by Ray Linville
More than 14,000 refugees have been resettled in North Carolina in the past decade, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. As these refugee communities grow, they are beginning to transform food traditions of our state and expand the agricultural offerings at farmers’ markets and farm-to-home deliveries provided through community-supported agriculture.
Just last year more than 2,000 refugees fleeing persecution in their homelands were resettled in North Carolina by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. More than 20 counties now serve as their homes, although the majority have been resettled in the Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point region), the Triangle (Wake, Durham, and Orange Counties), and the Charlotte metropolitan area.
As these refugees flee their homeland, they bring their foodways and other cultural traditions to their resettlement locations. By observing the Karen refugees from the country of Burma (renamed Myanmar by the military junta that has ruled it since 1988) who have been resettled in our state, we can see new foods and flavors being introduced in restaurants as well as on the stands at farmers markets.
A major component in helping the Karen resettle has been the Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, a program that helps to build local agricultural business opportunities for 31 families among the refugees. By providing land for growing crops, conducting workshops, and finding outlets for their produce, the project helps to prepare refugees to become successful sustainable farmers. The farm, operated on less than three acres of land managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy, has been funded partially by a federal resettlement program grant and more recently by contributions from the local community.
Last spring I visited the farm as part of the annual Piedmont Farms Tour, which is the largest sustainable farm tour in the country. I was amazed to see crops that I consider tropical being grown in the temperate climate of my home state. During the tour, I was even given seeds to grow Red Ace beets and spineless okra. With a little encouragement, I’ll plant them next year.
Many Karen refugees come from rural areas where they had been subsistence farmers in their home country. Because they had been used to growing their own food, they want to continue to grow it after they resettle in North Carolina. At the Transplanting Traditions Community Farm in Orange County, the refugees grow more than 20 crops native to their home countries such as ginger, lemongrass, turmeric, and taro root as well as crops typical of traditional farming in this state such as sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, and beets.
The Karen refugees market their produce to area restaurants, local farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. For example, a CSA customer pays $20 a week for a box that contains seasonal vegetables common to North Carolina and traditional Asian vegetables common to Thailand and Burma. The box varies each week depending on what is ripe and ready for harvest. A spring delivery may contain pac choi, cilantro, kale, beets and other produce. Contents of a summer box may include basil, okra, peppers, beans and other items.
In addition to selling at local farmers’ markets, the Transplanting Traditions Community Farm began its own farmers market in June that is open on Friday evenings. After driving to its site in Carrboro, I found a small variety of American and Southeast Asian fruits and vegetables. I took home lemongrass to prepare a lemon-flavored simple syrup for sweet tea (see recipe below) in addition to selecting some delicious tomatoes and okra.
In the greenhouse area at the farm, several Karen farmers have individual statements on display that bring their personal stories to life and the importance of the farm to their resettlement. For example, Tri Sa explains her farming goals: “I want to become a successful farmer one day…. I will not only grow vegetables but also rice, and raise chickens, cows, turkey, and other farm animals. (But right now I have nothing to start.)”
The Karen refugees and other immigrants are introducing new flavors and ingredients for traditional dishes of the state. A traditional Asian vegetable may join the sweet potato as the two sides for your blue-plate special soon. Don’t be surprised!
When you make sweet tea again, plan to sweeten with simple syrup that uses lemongrass for flavoring. Here’s a quick recipe:
1 cup sugar
¾ cup water
pinch of salt
2 twelve-inch fresh lemongrass stalks
1. Combine sugar, water, and salt in small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat.
2. Trim both ends of lemongrass stalks, and remove coarse outside leaves. Cut into 3-inch pieces, and crush to break up fibers.
3. Place lemongrass in sugar mixture, and let stand 30 minutes.
4. Transfer to glass container; cover and chill overnight.
5. Strain syrup, discarding lemongrass.
May be made up to 1 week ahead. Makes 1¼ cups.
Ray Linville is an associate professor of English and humanities at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, NC, and serves on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray’s ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.