The Real Magic of Food
By Kirsten Eamon-Shine, Peace Learning Center & Middle West Meals
Movies regularly depict food as a magical transformation agent. In Like Water for Chocolate, Babette’s Feast, and Chocolat, characters magically infuse edibles with emotions, allowing people to understand one another or whole villages to become freer. This infusion is a lovely idea; each movie has its charm. But for me, food’s transformative power has little to do with magic and much to do with community.
Both of my parents grew up in a small mining town of Butte, Montana. Butte’s various mining operations pulled silver, gold, and copper from the earth and attracted immigrants from an impressive number of countries – Ireland, Wales, Finland, Serbia, Italy, China, Syria, and Mexico among others.
While my parents moved from Butte to Helena, where I was born, and eventually to Indianapolis, Butte and its diverse citizenry have been a presence in our family kitchen throughout my life. I’d spend hours as a child perusing the Butte Heritage Cookbook and the many culinary cultures within it. But the best part of Butte’s legacy comes from the kitchen.
For my mom’s MBA graduation, my sister and I made loads of pasties (pronounced past–eees), a Cornish turnover popular in Butte, to reference her first graduation in 8th grade. Each Christmas, my mom, sister and I make a ton of sweets, but the most important dish is Povitica. We roll the delicate yeasted dough until it reaches to all corners of a table, spread a rich walnut paste over the paper-thin dough, and finally roll the whole thing up. Our recipe doesn’t come from my German-Irish family; Mrs. Lavich, a Yugoslavian family friend, gave it to my grandmother after many, many years of asking. And both of my parents told me about the glories of the pork chop sandwiches in Butte – a different, but no less delightful version when compared to our Indiana pork chops.
These family traditions are the result of many people building community by breaking bread, sharing traditions, and welcoming one another into family kitchens. In Indianapolis, I see the same things happening in little restaurants and through our bevy of cultural festivals. For me, that’s the most magical thing about food — that we can connect to one another, learning, sharing, and feasting as a community. I’m lucky to feel that sense of connection with many local restaurant owners, whether they are recent immigrants or longtime residents, and I’m thrilled to get to build a little bit of it at my own table from time to time.