There is perhaps no easier way to think about the riches immigrants bring to America than by thinking about food. A quick glance at almost any menu makes it clear that together we weave a tapestry of flavors so much more delicious in diversity. This was just the sort of message Interlink Books and editor Leyla Moushabeck wanted to convey with a new cookbook of recipes by first- and second-generation immigrant chefs.
We caught up with Moushabeck to learn more about this special project.
What prompted The Immigrant Cookbook?
Two years ago, Interlink published its first fundraising cookbook, Soup for Syria, in which chefs from around the world shared their soup recipes, and we donated all proceeds to the UNHCR’s food relief program for Syrian refugees. It raised over half a million dollars globally and sprung a movement.
We have since built on this and published one fundraising cookbook per year. In these times of great political dissolution and hostility, particularly surrounding the issue of immigration, we wanted to honor the wealth that cultural diversity brings our society. We felt we could do something in a similar format to celebrate the vast contribution of immigrants to American food culture, and raise funds for the important (now more than ever) work of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the ACLU’s Immigrant’s Rights Project, to support the rights of the many immigrants who contribute to our economy and culture.
Tell me about the book? What can readers expect to find inside?
The Immigrant Cookbook features nearly 80 of the first- and second-generation immigrants at the forefront of American food culture. Each contributor has shared a recipe and their story. You will find festive dishes, everyday comfort food, dishes served after synagogue, or for Christmas dinner, or to break the Ramadan fast. Some are traditional recipes, passed down through generations; some are a rediscovery of cultures left behind, and some are inspired by a mix of cultures and ingredients.
How did you choose recipes and contributors?
A lot of research. We read food columns and magazine features, and asked our cookbook authors and food contacts for their recommendations. Alice Waters and Barbara Abdeni Massaad (who we worked with for Soup for Syria) were especially helpful. And in fact, it was no great challenge to find immigrants doing interesting things with food.
We wanted to feature a diverse range of people, not just ethnically, but also professionally: The book features top chefs, cookbook authors, television personalities, and food influencers, from James Beard Award winners and Michelin-starred restaurant chefs, to beloved neighborhood favorites and emerging voices in food writing. Some were approached because they are using food in interesting ways — to tell stories or foster discussion. Many of the chefs and cookbook authors in this book use their food as a tool for activism. Every recipe was chosen because it means something to the chef, and speaks to their personal journey.
How many countries are represented in the book?
The contributors represent about 60 different countries of origin, but ultimately this is a cookbook about the many facets of American cuisine. Some of the recipes featured are traditional, like Tsiona Bellete’s Doro Wot (a spicy Ethiopian chicken stew) or Daniel Boulud’s Lyonnaise Salad with Lardons. Some recipes combine traditional flavors with local home-grown produce, such as Serge Madikians’s Armenian-Style Chilled Yogurt Soup; and some are culturally unspecific, but influenced in some way by the chef’s background.
What do you find most special about this book?
The book brings together such a diverse range of experiences, but read side-by-side, you can find a shared relationship between food and home that we can all relate to. Whether the dish is traditional or the result of cultural collision, each is emotionally important to the chef who created it, and this comes through in the food. Though each recipe offers an opportunity to learn about a culture that is perhaps unfamiliar, there is also a unifying aspect to this book that is very special.
What were some of the stories that moved you as you compiled the book?
For me, Laila el-Haddad’s Gazan Hot Tomato and Dill Salad is very special because it is a traditional recipe made using a mortar (called a zibdiya) made from red Gazan clay. These are hard to come by due to constant closures, so her zibdiya has become a cherished symbol of her homeland: “a constant reminder that though we may be thousands of miles (and often an unattainable reality) away, we have a part of that earth with us, and we can taste home wherever we go.”
Ana Sofía Peláez also beautifully expresses a desire to connect with her heritage through the few personal objects her family brought with them from Cuba, and the recipes shared by friends and family. Her warm cornmeal pudding is adapted from a 1920s Cuban cookbook, so tattered from use that “a small part of it disappears with each reading.” I have my own treasured cookbooks that are food-splattered and falling apart, so I loved this description.
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Cristina Martinez came to the US as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and built her career, first from her home kitchen, and then opening a widely celebrated Philadelphia barbacoa restaurant. She recounts the childhood chore of picking purslane leaves in preparation for Verdolagas con Costilla de Puerco (Pork Ribs with Purslane), which is the first dish she requests when her mother visits. While the dish may not be familiar to everyone, so many of us have childhood favorites that taste best when they are made by mothers or grandmothers, fathers or grandfathers, or favorite relatives.
What is your hope for this cookbook as you prepare to send it out into the world?
I think the meeting of cultures can make for the most interesting foods, and the recipes in this book are fantastic. I hope people will treasure the book, adopt something unfamiliar into their repertoire, and perhaps gain some insight into the places and experiences behind these dishes. I think food is such a wonderful way to inspire cultural understanding.
While the book can’t represent every immigrant experience, I hope it will highlight some of the valuable ways our culture is shaped by ethnic diversity. And of course, I hope we can successfully raise funds for the ACLU’s work to support the rights of the many immigrants who contribute to our economy and culture in sometimes less prominent, but equally significant ways.