Published in The Tyee | June 3, 2013 | Circulation: 800,000
“Cooking is a pain in the ass,” Meeru Dhalwala readily admits.
One might think the co-owner of celebrated Vij’s and Rangoli restaurants — someone who describes her own love of cooking and sharing food as akin to “my religion” — would have a rosier view of the task of preparing the family meal.
“You’re working 10-hour days, you come home, and, ‘Now I have to cook?!’ ” the successful restauranteur chuckles over the phone, from her Shanik restaurant in Seattle. She is in the middle of preparing a recipe book for the upcoming Joy of Feeding event, planned for June 30.
But Dhalwala has found her passion for food stems not from seeing it as a task — but rather as something to share with others, to support sustainability, and to celebrate cultural diversity. Joy of Feeding hopes to do just that.
In previous years, the annual fundraiser for the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm — the city’s last working farm, Dhalwala reminds me — has attracted surprise performances by acclaimed musician Dan Mangan, hundreds of food-lovers, cooks and families, and kids learning hands-on about everything agriculture, from carrots to beehives.
“Cooking, if you make something by hand and share it with somebody, is the most contagiously happy but non-intrusive way to meet somebody new,” Dhalwala explains. “The most important thing about cooking and feeding is it’s a person’s fundamental need to nourish body and soul.
“Without individual and collective nourishing, I don’t think humanity can survive…. My passion is that without us nourishing our body and soul, humanity suffers through loneliness or famine.”
That dual purpose, to bring together diverse community, and to support just and sustainable food research, is at the heart of Joy of Feeding.
The meals — lovingly prepared not by award-winning gastronomes, but by home cooks from many backgrounds? “Phenomenal,” she recalls of last year’s offerings. The energy? “Nourishing.”
Nourishment is a rich word to describe food. Its roots stretch back to the Old French “norrir” — to raise, nurture, foster, or provide for — and Latin “nutrire” — to feed, nurse, or support.
Follow nourishment’s path six millenia deeper in the linguistic soil, however, and you reach one of the simple “nu” — to swim, flow, or let flow.
“The experience of sharing a meal can be a connection,” explains UBC Farm director Amy Frye, when asked about what Joy of Feeding means to her. “It’s a celebration of local food, and bringing people together.
“The intention is to focus on home cooks, not chefs — not wanting cooking to be seen as a celebrity thing. With all the reality shows and the foodie scene, it might make cooking seem like an inaccessible adventure. These are people feeding their families with traditional recipes that have meaning or resonance for them.”
Held since 2011 on the farm’s open field, participants can wander between a series of tents, each hosting four to six cooks whose families are often involved in preparation and serving. With 16 cuisines to choose from, guests can chat, mingle, and listen to live mariachi music over appetizer-sized plates.
To “flow or let flow” has another meaning, too, when it comes to nourishment. With immigrants comprising a vast number of Vancouver’s residents, connection to one’s cultural roots are for many an essential part of community and family life. This year’s Joy of Feeding meals include cuisine from Azerbaijan, Colombia, the Caribbean, Sudan, Turkey, B.C. Interior Salish, Serbia, Fiji and Spain.
“I’m an immigrant, before I’m an American or a Canadian,” Dhalwala explains. “My nationality is that I’m an immigrant. I was four when we moved to America, and 30 when I moved to Canada. I’ve embraced the word.
“You live with community … and you stay connected to your home culture.”
For both Dhalwala and Frye, the UBC Farm is a “beloved” resource for the city not only because it provides academics with opportunities to research vital agricultural questions around how to produce food more sustainably — saving seeds, for example, or investigating organic, free range eggs.
It’s also a place where busloads of school kids are “struck by the landscape,” Frye says, and where local indigenous nations can put traditional food growing into practice. It’s a “living laboratory,” the farm’s website states, that “engages learners of all ages.”
Joy of Feeding, like the farm, has a special focus on families, Frye says. Children under 13 are free with a parent or guardian, and there will be plenty of activities for them. Engaging youth in growing food is for many a transformative experience.
“I grew up running around on my grandparents’ farm,” Frye recalls of her childhood in Minnesota. “They had angus beef cattle.
“I recall running around in the barn. I had a horse there as well. I enjoyed being able to run around outside with the barn calves. I went away from that in my studies, thinking I’d study history or environmental studies, but I came back to food studies. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!”
With Joy of Feeding held in the midst of UBC Farm’s 24-hectare mix of agricultural and forest land, organizers hope that just being in that pastoral setting — on top of the food, company and music — will be nourishing itself.
“The farm is just beautiful,” Dhalwala says. “It’s Vancouver’s last working farm.
“That’s the magic question: How do we feed the world sustainably — not just upper-class or educated people? How do we share this ability to healthily feed the world? As a restauranteur, that’s what tugs at my heart.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about how my $29 lamb popsicles are only feeding a tiny, tiny sliver of the world’s society. That’s what I love about the farm — it’s for everybody.”