I am in my last two months living overseas, and am without a doubt focused on food and cooking, which is much easier than organizing and packing. While part of me is thrilled to go back to convenience foods and take-out, I fear I will lose the ritual of cooking that has become key to building relationships and learning to deal with what is in front of me.
I spend hours with friends wandering the fruit and vegetable stands buying whatever is in season, and going home and calling those same friends to find out what meal they are preparing with what we found. Sometimes we’re faced with eggplant for weeks, and then that will be gone with cabbage in its place.
As part of an expat community where people come from many different countries, the recipes we trade are often wildly different. These dishes would sometimes delight, sometimes shock, and once in a while disgust my family (think carrot and broccoli pizza with mayonnaise).
I knew an expat cooking club existed here in Tbilisi, and even have a few friends that are part of it; but the thought of cooking for fun sounded exhausting (the process already takes so long!) so I never joined. But in my last couple of months here, I am starting to look at things I once passed by - museums, little stores I’ve always wanted to go into, and activities I never tried.
After talking with some of the members, I found that the cooking club is an organized version of the cooking ritual that I had been using to deal with being a stranger in a strange land: a reason to get together, develop friendships, and a lesson on how to deal with what you have, instead of what you’re used to. Only in this group, they have much better food.
For Amy Austermiller, an American who has lived overseas for the past 14 years, cooking club is like being at an old friend’s house, a feeling that most expats don’t get to experience often because best friends are usually across the globe. “Old members jump right into a meeting at someone’s house - taking out pots, looking for knives and just chatting away as we receive directions and catch up on all topics Tbilisi. There is always such a sense of community when you cook and then sit down to eat together.”
Other members find that it is a good way to share part of yourself with people you may not know well through food you cook. Naira Delphia, another seasoned expat and from Armenia, identifies the food people make by the person who made it. “Funny thing is if I got a recipe from a certain person, we call it with their name, e.g. Michelle’s salmon, Amy’s pumpkin roll or Marta’s cake.”
And while Delphia often uses the recipes she learns at home, the club is more about being with people who can have a good time together over a shared interest. “It’s not important to me how much we cooked and ate, as long as we had fun cooking.”
Coming together over food, also gives people a way to find similarities in cultures that might start friendships. Ethel Tohver, from Estonia, says she found there are as many similarities as differences. “There are no bad experiences in cooking club. Plenty of interesting and different experiences, like horsemeat, but at the same time as many experiences where you recognize that we are not so different.”
For Michelle Der Ohanesian, an Armenian-American, it is a flashback to the cultural value of food that her father taught her years earlier and the family-style atmosphere that makes it feel homey. “When my Armenian father retired and started cooking dishes from the home country I began to understand how cooking can be cultural. It's been great to be here and in fact have Armenian ladies in the cooking group to see how some familiar dishes are made in context. You really see how cooking and culture are intertwined in these meetings.”
But what Der Ohanesian likes most is how it all happens so naturally, like a family when actual family is far away. “What I like best is the easy, casual style we have. I don't know how it worked out this way, perhaps it's because we all love food and cooking but we just all get along. We chat, we randomly wander into the kitchen to help chop or clean dishes; we move on to munch on something. It's hard to describe. It's organic. It's unplanned.”
For expats, or really anyone who lives away from their home, these make-shift family and friend opportunities are key to survival, whether it is cooking club or hiking group or a regular happy hour. I’ve made many good friends that I probably never would have even had a second coffee with if I had been in my comfort zone. But you need each other, and so you take the time to find something in common. And by developing rituals together, you find a way to connect with each other and the place you’re in.
By Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer