Through the clattering of pans and the whistling of steam, several local residents have formed a bond that crosses the borders of language and origin. A bond that turns a collection of women from around the world into Tupeloans.When Tupelo resident Lauren McElwain began attending English as a second language (ESL) classes at First Baptist Church a few months ago, she didn’t know much about the local international community.
Many of the women McElwain met in class were from different countries and didn’t speak English as a first language. Some could only communicate with English-speakers by translating email correspondence.
McElwain attempted to get to know some of the women in the group but quickly realized English was not a common tongue among them. To try to find a way to reach out to these women, she found one language everyone could understand – cooking.
She had no idea how many cultures were represented in Tupelo until she began getting requests from these women to include different cuisines in a cooking class she had recently started through her blog.
Folks originating from around the globe have attended, and the group has gotten together six times, with two American classes along with a Japanese, Indian, Mexican, and most recently, Korean class.
As the group grew, McElwain was ready to make it official, even giving it a name – Cooking As a First Language.
Eventually, group members wanted to learn about the food cultures of other members. The women each were chosen to host a class to teach recipes from their native countries.
Tomomi Watanabe met McElwain through the interaction of their children. She reached out to McElwain asking her to show her and a few of her friends a couple of American dishes.
“When I develop my menu at home, the main ingredient is chosen to match with rice,” Watanabe said. “In Japanese food, rice is usually the base ingredient. So I enjoy learning different menus that don’t include rice. I️ also enjoy learning to use ingredients which I have never used.”
The small group met a few times, discovering different recipes from poppy seed chicken casserole and seven-layer salad to breakfast casserole and biscuits.
McElwain decided to show the women a few easy, potluck-style dishes.
“I taught them some casseroles of course because we eat lots of casseroles here,” she said.
Watanabe learned how to cook from her mother. She started cooking for her own family when she got married and has been living in Tupelo for nearly two years.
Watanabe moved to Tupelo because, like many other local Japanese families, her husband works at the Toyota plant in Blue Springs.
“Tupelo has a large Japanese community because of the Toyota Plant, but the first time I attended ESL, I realized there are a lot of other countries represented in Tupelo as well,” McElwain said.
The two became good friends, and would often share recipes before McElwain asked Watanabe to host a sushi-making class where friends of both women came by to watch.
“Even though we couldn’t understand each other very well when we spoke, we could bond over food and cooking,” she said.
Irma Cubillo, whose family has been in the restaurant business for three generations and owns the D’Casa restaurants in Tupelo, has hosted a Mexican-themed class.
“I love to cook and learn new recipes. I’m raising three kids and I would like for them to experience different foods and flavors, I try to open the world for them through my kitchen,” Cubillo said.
Cubillo is learning to prepare Korean recipes from a recent class.
“The more people that get involved, the more opportunities there will be to learn delicious recipes from all over the globe, I hope to meet many more people in the intimacy of a kitchen,” Cubillo said.
Emily Williams, a baker at Butterbean, attended her first class as a date night with her boyfriend.
Williams’ father previously worked as a chef at Nestle before moving the family to Tupelo 20 years ago to work as a minister. She grew up watching her mother experiment with recipes from other cultures.
The meetings have become a weekly highlight for Williams, “It may not even be about food at times, these classes enable me to gain more insight into the lives of people different from me and empathize with them. These are some of the kindest ladies I have met, and each time they share their recipes and homes with me, I feel myself growing closer to them,” she said.
The group has proved to be serendipitous; reuniting women who had crossed thousands of miles of land and sea, hailing from the same country, and meeting again after many years in the comfort of a warm, Southern kitchen.
“Two Tupelo residents from Korea didn’t know each other before meeting at a cooking class, and they instantly formed a connection,” McElwain said.
Last week, McElwain held a cooking demonstration at her ESL class for the first time, teaching those assembled to make pumpkin pie. She is now considering teaching ESL classes herself, saying the cooking classes are great practice for learning English.
The group announces meetings on the Tupelo Bloggers Facebook page.
In the future, the group will teach Cuban, Moroccan and Brazilian cuisines. The next event will will feature Bangladeshi food on Nov. 30.
“I started this to love people…to show people living in Tupelo who are from other countries that they are welcome, they are included, and their culture is celebrated, because if it were me and my family and we were living in another country, I would want somebody to do it for me,” McElwain said.