The Joy of Feeding

October 1, 2012

Meeru Dhalwala was shocked. The co-owner of Vij's and Rangoli restaurants (and the soon-to-open Shanik in Seattle, named after her and husband Vikram Vij's youngest daughter) was talking to a regular customer who confessed that she ate Vij's packaged curries several times a week. But they're so high in fat, Dhalwala said. And salt. And sugar. Built from the recipes used in her restaurants, they were designed for special occasions, not everyday meals. Dhalwala, a restaurateur of 17 years, found herself advocating against her own self-interest, evangelizing for home cooking, for its health-giving properties, its ability to nourish both the self and others.

Dhalwala had found a mission. Pop culture, with its complicated food shows and cult-chef restaurant brands, suggests that cooking should be left to professionals. She counters that untrained cooks are capable of creating simple, nutritious, and ethnically diverse dishes. To prove the point and to stimulate a return to the kitchen, she gathered volunteers to organize and cook a feast for 500 at UBC Farm in May 2011. Fifteen home cooks contributed favoured recipes. She called it the Joy of Feeding.

This year's Joy fed over 600 with dishes from 16 countries including Syria, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, and Sweden. But the planning began months earlier. With her steering committee-including Mary Mackay, head baker and co-owner of Terra Breads; Amy Robertson, co-director of the Vancouver Farmers Markets; and Amy Frye, programs manager at the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm-she enlisted sponsors, volunteers, and, most importantly, untrained cooks. Rewarding confidence and enthusiasm over mastery and technique, Dhalwala recruited strangers in supermarket checkout lines, and conscripted friends and shopkeepers. Alive with the passion of it all, she's yet to be turned down.

Over aromatic curry and chai at Vij's in early March, the cooks and steering committee gathered to pitch recipes. The home cooks were nervous about how their food would be received (most had never prepared a dish to feed more than a dozen), but the energy in the room was high, with participants swapping stories about their backgrounds and describing childhood foods they're passing on to their children. As conversation flowed, the group took notes, suggested twists on recipes, and built the varied menu: meat-based and vegetarian, sweet and savoury. Later in April, they met again to taste and refine each dish, and members of the steering committee resized the recipes to feed hundreds. 

On a warm June evening at UBC Farm, spices wafted evocatively as children played in the grass and Vikram Vij led guests in a dance to live music. (Dan Mangan and members of Delhi 2 Dublin made appearances.) Students from the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts worked with executive chef Julian Bond to assist the featured cooks who had earlier overseen the cooking in commercial kitchens off-site using ingredients from local farmers donated by sponsors. Then-at last-the meals were served beside the farm's rows of apple trees. (To encourage tackling the meals themselves, ticket-holders took home a recipe book of the dishes.)

Joy of Feeding's ability to foster connections is already evident. Zimbabwe-born Manyara Rinomhota was one of the first featured cooks. When she moved to Canada in 2008, she faced a heart-wrenching choice: she could bring only one of her two children; she chose Joshua, then eight, and left her three-year-old, Chenesayi, in the care of her mother. Rinomhota, employed as an accountant for Vij's, is working toward reuniting her family in Vancouver. When Dhalwala asked her to join Joy of Feeding, Rinomhota didn't know what to expect. She worried that nobody would enjoy her sadza nyama nemuriwo, a traditional dish of cornmeal and beef stew with greens. The day of the feast, with Joshua by her side serving up the hot stew, she felt her fears dispel. Where strangers had been cold and distant, here at the farm they were friendly and curious, eager to try her dish. Some came back for seconds.

Attendees of the first Joy vividly remember Rinomhota's story; they empathized with her situation and remembered not just the stew but her family and its challenges as well. This is Dhalwala's point: in the process of sharing a meal, community is strengthened. "This isn't about food," she says. "It's about generosity."

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