The Universal Language of Food

Cooking for Intercultural Competence and Compassion

By Andrea Caluori-Rivera
MassLIFT AmeriCorps Member at Hilltown Land Trust & Kestrel Land Trust

Submitted by Andrea Caluori-Rivera

Food connects us. From the hands and land that grow and nurture our ingredients to the moment we gather together and share a meal, food has the power to reveal the cultural layers that help us learn more about identity and place.

While living in Italy in 2008, I stayed with an older couple in Cernusco sul Naviglio, a town along the outskirts of Milan in Northern Italy. The husband was from Morocco and the wife a native Italian.  As a foreigner in another country, it wasn’t easy making new friends.  Even though I spoke the language and understood the culture, I often found myself alone, reading a book in my room or taking long walks to the center of town. The husband, Ahmed*, noticed my loneliness. One afternoon, he brought me to a nearby small city where his extended family lived. It was one of the few times I ventured outside of Cernusco.

When I arrived, everyone was helping to prepare an early afternoon meal.  Ahmed’s nephew, (later to become one of my few friends in Italy) asked me: Vorresti una forchetta? (‘Would you like a fork?’)  I thought, “A fork? Of course I’d want a fork if I were to eat, wouldn’t I?”  Before I could answer, Ahmed responded. To be sure I understood, he spoke in Italian rather than his native Moroccan dialect: No, lei mangerà come noi. (‘No, she will eat like we do’).

We all sat down at a small round table, a large plate in the center with couscous and lamb stew.  Each person was given a large piece of bread, a small plate, and a napkin; I saw no silverware. Ahmed looked at me as I watched everyone else use the bread to scoop up delicious mouthfuls of the tender lamb and I understood. So I picked up my bread and joined in the feast.  It was the most memorable meal I had in Italy.

I share this story because it was one of the first few moments in my life where I understood what it meant to be culturally aware.  Food became the door to not just being an outsider but rather a companion.  When I came back to the United States, I took a basic course on intercultural competence, the ability to communicate with other cultures appropriately and – I would also say – compassionately. I realized that the preparation of a meal and gathering together in the spirit of community is a profound way to reach beyond the point of observation and build the foundation for empathy, awareness, and most importantly – friendship. 

Reflecting on my experiences, I knew food would be a great way to introduce young people, now citizens of a vast global society, to a more compassionate and open-minded perspective of our world’s people and cultures. During my AmeriCorps service at a local Pioneer Valley school last year, I planned and taught two mini-courses on cooking ethnic cuisines. My objective was to encourage young people to recognize cultural identities beyond their own by preparing and tasting different flavors as a small community. Food is social in nature and combines many other aspects of culture: art, language, history, agriculture and tradition.  We gather together to share, eat, and enjoy company – hence the potluck. From the land that grows our food to the hands that pick, prepare and serve it, food connects us.  My ultimate hope was to help build a stronger sense of compassion for others– a foundational piece for building intercultural competence.

When planning my two mini-courses, I chose Italian and Puerto Rican cuisine. I chose Italian because I speak Italian and grew up in an Italian-American household,and I chose Puerto Rican food because I grew up in the Bronx with many Puerto Rican friends, ate Puerto Rican food and my husband is from Puerto Rico.  Since teaching language was an important part of my lesson plans, my husband volunteered to help out.  He would teach phrases in Spanish and explain aspects of Puerto Rican culture. Finally, I chose these two places because I knew that some of the ingredients in their cuisines could also be grown in the Pioneer Valley.  It was important for me to demonstrate not only the artistic and cultural components, but also to shed light on how the need for land connects us across cultures and therefore builds a bridge between ourselves and a sense of place.

For each session, I chose one dish to create and one art project to do while the food cooked.  I started each class with a map to show the region of our recipe and taught a few words in Italian and Spanish, including how to pronounce the dish we were making.  I went through the different ingredients: flour, herbs, cheese, vegetables, spices and talked about how different plant ingredients were cultivated. I showed pictures of gandules pods and images of the dairy farms in Alto Adige/Süd Tirol. I included pictures of farmers harvesting the land. The human connection behind our food was crucial to my lessons.

As a group, we mixed, stirred, simmered and gathered together to taste our creations.  We practiced saying our dishes names in Spanish and Italian and talked about what we liked and our favorite part of the process.  We mentioned the foods we eat at home and the similar techniques used to prepare them.  I asked about similar flavors, new flavors, and offered known variations of the dishes we may already make at home.  Canederli/Knödel are a type of dumpling and have things we recognize: cheese, bread, spices.  Arroz con Leche is a pudding and contains rice, milk, and sugar. I emphasized the commonalities while encouraging an open-minded palette.

Submitted by Andrea Caluori-Rivera

Food as a gateway for new cultural experiences and new ways to share…

The result? Students learned to count in Spanish and that Puerto Rico is both an island and U.S. territory. They made vejigantes, Puerto Rican carnival masks and pasta from scratch. We explored the origins of the first pizza margherita and discovered that pecorino cheese is from sheep, not cows. After the mini-courses ended, students asked for the recipes and made these dishes at home with their families.  I remember being approached by parents who commented on the dishes made at home.  They pronounced the names correctly, their children must have taught them. I even saw other students in the afterschool program make vejigante masks.  There it was: food as a gateway for new cultural experiences and new ways to share.  I saw that, for my students, the world became that much bigger and that much more tangible.  My husband, still today, talks about how they made him feel a part of their community; they extended friendship towards him and even learned how to correctly pronounce his name.  A connection was made.

Submitted by Andrea Caluori-Rivera

It’s important to remember that food is universal and it speaks to us all.

I encourage you to try this at home with your family.  Of course I had the advantage of knowing both cultures in a more or less intimate way.  But truthfully, it only takes a certain humility and curiosity to explore the cuisine of someone else.  Start small, maybe ask a family friend if they can show you how to prepare one of their favorite recipes or retrace your own ethnic heritage to discover a new flavor.  Make it a family experience at home.  Involve everyone and share the meal together. Incorporate an art project, listen to the country’s music, immerse yourselves in the experience. You could even ask someone at one of your favorite ethnic restaurants, like I did this past summer in Italy.  While visiting the bicultural Alto Adige/Süd Tirol region of Italy, I asked my Tirolese waitress at a restaurant for her advice on how to make i canederli. Enthusiastically, she took the time to tell me in her own words. I was curious, open and willing to listen.  It’s important to remember that food is universal and it speaks to us all.

*name changed.
[Photo credits: (c) Andrea Caluori-Rivera; Ángel Rivera]


Andrea Caluori-Rivera

Andrea is currently a MassLIFT AmeriCorps member serving Hilltown Land Trust and Kestrel Land Trust as a Community Engagement Coordinator.  Last year she served as a RISE AmeriCorps member at Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Easthampton, MA.  A Bronx, NY native, Andrea moved to New England in 2003 where she completed her A.B. in Art History at Mt. Holyoke College followed by a M.A. degree in Italian Literary & Cultural Studies at UConn Storrs where she taught Italian language. She has interned at cultural institutions such as Old Sturbridge Village and the New-York Historical Society and has taught history, culture, and farm education for a variety of youth programs.  In her spare time, Andrea enjoys writing for different online publications and exploring New England’s towns, trails, art and food culture.



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