I recently attended a narrative stage discussion on ethnic foods in the Finger Lakes, organized by the New York State Folklore Society. The event, You are What You Eat held at the Auburn Theater, was really enjoyable, and found the whole experience informative, so I thought I would share my observations and takeaways.
I realize immigration and integration are contentious issues lately, but the fact remains immigrants shaped our region, from the building of the Erie Canal to the Utica Greens served at restaurants, you don’t have to look hard to find the contribution immigrants made to the society and culture of our area, and continue to. I was intensely interested in hearing first-hand stories, and sharing my own family’s immigration story and the ethnic food traditions that have lived on. The Finger Lakes is, much like the rest of the nation a melting pot, and knowing your family’s unique place in the melting pot is a gift to be celebrated and preserved.
In the time leading up to this event, I thought a lot about my own family history, and I even doubted my “eligibility” to participate in this conversation. I suspected instantly my story would be different from the other participants. Our family has been quick to “Americanize”. My Great Grandmother barely spoke English, yet here I am a mere 3 generations later, with only a few polish words at my disposal, and a couple of polish dishes that were always served at holidays and special events. Surely, I knew the participants would come with handwritten recipes, long-running traditions, and stories of family activities, that would make my story look like that of a 4th generation Pole gripping at whatever shreds of culture and heritage I could scrap together for the sake of preservation.
But let’s face it, that IS my story, and if we are being entirely honest, it is probably a more common story than I have realized. I understood if I am to share my story with 100% honesty I am the woman who is looking to better understand previous generations of my family and the history of where I come from, with little to go on.
The other participants, Rafael Diaz a native of Puerto Rico and owner of the restaurant El Morro in Geneva, and Carolynn Elice of Auburn Elice, an active member of the recently established Cayuga Italian American Organization had fascinating stories and brought an amazing assortment of foods. Carolynn told stories of making pasta (by hand!) with a pasta board and learning this skill from her mother in law. Rafael talked about coming to our area from Puerto Rico to work at food processor and distributor headquartered in Wayne County, and how he quickly began taking orders for the homemade items he made from scratch for his lunch, and built a business recreating traditional latino foods.
A few of the key takeaways from the event…
Sharing. I think there is a lot of emphasis on sharing a prepared dish, but what struck me, maybe even more importantly was sharing the preparation of the dish. When we share the time spent making the food we are reconnecting to our past while strengthening current family bonds. Which leads me to…
Thank you to Hannah and the New York State Folklore Society for having me, the Auburn Theater for graciously hosting the event. Rafael for bringing an entire buffet of the best latino food I have ever eaten (seriously, check out his restaurant in Geneva, El Morro), and Carolynn for the amazing Italian dishes!