by Malinda Dunlap Fillingim
Recently, I was able to participate in a Burmese feast. Students and others brought dishes representing the rich cuisine of the Burmese people. I delighted in the best sticky rice I have ever eaten, enjoyed sugary potatoes, drank something I think was coconut based, and consumed foods with layered textures. This was not the food I grew up on, nor the food I cook in my home. There was no cast iron of cornbread, no sweet potatoes, no okra, or biscuits heavy with butter.
Yet, it felt like home because I was surrounded by people who celebrated life with love and appreciation of a new land that offered them room at the welcoming table.
I’m a Southern girl and proud of it. I’m a North Carolina Southern girl, too, and there have been times I was rather rigid about my territorial experiences. My beloved husband is from Georgia and our being from different states almost caused our nuptials not to happen. Brunswick stew did not originate in Georgia as he declared, and he had to admit North Carolina was the birthplace of that divine food before this Tar Heel said, “I do.”
But I’m older now and have branched out to experience many new places and embrace lots of ideas and thoughts not known to me as I drove my 1969 VW Bug around the hills of North Carolina. Yes, I’m a Southern girl who likes adventure and experiencing new things, especially new places and new foods. It is no surprise to me as an ESL teacher here in Wilmington that a lot of my lessons revolve around food. Food idioms, food customs, and food traditions all build bridges for those students who come from countries with diverse culinary traditions. I have been the recipient of many wonderful dishes I can barely pronounce, but enjoyed with great delight. I watch my students bring various dishes to class and discuss how each dish represents their country, their traditions, and listen as we form palatable bonds.
So much of who we are is revealed around a table of food shared with those we love and those we may not even know — eating comfort foods that evoke memories, or foods that dance on our tongues for the first time. Enjoying local foods of countries I visit has always been a favorite part of my journeys, making sure I go off the beaten path to eateries most tourists do not enter.
At the feast, little children helped me understand how to fill my bowl with rice and then top it off with soup, laughed at me when I spilled a spoonful of rice on my blouse, and give me the last sweet roll. I sat there eating and watching. Mother’s spoke in Karen admonishing children to clean up after themselves, eat their food, and help smaller children.
Children ran and played, and men gathered together and talked while finishing their food. It reminded me of family reunions I have enjoyed for years, all coming together for fellowship and the company of one another, anchored by something that goes deeper than what we place on the table. I liked the new food, enjoyed the music, felt embraced by the laughter and children, and mostly I realized the best recipes in life share one common ingredient: mutual respect and value of human life and dignity.
And yes, Brunswick stew originated in North Carolina.
Malinda Dunlap Fillingim had the good fortune to move to her step-father’s hometown, Walnut Cove, NC when she was in eighth grade. Curious by nature, Malinda asked Mama Dunlap so many questions about her cooking that she finally gave up some of the old recipes she carried in her head. Malinda is an ESL teacher at Cape Fear Community College and lives in Leland with her husband.
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