Sixty-four Park Center Senior High students share the stories behind their favorite foods in a new book The Cultural Dish: Behind Every Dish is a Story. Forty-one students wrote their stories in Hmong and/or English and are in the Hmong for Native Speakers course at Park Center Senior High. Twenty-three students used lyrical language in poetry written in Spanish and are in the Spanish for Native Speakers II course.
The book is cleverly organized like a stroll through a grocery store and starts with the veggies and the stories behind squash, cabbage, cucumbers, eggplants, and papayas and others. Student author Khe Mee Yang explains her passion for a cucumber side dish, “this dish is important to me because I farm with my family, and eating cucumber on a hot day is better than anything else.” The dish hydrates the family on a hot day and encapsulates her family’s story of hard work.
Next up is the meat freezer, where students tell stories behind chicken, pork, beef and sausage dishes. In this section, student author Panhia Vang explains that “pork can be used to awaken your soul or for your recovery.” Many students, like Panhia, wrote about how the food was lovingly prepared by their family members to nurse them back to good health. Rice recipes, egg rolls, steam rice rolls, fried noodles called fawm kib, bamboo rice and pho mark the next stop in the dry goods section. The dishes included everything from chilies to fish sauce, lemongrass, Thai pepper sauce, scallions and oyster sauce.
Local chef Yia Vang writes in the introduction of the book that Hmong people “do not have a country of their own, a flag or a national anthem. But the thing we did have for us growing up was our food.” By creating this book, student authors are able to preserve their families’ history and culture and contribute to the number of books written in Hmong.
“Many families I work with only have a handful of books written in Hmong at home,” explains Pang Yang, teacher of the Hmong for Native Speakers course at Park Center Senior High and editor of the book (pictured bottom right with family and consumer science teacher Katherine Hutchinson). “This book gives us all one more to add to our collections and can be added to Hmong literature around the world. This book is going to be there forever.”
At the end of the book, 23 students wrote odes in Spanish to their favorite family recipes and dishes including tacos, enchiladas, tamales and many more. Students researched their food item and conducted interviews. To write their odes, they combined the factual and emotional perspectives into one lyrical story. Lucy Lezama Espinoza wrote an ode about pozole, a dish made from dried corn soaked in lye, and described the dish as being deeply connected to Mexico even in the way the colors of the dish match the red, white and green colors in the Mexican flag.
A limited number of copies of The Cultural Dish are available for purchase by emailing Hmong Educational Resources, a local nonprofit focused on amplifying Hmong voices across the country. The book will be available to check out at Hennepin County libraries.
The book was made possible through an Education Minnesota Foundation Classroom grant and a collaboration between the Hmong for Native Speakers and Spanish for Native Speakers programs, family and consumer science department, and the computer arts department at Park Center Senior High, and local chef Yia Vang.