This summer when I attended the International Food Bloggers’ Conference, I was so excited when Lauren McElwain gave a lightening talk. When I heard her talk about her nonprofit organization, I knew right away that we were kindred spirits and that I had to interview her for The Welcoming Table.
I am really excited to introduce you to Lauren. She is a wife and mom of three, a speech language pathologist, and the founder of Cooking As a First Language, an organization that provides cross-cultural cooking classes.
Welcome to The Welcoming Table, Lauren!
Can you tell us how Cooking as a First Language started?
Our organization started in Tupelo, MS in 2017. Though Tupelo is a small southern town, we are proud to have a very diverse community.
The two main reasons we have many from international cultures in our community are because of a large Toyota manufacturing plant down the road in Blue Springs, MS and a fantastic medical center and community. Families move here for jobs in many fields, of course, but mainly for those two opportunities.
Thanks to Toyota, we have a large Japanese community with at least 30 families living here all the time. Most of these jobs are temporary — from 3-5 years — so families come and go, but the number stays the same. This has led to the opening of great Japanese restaurants, the planting of cherry blossom trees surrounding a lake in one of our local parks, and a big Cherry Blossom Festival at that park each year.
Cooking as a First Language was born when some Japanese ladies (moms of my kids’ friends at school) saw my personal food blog on social media. They reached out to me and asked if I could teach them an American cooking class and assist them in navigating our local grocery store. We decided on a day and time that they would come to my house to learn some Deep South staples (Poppyseed Chicken, 7-Layer Salad and Bacon Green Beans).
Communication over social media was not a problem because these ladies have translator apps on their phones. But the day they showed up for the cooking class, I realized they spoke no English.
But I was surprised and inspired to see that that didn’t matter at all.
Once we got in my kitchen and started preparing a meal together, we bonded faster than we would have through any spoken conversation. Our communication was cooking in my kitchen and sharing a meal together around my table.
Since it was such a success, we decided we wanted to do it again, and I asked them to teach me and some friends how to make sushi. That class was a hit, too, and we all shared pictures on social media. Comments and messages started flowing in from people who wanted to participate, either by taking a class or teaching.
A friend from India volunteered to do the next one. After that, a lady from Mexico (who is now a good friend of mine and a CFL board member) reached out to me to ask to teach one. Since then, we’ve had multiple Indian and Mexican classes, more sushi classes, Korean, Cuban, Venezuelan, Ecuadorian, Chinese dumpling, Caribbean, Bangladeshi and more. We have several others lined up for this fall.
Every class is authentic and taught by a person who is a member of the Tupelo community but from a particular culture. We also offer US classes such as soul food and New Orleans for anyone, but mainly targeting international community members. I had a request for a canning class, and I would love to do a chocolate chip cookie making class.
What does building friendships and community through food mean to you?
I am endlessly inspired and excited by the fact that no matter where we come from or what we believe, we can all agree that food is good and can connect over our enjoyment of it. We can lay aside our differences when we cook together and sit around a table together eating. Food brings about relationships and compassion and understanding. When we build that foundation, the possibilities for what we can accomplish together are endless.
What it looks like in my life: The past few months have been very busy for my family, but when things are a bit slower, my husband and I try to host friends for dinner frequently. We like to invite individuals we don’t know very well and would like to get to know better. We also open our home for the CFL cooking classes. So we are intentional about hosting a steady stream of people who we may not have connected with in any other way. Of course, we love to host our close friends, too. But bringing a diverse group of people together in our home is what ignites our souls!
Do you have any tips for reaching out to people of other cultures?
You can probably guess what I’ll say…find a way to work food into it. Maybe reach out to someone and ask them to meet for dinner at a restaurant. Or go to a cooking class together. If you love hosting people in your home, invite some new friends over for dinner or even just a little get-together with finger foods. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
I find that when I’m not sure what to say to people, a conversation about food is a great way to break the ice. It may sound silly, but we all have our opinions about things…what should the perfect chocolate chip cookie be like? crunchy or soft? What is the best way to cook a steak? What restaurant in town has the best sushi? I could go on and on.
What would you say is your personal entertaining style?
When people come to our house for dinner, it is very laid back. We have three young kids, so our house is never completely perfectly tidy. We serve food family style at our dining room table that we make sure to fit everyone around — no splitting off for a few people at the kitchen table and everyone else in the dining room. We pull every chair and bench we can find up to our large dining room table.
What are 3 things you couldn’t do without when entertaining or hosting Cooking as a First Language classes?
Three things I can’t do without when entertaining personally are fresh ingredients (garlic, herbs, citrus fruits); my favorite serving dishes, including an old soup tureen with a vibrant asian design that I found at an estate sale; and great recipes that are a joy to prepare.
Three things I can’t do without at a CFL class are cutting boards! (it’s great when everyone has one), our logo aprons, and a table large enough that every class attendee can sit around it.
Thank you so much, Lauren, for sharing about your organization with us.
Cooking As a First Language just started their second branch in Oxford, Mississippi, and I can’t wait to see them grow even more. Lauren is right — food is such a great way to connect with others, even across cultures. You can learn a lot about a people through their food, and cooking classes are such an ingenious way to do that.
I love, love, love the mission of Cooking As a First Language, and I hope that you enjoyed learning about the organization as much as I did.
Have you connected with people from other cultures over food? Tell me about it in the comments!