eat lemons, my soul gets rest /and it brings me power over myself. And the last stanza in a poem in praise of rice bestows the rice with a persona, I want to walk into your fields / I want to stand there with you far from the white tablecloth / I want to fill my hands with the mud of your fields / like a blessing.
Our young poets have used words to stir up images and memories much like nourishing food comes to us fresh from a garden, prepared with love and spiced with surprises. A sense of communal belonging and an understanding that we must tend to the earth, its creatures and each other, are present in many of the poems. And still these poems speak to sorrow and loss. They speak of how violence, scarcity and hunger tear families apart, threaten survival and silence our songs of praise. Praise for our sustenance is one of the most ancient forms of poetry and has long been part of the human story. But, as these young poets in their remarkable wisdom already know, we are living in an extraordinary time. A time when farmers’ fields and gardens are under threat; when food is inundated with chemicals, over- processed and corporatized; and when language is used and abused, to marginalize, to justify closing borders and to dehumanize those who struggle to survive.
Every young person in this project and each woman we have met through Project Feast is an ambassador for teaching us about the courage required to endure the ache of leaving a homeland. They inspire us as they find their way, using a new language and adjusting to this vastly different country. Even so, the Project Feast cooks and our young poets tell us they will always miss the taste of home.
The guiding vision of a table where we can break bread together with a spirit of gratitude has prompted us to create this book so that Project Feast cooks and our poets can bring you the many cultural traditions that continue to enrich our own country. Our students have been passionate in their poetry, reflecting back to us that poems can reach places within us that seem unsayable about who we are, about what and whom we have lost, and about what we hope for. Poetry can nourish us like the food that sustains us and connects us to others in profoundly intimate ways—the very foundation on which Project Feast is built and the bedrock of our possibilities for peace and for care-taking the earth and each other.