CONNECTING THROUGH CUISINE. Cristina Martinez, left, co-owner
of the Mexican restaurant El Compadre in Philadelphia, teaches
Carol Wong, center, and Wei Chen, right, how to press tortillas
during a June dinner at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.
People of different backgrounds are sharing meals from their
cultures as part of a yearlong program called "Breaking Bread;
Breaking Barriers," which organizers say brings people of
different backgrounds together for a meal, bridging differences
one plate at a time. (Alex Styer/Bellevue Communications Group
From The Asian Reporter, V27, #13 (July 3, 2017), page
Meal program bridges cultural divisions, one
plate at a time
By Natalie Pompilio
The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA ó On the menu, the flavor profiles seemed
incongruous: Chinese dumplings, Italian-style roast pork, and a
Mexican chicken dish featuring an edible weed.
But when dinner was served ó the guests seated and plates
bearing foods of three different cultures shared ó it all made
The meal was part of "Breaking Bread; Breaking Barriers," a
yearlong program that brings people of different backgrounds
together for a meal featuring their cultural favorites, bridging
differences one plate at a time.
"People cooking and eating together happens every day, but it
doesnít often happen across our social boundaries," said Anuj
Gupta, general manager of Reading Terminal Market, a historic
and sprawling indoor market and home to the program. "Itís an
incredibly powerful tool to cut through whatever social barriers
you want to erect."
Jews and Muslims have shared Jewish apple cake and baklava as
part of the program. Members of the African-American and
Korean-American communities have come together to compare fried
During the most recent gathering, residents of the cityís
Chinese and Mexican communities enjoyed dinner with members of
the Philadelphia Mummers Association, a 10,000-strong civic
association behind the cityís annual New Yearís Day parade.
For much of their history, Mummers groups included only white
men. Women werenít allowed in the parade until a few decades
ago. The tradition is also a family legacy, with many clubs
based in southern Philadelphia.
While the 2017 parade was controversy-free, past parades were
tainted by performances dubbed racist or culturally insensitive.
The Mummers have tried to diversify, creating a division in 2015
specifically for ethnic groups.
The dinner consisted of Chinese dumplings with pork or kale;
verdolagas con pollo (verdolagas is an herb also known as
purslane thatís largely considered a weed by Americans); and
roasted pork rolled with spinach, roasted peppers, and provolone
cheese, the Mummer contribution in a nod to a popular
Italian-American dish served on New Yearís Day.
Before the meal, chef Alice Ye taught Mummer Jay Polakoff how
to make Chinese dumplings as the other diners watched. Someone
noted that Polakoffís seemed a little, well, misshapen.
"Itís actually a hamentashen," Polakoff said, referring to
the tri-cornered confection associated with the Jewish holiday
Gathered at tables, the 40 community members shared details
about the cultural backgrounds and favorite foods. In one
grouping, the diners ó of Irish, German, Polish, Mexican,
Cambodian, and Italian descents ó talked about a dumpling being
a universal food, with multiple cultures having a version:
pierogi, ravioli, empanadas, kreplach. The conversation flowed
thanks to a facilitator from the Philadelphia Commission on
In discussing the shared meal, Oscar Galvan, a mechanic who
is a native of Mexico, said he was tempted to put hot sauce on
his Italian pork dish. They also reflected on how food related
to friends and family.
"One of the neatest ways to promote friendship is to share
your ethnic food, something youíre so proud of," said Carol
Wong, an educator of Chinese descent.
"In Mexico, itís all about food," said Ivette Compean, who
moved to the U.S. from Mexico six months ago. "Theyíre always
feeding you. Itís how they tell us they love us."
"Breaking Bread; Breaking Barriers" was created with an
$85,000 grant from the nonprofit John S. and James L. Knight
Foundation. Gupta said he was inspired to seek the funding after
reading sociologist Elijah Andersonís The Cosmopolitan
Canopy/Race and Civility in Everyday Life.
Anderson, who lives in Philadelphia and taught at the
University of Pennsylvania, found there are certain places in
cities where people of different cultures and backgrounds unite
without conflict. Reading Terminal Market ó a bustling home to
butchers and fishmongers, sandwich stalls, and Amish farmers ó
was one of them.
"Itís a place of refuge and convergence, old and young, black
and white, coming together and feeling good around issues of
food," Anderson said. "Itís a place where people get along even
though we know there are fault lines. Itís a beautiful thing.
The program hosted one of its most emotional dinners in
January, Gupta said. It brought together Syrian refugees and
residents deeply rooted in their northeastern Philadelphia
neighborhood. The Syrian contributions included falafel and
hummus. The American offerings were blackened catfish and
During the meal, held a few days after the announcement of
President Donald Trumpís original travel ban that included
Syrian refugees, the refugees shared stories of their lost homes
and changed lives.
At eveningís end, Gupta said, one of the refugees ó a woman
in her 50s who had been quiet during the meal ó stood up and
shared her thoughts with the help of an interpreter.
"I thought this evening was just going to be about food," she
said. "It turns out it was about unity."