The following is a guest post by folklorist Sally Van de Water, Folklife Programs Manager, Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County, New Jersey. The AFC’s Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series is a collaboration with Van de Water and colleagues at the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County.
This summer, my colleagues and I were delighted to collaborate with AFC staff on this new film series, Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey. Following in the footsteps of the AFC’s 2021 film series, Homegrown Foodways in West Virginia, and building on our own initiative, “Share Your Foodways,” this series highlights the many ways that foodways are essential to create, reinforce, and reinvent community.
Here in Central New Jersey, we are lucky to work with gifted folklife practitioners like Nasrin Rafiq and Roman Kovbasniuk, and to partner with the remarkable organization REPLENISH, which connects more than 160 food pantries across Middlesex County alone. With over 832,000 residents, Middlesex is New Jersey’s second largest and fourth most diverse and densely populated county, making it one of the most diverse in the nation. While overall the county is considered above the median income of the state, several communities are considered low-income or persistent low-income communities, and issues relating to food equity and access need to be addressed.
As part of this collaboration, the three films in this series will premiere on November 2, 9, and 16 via the Library of Congress YouTube channel, as well as on the Folklife Today blog on each of their Wednesday premiere dates. In order of their premieres, they are:
Wednesday November 2: Folklife, Foodways, and Women’s Empowerment in Afghanistan with Nasrin Rafiq
Nasrin Rafiq, a longtime director of USAID’S women’s empowerment programs in Afghanistan, moved to the U.S. in 2017. In this film, she talks about the ways traditional arts and knowledge fueled economic development for Afghanistan’s women, and how specialty dishes like Qabuli Pulao and Shir Berenj reinforce community values. She joins Share Your Foodways host Carolina Moratti to demonstrate how to make Qabuli Pulao and Dogh, an evening yogurt drink. We’ll join her at an outdoor brick oven, where she makes bread and demonstrates the technique in crafting Bolani, flat bread stuffed with potatoes.
Wednesday November 9: Multigenerational Ukrainian Foodways with Roman Kovbasniuk
Central and Northern New Jersey are home to some of the first Ukrainian communities established in America, and generations of Ukrainian families have continued carrying on Ukraine’s incredible variety of traditional arts, including embroidery, pysanky, and foodways! Roman Kovbasniuk is a “1.5 generation” Ukrainian-American cook who adds his own layer of meaning to his family recipes. After enjoying traditional foods all his life, he learned how to make several of the dishes from his mother and his grandmother. In this episode, he demonstrates his own twist on Holubtsi, or cabbage rolls. His is a perfect foodways example of “innovation with the tradition.”
Wednesday November 16: REPLENISH and Nourishing Neighbors through Community Food Equity
REPLENISH, Middlesex County’s network of over 160 food pantries, food banks, and soup kitchens, received and distributed more than 4.7 million pounds of food last year. Unusually situated within County government, REPLENISH’s model allows partner agencies, including nonprofit agencies, municipalities, private businesses, schools, and houses of worship, to serve their local communities and address specific needs like housing, legal representation, and childcare in addition to food equity. The film explores the spokes of the REPLENISH wheel, including visits to the distribution warehouse and interviews with clients and volunteers. The film highlights the important role that food pantries play in keeping communities afloat, pandemic or no pandemic.
Importantly, the three films also follow in the footsteps of our Share Your Foodways initiative, developed in 2020. Like a lot of agencies, the Arts Institute of Middlesex County was forced to reassess its programs in light of social isolation, shuttered venues, and the loss of in-person programming during the COVID-19 pandemic. When our team met by phone in April 2020, we were looking for ways to leverage our folklife resources to address the local area’s most pressing needs: personal income and food security. Fortunately, we were able to continue hiring artists to present virtual programs, though that took a couple of months to get rolling. How, we wondered, could we use folklife to literally feed people? The answer seemed obvious: use our connections, our folklife know-how, and our network of partners to celebrate foodways and share those foodways with the public. Engaging the creativity of local artists, community advocates, and entrepreneurs, Share Your Foodways was born.
Now in its third year, Share Your Foodways has three goals: celebrate the incredible range of food traditions in Central New Jersey; destigmatize the use of food pantries; and feed people. In each Share Your Foodways video, a local cook shares a favorite recipe, demonstrates how to make it, and explains its personal significance. The public is encouraged to try these recipes for themselves, and printable recipe cards are published on the Share Your Foodways website along with the filmed cooking tutorials. For each video produced, we distribute 100 free ingredient kits to local families through the REPLENISH food pantry network. Videos and recipe cards are published in both English and Spanish, with open captions in both languages. (Note: Spanish-language versions of each film will appear on Middlesex County’s Share Your Foodways website in the coming months.)
Through this initiative, we’ve been able to explore the ways families use cookbooks to keep family traditions alive, how simple meals can become emblematic of a community’s values, and how food traditions help families reinvent their lives and build thriving businesses in a new place. In addition to the three films debuting through our collaboration with the American Folklife Center, we are looking forward to continuing to share the stories of how foodways enrich the everyday lives of Central New Jersey residents. Since its inception, this project has been supported by the Middlesex County Board of County Commissioners and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and we have been honored to add the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, to that list.
Successes in Share Your Foodways rely on fluid collaborations between partners in and out of County government: our Folklife Division Head Isha Vyas, who has long been a County champion for the important meanings food holds in our lives; our talented videographer, Hamza Masood, and his teammates Andrew and Spencer; Share Your Foodways program hosts Carolina Moratti and Jerome Mangroo, whose professional culinary expertise informs the way they elicit personal narratives from guest chefs, often bilingually; and a team of translators, voiceover talent, and staff administrators. Moratti, in fact, was our first guest chef, and her talented approach to food equity and community has helped shape the project in new and delightful ways.
My gratitude also goes to Arts Institute colleagues for their enthusiastic support of the project and for finding inroads, connections, and project partners from our first conception of the project. Arts Institute Director Lindsay Erben, Division Head Tracey O’Reggio-Clark, and Content Manager Sarah Ferreira made important early connections for us, probably the most significant being the direct links to both Moratti and REPLENISH Director Jennifer Apostol, who is a tireless, eloquent advocate for food equity and a tremendous pleasure to work alongside. Our newest staff member, Arts Institute Folklife Programs Coordinator Claire Denny, conducted much of the fieldwork for this collaboration, and brings a keen folkloristic sensibility and remarkable foresight into what each project will need. Finally, we are all indebted to our remarkable guests and chef collaborators, who generously share their passion, recipes, and personal narratives with us. Their individual and collective experiences are both beautiful examples of the ways we make meaning in our lives and striking testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.
Stay tuned for more Folklife Today posts by Sally Van de Water on each of the film’s premiere dates. Each post will contain the film, as well as links to it on the Library’s YouTube channel for your convenience!
About the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage
The Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County is one of five folklife centers around the state working in partnership with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. As such, we at the Arts Institute have a mandate to serve the residents of Central New Jersey by celebrating, documenting, and supporting local folklife. Since 1990, the County’s folklife program has documented and presented artists, collaborated with schools and other educational and care facilities for specialty programs, and supported grassroots organizations in producing their own culturally important activities. Learn more on the Middlesex County website.