It started with a meatball.
Anna Francese Gass, born in Italy and raised in Rhode Island, grew up devouring her mom’s meatballs slathered in tomato sauce. Her mother learned how to make the dish in a tiny countryside kitchen in Calabria. “Visiting my grandmother in Italy always felt so familiar to me — the same aromas, ingredients, and methods used in our home in the United States had origins on my grandmother’s stove,” writes Francese Gass in “Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women” (Harper Design, 2019). “My mother carried all of it in her head and heart when she left her homeland for a better life abroad.”
Make the recipe: Daisy’s Steamed Fish
“Heirloom Kitchen” is one of several new cookbook anthologies championing the recipes and stories of immigrants who now call the United States (and, in one case, England) home. They are welcome reminders, during a time of anti-immigrant rhetoric and government policies, of the rich cultural and culinary variety immigrants bring.
Some leave their homeland for love or economic or educational opportunities; others escape violence or political or religious persecution. Many are home cooks: mothers trying to feed their families well while maintaining a connection to their cultures of origin. Some have gone on to cook professionally. These books have different flavors and varying political undercurrents, but they all express appreciation for the foodways of communities from around the globe.
The dishes found in their pages — from pozole and pupusas to bibimbap and barberry rice — confirm that diversity is indeed delicious.
Immigrants are us
A few years ago, Francese Gass, a professional chef, recipe tester and contributor to Food52, was watching her mom make meatballs when she realized she didn’t have the recipe down pat. What spice blend did her mother use? How many eggs? How many cups of bread crumbs? She vowed then and there to preserve her mother’s recipes for her three children and generations to come. (Her mom’s meatballs, it turns out, are delicate and moist, light on bread crumbs, and include a half-cup of sauce in the mix. They’re also baked, not fried, and then poached in sauce.)
A book idea was born. Francese Gass decided to ask friends, all children of immigrants, if she could “borrow” their mothers or grandmothers for a day in their kitchens so that she could document their favorite childhood recipes for posterity. She had no shortage of takers.
Make the recipe: Cornmeal and Okra
The author, who left the corporate financial world to pursue a culinary career, traveled around the country to collect recipes with roots in Greece, Lebanon, Ghana, Mexico, Korea and beyond. She also collected stories of what it was like for each woman to leave everything behind to start over in a new land.
We meet 85-year-old Palestinian Fethie Aboweznah Loutfi, a child of goat farmers, who fled with her family across the desert and barefoot from Yaffa to Jordan in search of safety. Denied entry, they continued on to Syria, and in a refugee camp there, she fell in love with an Albanian refugee; they married, had a son and decided to move to the United States in search of a better life. The couple raised eight children in New York; Loutfi worked as a member of the United Nations maintenance staff. Used to cooking for a crowd — as her Palestinian rice dish maqluba attests — she delights in feeding her family, which includes members of Muslim, Catholic and Jewish faiths.
The book, organized around geographic regions, includes 100 recipes from 45 contributors. A common thread: re-creating the comfort of home through cooking. “Food is love. You can taste it in the recipes these women, all mothers, shared with me,” Francese Gass says. “Food made from the heart and soul is the best food.”
Fusion cuisine isn’t a term these women bandy about. But it is their lived experience. Sheila Brathwaite Haire was raised primarily in Panama, but her grandparents hailed from Barbados and Jamaica. Her recipes reflect her mixed heritage: arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and Bajan cou cou (cornmeal and okra), considered the national dish of Barbados.
Francese Gass hopes readers discover new tastes in “Heirloom Kitchen.” She did: The French Culinary Institute graduate hadn’t cooked with preserved lemons or winter melon before recipe testing for the book, and she had never eaten borscht.
The book includes images of ephemera from the homelands of these cooks. There’s a 50-year-old spoon that Bea Pisker Trifunac brought with her from Serbia; Soon Sun Kang Huh’s recipe book handwritten in Korean, and the metric measuring cup Anke Gelbin tucked into her suitcase before leaving Germany. “These women cook with simple tools to make delicious food,” Francese Gass says. “In their kitchens, there wasn’t a sous vide machine or Instant Pot in sight.”
Living the dream
The women in “We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream” by Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa (Chronicle Books, 2019) may have started as home cooks, but they’re intent on making a living at their craft. Many of the alumni from the San Francisco nonprofit kitchen incubator program (“la cocina” means the kitchen in Spanish) got their start selling street food, hosting pop-ups or running farmers market stands; a sizable group has gone on to own their own bricks-and-mortar businesses.
Rising stars include Nite Yun of Cambodian restaurant Nyum Bai and Reem Assil of Reem’s California, a Palestinian bakery. Both were semifinalists this year for James Beard Awards.
The book features 100 recipes from more than 40 program participants. It showcases regional Mexican cuisine, along with dishes that hail from the Philippines, Senegal, Iran, Nepal, El Salvador and elsewhere. Mole, miso, muhammara, momos, mac and cheese: This brightly hued book has them all.
Each contributor’s profile provides a compelling account of the resilience of the mostly low-income immigrant women and women of color who — against such obstacles as language barriers, gentrification and access to capital — flourish in the competitive and costly Bay Area food bubble, thanks to La Cocina.
Cooking, comfort and community
“Together: Our Community Cookbook” by the Hubb Community Kitchen (Clarkson Potter, 2018) features 50 recipes by women who cooked in the aftermath of the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017. Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Center opened its doors to displaced residents. Women who needed a place to prepare fresh meals for their families began cooking together in the mosque’s kitchen. The Hubb Community Kitchen (hubb means “love” in Arabic) became a source of support, comfort and sustenance for Grenfell residents, many with roots in far-flung places, including Algeria, Egypt, India, Iraq, Morocco, Russia, Uganda and Yemen.
The cookbook includes a foreword by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, an advocate for the program. After the duchess, who began making under-the-radar visits to the mosque, learned the kitchen was open only two days a week because of a lack of money, she suggested a cookbook, produced with the help of the Royal Foundation, the young royals’ charitable arm. The book has sold more than 130,000 copies worldwide; proceeds have been used to refurbish Al-Manaar’s kitchen, now open seven days a week, and provide training.
Recipe headnotes offer a snapshot of the women behind the book. Ahlam Saeid earned a master’s degree in chemistry in her native Iraq, from which her recipe for green rice originates. Lillian Olwa’s carrot and onion chapatis are a nod to her childhood growing up in Uganda. Olwa learned to cook after the Grenfell fire; she grew tired of eating takeout food while living in temporary housing.
Coming soon: “A Place at the Table: New American Recipes from the Nation’s Top Foreign-Born Chefs” (Prestel, September 2019) by Gabrielle Langholtz and Rick Kinsel of the Vilcek Foundation, which seeks to raise awareness of U.S. immigrant contributions — including the culinary kind. Top chefs in its pages include Dominique Crenn, Corey Lee, Daniela Soto-Innes, Marcus Samuelsson and Yun.
Also of note: “The Immigrant Cookbook” (Interlink Books, 2017), edited by Leyla Moushabeck, which also features recipes from U.S. professional chefs with recent immigrant roots. They include such James Beard Award-winning chefs as José Andrés and Ana Sortun, as well as emerging culinary talents, such as Assil and Tunde Wey. Grammy-award-winning musician Ziggy Marley pops up in its pages with a coconut fish dish.
“The Immigrant Cookbook” also sports the most pointed subtitle of the bunch: “Recipes That Make America Great Again.” No fake news in that sentiment.
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