Boston College (BC) Dining Services has been partnering with Lynne Christy Anderson, the school’s director of English language learning, on culinary events for her students for years. However, one held last month held special resonance as it came amidst a brewing political controversy regarding immigration policy and focused on the cuisine of one of the countries at the center of the imbroglio: Syria.
The event, Cooking Across Borders: Foods From Syria, was held in February with some 60 international and English-as a second-language students representing a variety of cultures from around the world.
They were separated into five teams, and each was assigned to prepare a specific dish. The group dined on the finished dishes.
The genesis of the idea came when Anderson approached Kann, with whom she had worked previously on events for her food writing classes, to see if something could be done to show campus solidarity at a time of anxiety about immigration status for some members of the campus community.
It was decided that the event should involve food.
“People cooking together and eating together often breaks barriers and builds community,” Kann explains. “It was a natural.”
The recipes for the event were adapted from Anderson’s book “Breaking Bread: Recipes and Stories from Immigrant Kitchens” with the assistance of BC Dining’s associate director of food & beverage, Michael Kann, and Executive Chef Frank Bailey.
Students assemble their dishes from the courses they prepared during the Cooking Across Borders event held recently at Boston College. Photo: Boston College Dining Services
The dishes included shorbit adas, a red lentil soup; ottolenghi fattoush, a tomato/cucumber salad that incorporates shredded pieces of pita bread; za’atar spiced chicken; labneh, a cheese made from yogurt, with vegetables; hummus; pita bread; and Syrian sweets like baklava and ghraybeh (a kind of sugar cookie) for dessert.
So why Syria? Originally there was talk of including all seven countries on the administration’s first immigration restriction list, Kann says. But it was soon apparent that that was too ambitious, so the focus was pared down to a single cuisine that lent itself to overcoming the limitations the event had to cope with.
“It would take a lot of resources,” Kann explains. “We don’t have great training kitchen facilities. We do have great operational kitchens, but those aren’t conducive to people learning to cook or coming together to cook.”
The event took place in a small function room using butane burners to do basic cooking and heating. Significant cooking activities, such as baking the za’atar chicken, were done in ovens in a professional production kitchen and then transported to the event room.
Anderson and Kann briefly considered opening the event to the whole campus, but soon decided it needed to be limited for practical and logistic reasons.
“This was by its nature a cooking program, so it wasn’t just an event,” Kann says. “They actually came in and made the food, so we had to keep it limited. You couldn’t have 200 people do that.”
Kann says the dishes were chosen both to collectively constitute a natural multicourse meal and also because the recipes were conducive to preparation by teams of five.
The event kicked off with a short socialization period as attendees filtered in. Because they were from different campus groups that weren’t very familiar with each other and the goal was to forge community across these cultural barriers, the attendees were assigned randomly to the teams.
Anderson, Kann and Bailey were there to instruct and help, but the students at each station did the bulk of the work, and in the process got to know each other.
“We had them doing things like mincing garlic, pureeing hummus and making the bread salad,” Kann says.
When everything was prepared, the group sat down and shared the food.
“There was a lot of interaction and everyone had fun. It was great,” Kann summarizes.