‘Migrating Meals’ puts awkward dinner conversation on the menu

Jane Kagira owns the Kenyan restaurant Safari Njema in Columbia City, host of the first Migrating Meals conversation. The scenes on the wall mainly are depictions of Kenya. (Photo by Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Jane Kagira owns the Kenyan restaurant Safari Njema in Columbia City, host of the first Migrating Meals conversation. The scenes on the wall mainly are depictions of Kenya. (Photo by Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

We are living in a moment that demands difficult conversations. Issues like racism, xenophobia and gender discrimination may dominate headlines, but many of us struggle for the language or opportunity to talk about any of it face-to-face.

But a new program, developed by Project Feast, an organization that helps immigrants and refugees find sustainable employment in the food industry, hopes to help — one delicious meal at a time.

“I think people really want to talk about these things that are hard,” says Molly Payne, Project Feast program coordinator. “We want to create a space for people to ask questions without feeling threatened or silly.”

So Project Feast started “Migrating Meals.” It’s a series of dinners hosted by immigrant- and refugee-run restaurants, where tough topics are served alongside food that showcases our region’s international diversity.

First on the docket is a conversation about “food, identity and colonization,” at Columbia City’s Safari Njema.

“I think there was a bit of shock value,” says Project Feast Founder and Executive Director Veena Prasad, explaining why they chose the legacy of colonialism as their first topic. “We need that in Seattle, to get us out of our ‘freeze mode.’ ”

The “Seattle Freeze” comes up a lot with Prasad and Payne, who joined me for a meal at Safari Njema to talk about the motivation behind the project. And the hope is that food will help thaw typical Pacific Northwestern reserve and encourage people to engage with sensitive subjects.

“So much of how people create their world views is around the table. It’s that family foundation of eating together,” says Payne. “So we’re bringing it back to that space of learning and sharing and creating.”

What is it about a meal that makes it more possible to be honest and vulnerable, even with strangers?

On cue, our meal arrives, carried by Jane Kagira, who opened Safari Njema six years ago to highlight the food of her native city of Mombasa.

“That’s goat meat, that’s cabbage, that’s banana matoke and that’s chapati,” explains Kagira, taking us on a tour around a steaming communal platter before dropping off some homemade hot sauce and little cups of ginger juice.

“People really appreciate this food,” says Kagira, who adds that her food already brings people from diverse backgrounds together. She proudly estimates customers of at least five different races and ethnicities had visited in the past hour.

The first Migrating Meal, scheduled for next week, will open with an introduction by Kagira and will include short readings as well as group discussions based on questions Payne develops.

“We want it to be structured, but we also want it to be fun, like a dinner conversation,” says Payne. “The questions are going to relate to people’s own experiences. You’d don’t have to know anything.”

And it looks like they’re on to something.

The first Migrating Meal, scheduled for next week, has sold out.

They plan to organize meals monthly with possible topics to include Islamophobia, women and food, and a frank discussion of the term “ethnic food.”

There’s also a “Potluck for Peace,” in partnership with other local organizations, to explore how we define our “shared humanity.”

So what is it about a meal that makes it more possible to be honest and vulnerable, even with strangers?

“I think just the act of eating is so intimate, you’re putting something into your body,” explains Prasad. “If I’m cooking something that I share with you, and you trust me enough to eat the food that I have cooked, it tells me something.”

The trick worked on me. Despite a tight schedule, what was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting somehow turned into an hour spent lingering over the last Kenyan samosa (a deep-fried, meat-filled triangle pastry). I left having felt more like I’d made some friends than conducted an interview.

“Food, it’s different all over the world, but it’s all food,” says Payne. “You want to talk about uniting in our common humanity? Well, food is one of the foundations of that.”

If you’re interested in enjoying some of that common humanity yourself, check out Project Feast’s events page for upcoming meals at projectfeast.org/events.

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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