by Nayan Chavan
For the last four years, I volunteered as a teen chef at the Heimerdinger Foundation’s Meals for Health and Healing. Our primary objective is to prepare meals that cater to the dietary restrictions of cancer patients. This program works out of a church kitchen, a church of a different faith than my own. Located in the heart of the exclusive Green Hills section of Nashville, the church’s parking lot is an endless sea of asphalt punctuated by a giant spire that seemingly pierces the heavens.
Because I am of Indian descent, I sometimes have to explain myself to members of the church managing the door buzzers who wonder what an Indian girl is doing at their sanctuary. They always let me in, of course, but sometimes not without asking why I am there.
Because these meals must fit the very health specific needs of cancer patients, we often use spices otherwise foreign to American cuisine. To me, however, the names of turmeric, tamarind, and garam masala all ring the bell of my Indian heritage. These, of course, are not the ingredients one can find in traditional Southern homemade fried chicken and mashed potatoes, but those foods also are not going to add years to a lifespan. Oftentimes I had to explain to some of the elderly church ladies why our menus omitted the old traditions of fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread. Old traditions, even though unhealthy, still die hard.
I live in suburban Franklin where there are seemingly more SUVs than people. Those of different skin colors, including my parents, strive to appear fully assimilated into the local affluent white culture. We retain our cultural and religious beliefs, mind you, some good and some bad. There are those in my community who still believe in the homogenous “melting pot” of America, a tired old metaphor that captures neither my beliefs nor my attitude toward my culture and diversity. If working in the kitchen of a Christian church has taught me anything, it is that the diversity of spice in a recipe only adds to the ingredients while retaining its unique flavor and contribution to an endless menu. You can always add more spices to the mix, but each will retain its flavor enough to be recognized and appreciated.
Many of the patients being served through this program found these “foreign” spices, in fact, were able to please their palette and they were introduced to a whole new world that otherwise would have been unknown. The recipes in our human souls are punctuated with our respective spices not just to keep life from being bland but for a humanity starving for the richness that spices bring to a world far beyond fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
As diverse individuals, we only enrich and strengthen a diverse culture of ideas and beliefs, and the smaller communities of which we are a part, when we can identify and savor the spices that we bring to the meals that we serve the world around us.
For more information, visit: https://www.heimerdingerfoundation.com/teens/