Immigrants to Chapel Hill put their cooking on display

“Old Dishes, New Dreams opened October 14 and runs through the end of November. “The number of foreign-born community members in Chapel Hill has been growing,” Luby said. “At the same time, we were not seeing many people from these diverse language communities at the library — particularly those people from refugee communities.” Photo by Michelle Cassell.


By Fraser Sherman

Understanding Chapel Hill’s history requires listening to people who are often left out of the history books, Molly Luby says.

“There is not one true history,” Luby, the coordinator for Chapel Hill Community History, said in an interview. “Stories that have been left out of the written narrative are vital to understanding who we are today, and how we can create a better future.”

Luby said that was the inspiration for Chapel Hill Public Library’s exhibit “Old Dishes, New Dreams.” The exhibit showcases the cooking and food of more than a dozen Chapel Hill home chefs from seven different language communities, including French, Spanish, Karen, Burmese and Kiswahili.

Having members of those communities share their story, Luby said, will hopefully show other immigrants the library is there for them too.

“Old Dishes, New Dreams” includes an online exhibit for anyone who can’t make it to Chapel Hill Library in person. The online exhibit includes 14 video cooking demonstrations and recipes written in both English and each cook’s native tongue. Among the videos:

  • Sharon from Columbia making Cazuela antioqueña, which includes pinto beans, plantains, bacon and bell pepper.
  • Yu Wah Thein from Myanmar cooking Yangon mohinga. It’s the city of Yangon’s local version of mohinga, a traditional soup.
  • Ingrid, from El Salvador, cooking pastelitos Salvadoreños, a chicken dish.
  • Hazel, also from El Salvador, cooks the stuffed tortillas called pupusas.
  • Ree Ree and Jue Lar from Myanmar making banana sticky rice.
  • Zekiya from Syria making a veggie dish with rice.
  • Laetitia, from the Republic of Congo, cooks gombo, a stew with okra, fish and shrimp.

Recipe cards with QR codes for information about the cooks and instructions in native languages and English translations were provided with the displays. This one is by San, home country Bruma/Myanmar and first language Karen. A recipe for Roselle paste with shrimp.
Photo by Michelle Cassell.

The exhibit and videos are a joint effort by Chapel Hill Community History and Refugee Community Partnership (RCP), a North Carolina group working with refugees and migrants. Chapel Hill Community History, Luby said, is part of the town’s library. Its funding comes primarily from grants and the Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library.

In 2020, Luby said, Chapel Hill Community History won a grant to study local foodways and set up cooking workshops spotlighting different food traditions. That became a no-go after the pandemic made in-person cooking classes a health hazard. Going back to the drawing board, the organization hit on video workshops and interviews. RCP recruited the cooks, who Luby says were all paid for their time and expertise.

“All of the cooking was done outdoors,” she added. “That was tricky to set up!”

It took a year just to interview the cooks and record the demonstrations, Luby said, plus time for a team to design and develop the exhibit. Along with Luby, the team included:  Luis Melodelgado, Library Experiences Assistant; Mandella Younge, Community History Assistant; Kayna Baldwin, Library Experiences Technician; and Hannah Olson, Marketing and Communications Coordinator.

Luby said the team hopes the exhibit will help build relationships with immigrant communities whose histories don’t always get written down: “We thought food would be a great way to introduce ourselves and to learn from the people whose stories we wanted to hear.”

Luby said the public had a great response to the exhibit’s October opening, including a number of attendees who speak languages other than English. “We are thrilled to make the connections with people in refugee communities,” she said, “that the library is a place for their stories and for them to learn and play.”

Luby said she hopes many more residents will check out “Other Dreams, Other Foods,” whether online or at the library, and try some of the recipes for themselves.

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.

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