Bellies without Borders

By Divya Murthy

Bringing people together with a common, delicious denominator.

 Vekonda Luangaphay with her family. Photo by Saniya More.

Vekonda Luangaphay with her family. Photo by Saniya More.

Twinkling notes of chimes played across the hall as people milled around, their green paper bowls and plates in hand. A buffet greeted them, but not in the familiar map of appetizer, main, desserts and drinks. The night’s gastronomical map, in fact, extended across continents and oceans.

The 15th My Lucky Tummy Pop-Up was held at the Bishop Harrison Diocesan Center on Saturday, January 27. Nearly 350 people from in and around Syracuse flocked through the doors to sample foods from Savannah, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos and Vietnam.

The attendees sat down with their plates of food at long tables with family and friends, neighbors and strangers alike. The whole point of the pop-up was to set up the diners on a blind date with each other. A myriad of communities exists in the heart of the community, but somehow feels out of reach for many people, if not for events like the pop-up.

Some, like Sarah Eisel and her mother Randy Wheat, came to indulge their palates with a diverse dinner plate. Their family has grown into a melting pot, they said, with aunts, uncles and cousins from Germany, China, Mexico and England. They’ve developed a taste for cuisines that break borders.

“These are families, sharing their food with us, which is a real gift,” said Eisel. “We’ve been able to sit at a table with people with whom we don’t share a common language. And you can eat a meal and feel like you really communicated with somebody.”

Both Eisel and Wheat agreed on the need for greater mutual understanding and kindliness among the community.

“You cannot look at a person in their eye, smile at each other and talk and not be connected to them,” Wheat said. “I think one good way of connecting in a human-to-human way, not in a country-to-country way is through food. It’s a huge part of everyone’s life and culture. We have people in our human village of Syracuse who are contributing all kinds of different ways.”

The diners went back twice, thrice and four times for these contributions: collard greens tossed with beef and pork, family yogurt doused in cilantro, injera bread with egg and honey, salmon soup, pandan leaves and wildflower honey beer.  A family selling homemade jams of quince sold out within an hour. The hosts barely had time to field compliments on their cooking, as they flew in and out of the kitchens replacing the fast-disappearing food.

But the food didn’t complete the experience: Adam Sudmann, host of the pop-up and owner of With Love restaurant, announced the start of a cooking class in another room down the hall. Small children ran around Sudmann, clutching at his flannel sleeves and playing at the art table.

Sudmann says he thinks a welcoming atmosphere with comforting food is a good first step to fostering unity in the community.

“We’re all kind of spooked by each other. People are apprehensive or have sort of flat pictures in their head of what a Somali person is or what a Burmese person is,” he said. “It’s very flat, the characters in their head, as all characters are, unless you meet them and they start to get round and interesting. Food’s a great way to get people meeting strangers. I think we should start talking to strangers more.”

Sudmann hopes to host the next pop-up in April in the Northside neighborhood of Syracuse, in an effort to make the event more accessible to a broader group of people.

 

Why Is My Lucky Tummy Important? The Chefs Answer

 Photo by Saniya More.

Photo by Saniya More.

Venus Likulumbi, Savannah:

“We need to know our central New York community, our neighbors, all over the world and to know that everybody can come together with a good plate of food and as far as food of Savannah — it’s something new, but it’s always been there, and now it’s accessible for everyone to come and enjoy.”

 
 Photo by Saniya More.

Photo by Saniya More.

Habiba Boru, Ethiopia:

“Events like this are very important in our community because it unites strangers. Maybe some of these people were neighbors and didn’t know each other, but tonight they’ll get to know each other because they’re sitting right across from each other round the table, sharing conversation and a delicious meal and all the conversation you just heard!”

 
 Photo by Saniya More.

Photo by Saniya More.

Tamana Tajik, Iran:

“It is important because you can have an opportunity to introduce part of your culture to American traditional culture.”

 
 Photo by Saniya More.

Photo by Saniya More.

Vekonda Luangaphay, Laos:

“I think it helps to start a peak of interest for people to get to know other cultures through food. People love to fill their bellies, hence the title “My Lucky Tummy.” And it’s just something to step away from the usual soups, sandwiches and pastas.

 
 Photo by Saniya More.

Photo by Saniya More.

Ngoc Huynh, Vietnam:

In Syracuse, we have some restaurants, some Thai, some Indian, but there’s ton more. What is great here is that these are dishes made by people who live in this community. There are all kinds of backgrounds from different countries, and by having these members of the community, they get to enjoy a part of culture. Food is all part of culture. If people don’t come here to get it, where else will they get it in Syracuse?”


Divya Murthy, a junior at Newhouse, is a tiny bespectacled blot on the orange landscape of Syracuse University. She is under the impression that she’s the fourth PowerPuff Girl, but when she’s not using her creativity thus, she enjoys drinking filter coffee, reading Wodehouse novels and imagining life without the pumpkin spice latte.