Chicago is a sanctuary city.
This does not mean it’s a haven for criminals from other countries. This does not mean people from other countries can commit crimes with impunity. It simply means that immigrants can live their lives without worrying that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will round them up and send them back to where they came from. Just like everyone else who moved here in search of a better life, from as far away as India or as near as the collar suburbs, Chicago has become their home. And home is the place where you’re always welcome.
One of the most universal practices of making others feel welcome in your home is feeding them. Food is the easiest way to create a sense of empathy, to make someone see and feel and taste the same things that you see and feel and taste. Most visitors to the Glenwood Avenue Farmers Market in Rogers Park are unlikely to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo. But if they stop by the Urban Tables booth and get a plate of Francine Maombi‘s fufu and stewed spinach and Swahili buns, they’ll learn a little bit about what it’s like to live in Congo, maybe not the part about what it’s like to survive a war, but at least the part about what it’s like to eat fresh greens stewed low and slow all day long. It doesn’t seem like anything at all, but this plate tells you a few important things: first, that Congolese ingredients are grown, not mass-produced in factories and then frozen, and second, that meals take a long time to prepare. Nobody in Congo subsists on frozen Trader Joe’s. Maombi has never written down her recipes. “If I write it down,” she says, “that would be American food.”
Food can also be a way to welcome immigrants to America. “In America,” declares Anna Tsymbaliuk, who arrived from Ukraine two years ago, “you can find everything in the world.” To eat like an American doesn’t just mean eating burgers and fries, it also means eating the food of other immigrants. Tigist Tesfaw, who immigrated from Ethiopia in 2013, finds herself shopping at the Indian markets on Devon Avenue. The spices are similar to those she uses in Ethiopian cooking, but also, her kids now really love Indian food, even more than they love KFC.
Food also brings people together who never would have met, or gotten along, in their home countries. Tsymbaliuk taught friends from Moldova and Lithuania her recipe for syrniki, fried cheese pancakes; now they eat it too. The artist Michael Rakowitz recruits Iraqi immigrants and American war veterans to cook and serve food together at his Enemy Kitchen food truck; afterward, it’s impossible for them to continue to see each other as enemies and strangers.
Making a new home requires some adjustments. Familiar foods become weird: grocery store chickens smell like death, and if you close your eyes, you can’t tell a tomato from a strawberry. Old recipes no longer work: Tesfaw still can’t get the hang of making injera with the flour that’s most available here. Americans have strange habits: they drink their coffee alone in the morning, as fuel, instead of at night as a social ritual the way Ethiopians do. And the sheer abundance makes shopping take much longer: Elizabeth Franco, from Mexico, can spend hours at a supermarket, just marveling at everything on the shelves.
We spoke with five immigrants to find out what the historian Laura Shapiro calls their “food stories,” about what they eat and how it informs their view of the world, and with Rakowitz about the Enemy Kitchen project. Several of the immigrants didn’t want to speak about politics or the circumstances that had forced them to flee their previous homes for Chicago. But it’s impossible to talk about food these days without getting political. How can we not? We live in a country now where empathy is in short supply, led by a man whose idea of building solidarity with Mexican immigrants is eating a salad out of a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo while he talks about putting up a wall between our two countries. How would things be different if he listened to Franco talk about chiles rellenos? It’s not everything, but it’s a start. —Aimee Levitt
Special thanks to Casa Michoacan, City Colleges of Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Alliance, the Heartland Alliance, RefugeeOne, and World Relief for their help in putting us in touch with our new neighbors.
By Aimee Levitt | Photos by Anjali Pinto
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