Learning by the Mouthful

By Rachel Revelle

Farm-Pics-at-Vimalas_edited-200x300Last week I shared some thoughts about the value of creative representation for awareness and education. Documentary photography and performance was the focus, but we could certainly expand the realm of creativity. Coming from a tradition of Southern matriarchs who spend quality time in the kitchen, I very much think of food as an expression of creativity and culture.

This weekend I attended an event that illustrated how food can be used as an educational tool, in a way much like the photographic essays we display in our hallway. The Transplanting Traditions Community Farm hosted an evening at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café with a traditional Karen Burmese meal and a presentation about refugee camp life in Thailand and resettlement here in the Triangle.

This Chapel Hill area farm hosts 26 ethnic Karen refugee families from Burma in a sustainable farming operation that melds Karen agricultural traditions with techniques helpful in North Carolina. It is also meant to be a catalyst for some families to eventually start their own independent farms. If anyone is looking for a good CSA box, I’ve heard from a colleague that theirs is fabulous!

I knew from the monologues and magazine created by our DukeImmerse students last spring that a difficulty for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal is the change from a predominantly agrarian culture to a camp where there is little opportunity to grow and prepare their own food. Some refugees find ways to tend small plots in the camps, and of course the food aid that is provided has to be prepared in some way, but options are limited. I learned Sunday that Burmese refugees struggle with this same loss of agragrian lifestyle, and that it is often compounded by the resettlement process. The community farm is, then, a valuable and comforting enclave in the midst of adjusting to a new home that is so different in so many ways.

At the event, my friends and I were greeted with the cozy atmosphere of Vimala’s courtyard packed with people holding steaming plates of food and sipping hibiscus tea. As I went down the buffet line, each serving was a lesson in colors and scents and eventually, new tastes. I meant to take a picture of the beautiful expression that was on my plate, but remembered right as I was scraping the bottom of my bowl of pumpkin curry soup. What I do have as an illustration, though, is the photo documentary project that was displayed, showing the bounty of the farm and the people contributing to it…sounds like a familiar concept, doesn’t it?!

I think it’s safe to say people are easily drawn by the promise of a good meal, especially with the backing of Vimala Rajendran, an institution in Chapel Hill (If you don’t know about her philosophy, it’s worth a look. Deeply committed to sustainability, community, and food security, her motto is, When Vimala cooks, everybody eats!) For this event, the preparing and serving of a meal drew both the resettled Karen community as well as the broader local community together to eat, learn, and enjoy a cultural exchange.