Celebrating Culture Through Food
It was a perfect day to be outside. The houses that line Benefit Street served as a humble channel for the autumn breeze. In harmonious fashion, the trees swayed to the rhythm of the wind. The late afternoon sun, determined to make its presence known, used its remaining rays to penetrate the coverage of the trees, highlighting the evergreen tops with a yellow tinge. The light also managed to seep through the loose arrangement of clouds acting as a canopy for the blue sky, breaking through the cracks and crevices of the buildings to create sharp white edges. The event that many people on College Hill were thrilled to participate in was finally here: Eat the World.
The rhythm of a large ensemble of taiko drums resonated throughout Benefit Street. The colorful array of the different flags that lined the street livened the surrounding brick structures. As the ocean of people who came to surround the taiko drumming finally dispersed at the end of the performance, the hosts of Eat the World warmly welcomed everyone. I was thankful that I had not missed the event. Eat the World is an annual gathering organized and led by members of the RISD Global Initiative, a student group that promotes global citizenship through collaboration with clubs and organizations. RISD’s Eat the World is one of the school’s most anticipated food events. This year, groups representing 24 different countries, ranging from Jordan to South Korea, teamed up with RISD’s dining services to sell foods that represent some of their countries’ culinary delights. In addition to the many dishes that would satiate anyone’s palate, student performances displayed aspects of their culture as well. As I had been too busy appreciating the intricacies of the environment, I realized I was late to my shift at the Hong Kong Students Association’s food stall.
Scurrying through the wide street, I managed to find the right stall neatly arranged within an array of tables and banners. The Hong Kong Students Association was tasked with selling two popular Hong Kong-style street foods: egg waffles and curry fish balls. One person was busy with the delicate process of spreading the batter over the waffle maker. The sugary scent permeated throughout the stall, causing many onlookers and passersby to turn their noses towards us. The curry fish balls had been cooked prior to the start of the event, but they remained warm underneath a foil wrapping. As the designated curry fish ball distributor, I was quickly put to work as curious faces poked into the stall to ask for food. The waffles were admittedly far more popular than the curry fish balls—Some people explained that they had previously tried egg waffle at a dessert shop, and they were more than willing to try it again. Regardless of people’s familiarity with egg waffles, Eat the World managed to bring together people from different places. In one instance, an inquisitive young girl came up to the Hong Kong food stall to ask if she could buy both of our dishes. Her father explained that his family had come to Eat the World last year and had been impressed by the variety of cultures represented in the event. The father chuckled as the eager girl scarfed down her curry fish balls, licking her lips in a display of satisfaction. The father was more patient with his food, as he took longer to relish the savory curry sauce. He looked slightly disappointed as he finished licking the remaining drops of sauce from the bag and asked me if he could have some more. I gladly obliged. After the girl and her father finished eating their food, they hurried over to watch the Hindi singing performance.
Talking about your culture can be hard, especially if you are interacting with people you have just met. Navigating the stories of other cultures and backgrounds can be overwhelming and hard to absorb in a short amount of time. These interactions are made easier through food. The tangible representation of one’s culture can be easier to appreciate and (literally) digest. Eat the World engages people in celebrating the diversity of cultures in Providence through food. One member of the crowd explained that had it not been for this event, he never would have discovered the sweet taste of Jordanian baklava, or the savory smell of Canadian poutine. Cross-cultural exchange was not restricted to participants of the event. As I tried to encourage people to sample some Hong Kong dishes, I became increasingly interested in the other food stalls around me. I discovered a newfound taste for japchae, a South Korean dish made from stir fried glass noodles and packed with both flavor and texture. I saw many leaders of cultural clubs offering their home country’s food in exchange for another country’s dish. Such events are necessary in order to celebrate the diversity of backgrounds that exist within Providence.
As I helped load the boxes of trays, pots, and pans into the RISD dining service truck after the afternoon wound down, I was amazed by the success of the event. Hundreds of people crowded Benefit Street during the event’s peak hours. The successful coordination of the event had allowed for stall organizers to proudly display aspects of their cultures, and the many different kinds of food provided a productive and enjoyable way to engage in cross-culture exchange. The afternoon of culinary indulgence had other benefits as well. As people ate dishes at the food stalls, they frequently inquired about ways in which they could learn more about the various countries represented in the event. Some people at the Hong Kong food stall asked me if I could point them to more ways in which they could learn about Hong Kong’s culture, which they had found so appealing. As I struggled to prepare for an impending food coma, I became increasingly excited about next year’s Eat the World and the continuation of cultural celebration.