In the spirit of giving thanks, we at Cooking Light are thankful for the wonderful work being done by the service members of FoodCorps. Read a first-hand account from FoodCorps service member, Corbin Lichtinger, who is working in Lewiston, Maine.
By: Corbin Lichtinger
Photos: Kelly Campbell
I live in America’s whitest state, and one of the fattest. I moved here over a year ago to serve with FoodCorps, a national service organization that sets out to connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy.
I never expected to move to Maine, to a city of roughly 35,000, sit in packed coffee shop and be the only English speaking patron; to walk out of my building into a sea of kids at play, sporting their hijab and playing ‘schlepp,’ a version of jacks played with stones from the sidewalk.
For the past 10 years, people from Somalia, Sudan, Congo Ethiopia have been coming to Lewiston, Maine for the promise of work, refuge from war, and religious freedom. Once here, all of their cultures have all kneaded together to produce a food culture both a little bizarre and definitely beautiful. With FoodCorps, I build school gardens, cook with kids, and generally help develop healthy food relationships at a young age. So I thought I’d be working with overweight kids (like I was when I was a kid), but instead I found something very different.
Take a stroll around a city in America’s whitest state and you’ll find something not-so-whitebread. Lewiston is not a “big” city, but for Maine, it’s very urban. Roughly 1/6 of Lewiston’s population is made up of New American refugees. This melding of predominantly Franco-American (from immigration when? 50 yrs ago?) with Somali culture has created a community that surprises the nose and stomach when taking a walk in Lewiston’s downtown.
First things first: meat pies.
When I step out of my building in the morning, the street is bustling with parents taking their kids to school, or shuffling to work. When I hear someone speaking English, it catches me off guard, instead of the other way around.
But what’s that I smell? The sweet scent of onions caramelizing, and the sultry waft of meat—pork in fact—coming from just behind my house. But of course, it’s the meat pie factory, a staple food production facility in Lewiston.
If you haven’t had a meat pie, it’s pretty much what you’d think: ground beef or pork baked with sautéed onions, mashed potatoes along with a pinch of oregano, rosemary, and thyme, a whole lot of meat fat, all politely concealed in a pie crust. Meat makes it’s way into pies around the world, prepared in different ways—like Shepard’s Pie, which in Quebec and subsequently Lewiston people call Pâté Chinois (literally meaning “Chinese Pie”). The meat pie would be the pie from hell for the unsuspecting vegetarian looking for a crumbly, buttery crust filled with Maine berries. To almost anyone of French-Canadian heritage, it’s home.
Next we’re on to Somali coffee and chai.
I stumbled on Safari Coffee on of the first days I moved here, and have never left. Sort of.
There are now a handful of Somali cafes scattered around Lewiston, but Safari is my favorite. The barista, a close friend of mine, brews almost ostensibly with Ethiopian beans he gets through a friend in NYC. The coffee or chai is loaded with cardamom and cloves. Add a few tablespoons of condensed milk, and way too much sugar (re: I wimp out and ask for no sugar), and you’ve got an African cup of love, making every morning in Lewiston a little perkier.
And what to go with Safari’s coffee? Dolce! Which is a sweet bread that’s fried and cut into large triangles. Or if it’s close to the Somali holiday Eid ul-Fitr (celebrating the breaking of a fast in Arabic cultures), you can enjoy Soor, which is a (kosher) gelatinous bar made out of papaya concentrate, and topped with sesame seeds. It’s funky and delicious.
Then we sprint around the corner to try a Franco-staple: the infamous “Red Hot.”
The “Red Hot” is a hot dog that is bright red, and is packed so tightly in it’s casing that it snaps when you bite into it. How do they make it so red? Rumor has it that food coloring does the trick, but no one really knows. They’re all the craze with the Franco population that’s bit older.
If Red Hots are an on-the-go staple of Franco culture in Lewiston, then Sambusa is definitely the Somali equivalent. Beef, goat, or lentils cooked for a long time in a rich meat broth with loads of cayenne, cumin, curry, and the secret “polo” seasoning. Add diced onions, carrots, and potato to the mix then let all the ingredients cook for awhile to they “get to know each other” (a favorite phrase used by my Somali friends who are also excellent cooks). Wrap all of this tightly in a hand-mixed and rolled dough, making the shape of triangle, through the Sambusa in hot oil until golden brown on both sides, and call it delicious.
Lewiston is the place I call home, and I love it. Drawn here for a chance to serve on the front lines of school food reform and building food relationships with kids, I’ve been kept here by so many other wonderful elements of this surprisingly diverse community. Yet I always come back to food. To me, it’s where the story both begins and ends. I thought I’d come here to be on the front lines of the ‘obesity epidemic’ that’s sweeping up our nation’s kids and riddling them with diabetes. Instead I found the opposite: kids that were underfed, coming from war-torn countries having the very preservation of their culture threatened each time they come to table (if they come to the table at all). This makes me think two things: 1) the steadfast resiliency of meat pies and their ability to satiate the city well over 100 years after coming here makes me think seemingly bizarre cultural identities have a place on our table; and 2) that I’ve been kept here partly to help kids develop healthy food relationships, but mostly to learn from them, the way they cook and eat their food, and how their culture overcomes adversity one bite at a time.