Artist Lisa Gross, who founded the League of Kitchens, acknowledges that each of its workshops starts off a bit awkwardly, as six participants enter an unfamiliar neighborhood and step into a stranger’s home. Yet after five and a half hours of cooking and eating together, all led by an immigrant instructor based on her home country’s traditions, there’s a dynamic cross-cultural experience.
“Even in New York, which is incredibly diverse, there’s often very little meaningful interaction between immigrants and non-immigrants, or other immigrant groups, and the interactions that occur are mostly service-based, like a guy at a bodega or a server in a restaurant,” Gross told Hyperallergic over the phone. “In this situation, the immigrant is the expert, the host, the one who is in the position of control, and there really is this forum for a meaningful exchange.”
The League of Kitchens, which launched last February in New York City, was conceived as a social practice art project that would be financially self-sustaining and offer instructors reliable part-time work. Each of the workshops, whether it involves making yogurt and hummus from scratch with Jeanette of Lebanon in Bay Ridge or marinating and stewing goat shoulder with Dolly of Trinidad in her outdoor kitchen in South Ozone Park, is an immersion in the global food traditions thriving in the city’s homes.
“For a long time I’ve been interested in the way that food can be a very powerful access point into a larger conversation about a lot of different social and political topics,” Gross said. Back in 2011, she started the Boston Tree Party, where pairs of heirloom apple trees were planted around the city as a collaborative network of urban agriculture, and prior to that her Urban Homesteader’s League encouraged skill-sharing for sustainable urban cooking and eating.
Essential to the League of Kitchens are its instructors’ stories, shared over an introductory homemade lunch and the cooking, all in an intimate space far different from the large, sterile, commercial kitchen spaces of most cooking classes. The instructors, none of whom had taught before, were recruited through language schools, immigrant organizations, and even Craigslist, and selected through interviews and in-home auditions.
Nawida of Afghanistan, the youngest instructor, was found through the International Rescue Committee. She formerly cooked three times a day for 30 people at her mother-in-law’s home in Pakistan, and later escaped her abusive husband and came with her son as a refugee to the United States. “For her, cooking was a thing that she always loved, and when she was living with her mother-in-law in Pakistan, cooking was the only way she got any respect. It was almost like a survival strategy for her,” Gross said.
Then there is Sunny of South Korea, who came to the US in the 1980s, eventually earned a master’s degree in social work, and still cooks everything from scratch. Soy sauce ferments on the front stoop of her home in Queens, and in her backyard garden are over 30 types of vegetables and seven fruit trees. “She has this culinary knowledge that younger Koreans have lost,” said Gross, who is herself the daughter of a Korean immigrant and a Jewish New Yorker.
The project is continuing to evolve, with more workshops planned for September once the summer heat dies down, and a cookbook in the works.
“This actually really makes a difference in the lives of our instructors and the fact that it can be a long-term project means that it makes a difference too for the participants, just more people can do it and more people hear about it over time,” Gross said. “There’s no better way to get to know another culture than being a guest in their home. A part of the world that previously felt somewhat abstract suddenly feels very personal and real.”
Upcoming workshops from the League of Kitchens are listed online.