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More Than Just Food: A Cultural ABC's Conference

by Harley Spiller

Conferences, Meetings, Announcements, and Reports

Summer Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(2) page(s): 5

A meal is just a meal? Like Freud's cigar, however, there lies deeper significance below the surface. The idea that studying daily human routine can reveal critical information about economics, gender, politics, and similar critical issues was driven home at Cultural ABCs: A conference about Diversity in Family, Food, Fashion, and Fitness, sponsored by The Institute for the Advancement of the Science and Art of Chinese Cuisine and the Family, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences Department at Queens College this past April 19th.

Introduced by the President and Provost of Queens College, The Dean of Mathematics and Science, and Chairpersons from both sponsoring agencies, the conference began on a resounding note with Jessica Harris' keynote address Food and Family Diversity in Black Culture. Same Boat, Different Stops: Commonalities of Culture and Cuisine Among African Diaspora Communities in New York City.

More than a dozen papers were presented ranging from Annie Hauck-Lawson's Just Because You Break the Same Bread at Table Doesn't Mean it Tastes the Same: Varied Food Meanings Among Members of Three Polish-American Families to Cyril Robinson's discussion of the connection between the Jewish bagel and the Northwestern Chinese gerda, remarkably similar breadstuffs. Other speakers were Denise Agin, Ann Azzollini, Margaret Tiggs Birt, Dorothy Duncan, Patty Stuart-Macadam, Lakshmi Malroutu, Susan O. Michelman, Marion Nestle, Jo Marie Powers, Krishnendu Ray, Laurette Tekverk, Jeanne Voltz---an all encompassing and gifted group.

Dr. Hauck-Lawson remarked that food speaks without words and the conference showed that the same holds true for fashion, fitness, and family. There's a lot to be learned from things that seem simple on the surface, such as tea or jogging or a veil. Tea can be a plain drink or it can be an immigrant's only reminder of home; jogging can be a simple pastime or it can lead a whole community to betterment; a veil can be a simple head covering or it can be a poignant symbol of oppression.

The wealth of information that was disseminated reflected dedicated and prodigious research. It was, quite frankly, a mind-boggling day. In that sense, the conference served another important function. The presentation of so many extremely diverse and complex ideas in such a short time enabled the eclectic group of attendees to bridge new synapses. Great professional and amateur cross-pollination occurred, stimulating fresh inspiration for future projects.

The sessions came dissected by breaks, these allowed for greeting and meeting. Cutting the conference in half did the same, and in addition, provided a delicious dim sum lunch. The foods at that repast were generously donated by Minh Foods of Pasadena Texas. Beverages accompanied the seven lunch specialities, all were tasty teas donated by Flushing's (and many other locations, too) Ten Ren Tea Company.

The conference completed, Professor Newman, this journal's editor-in-chief, led an evening walking tour to a Chinese supermarket and on to the above mentioned tea shop. She provided fascinating and accurate details about the massive larder that is Flushing, Queens. She discoursed not only on the foods, but on the exciting changes immigration has brought to this community.

The lively lectures and on-your-feet culinary lessons came to a regal close at Chinatown Seafood Depot located at 139-29 37th Avenue, Flushing (718-886-6622), where coincidentally, a concurrent banquet was being covered by the same Sinovision television camera crew that had filmed the Cultural ABC's conference.

Our 12-course meal (the menu appeared in the last Flavor and Fortune issue) began with jasmine tea and exceptionally fine red and white wines donated by the Kobrand Corporation (see their advertisement in this issue, it is of the labels from the two terrific ones we had).

We continued to sup on an outstanding variety and balance of Hong Kong-style foods including an elegant and hearty winter melon soup with cubes of the mild translucent melon, green peas and other treasures. This was followed by the scrumptious Peking Duck sandwiches made with thick northern buns. the crispiest of duck skin, hoisin sauce, and scallion pancakes. The best course arrived in a ring of crisp broccoli - fresh small scallops, slightly seared and well-coated with black pepper sauce. This professional kitchen maintained the delicate integrity of scallops, maximizing the bivalve's unique moist texture while highlighting its sweet oceanic flavor.

Other standouts were gigantic black mushrooms with greens in oyster sauce, and a warm and wonderful red bean soup. The food was near perfection - the company educated and engaging - the price very reasonable. The only flaw was the slightly erratic pace of the service, surely due in part to the large speech-filled banquet of a local political group that occupied the greater portion of the dining room.

A day of both mind and stomach expansion left everyone in a jolly mood. The exhilarating discourse and networking that was fostered will last well into the next millennium, or at least until Newman and her accomplished and capable colleagues present the next symposium. The Chinese Cuisine and the American Palate Symposium they did in 1994 boggled the mind, 1996's Cultural ABC's was terrific, too. What they are stirring up for next year? I have one piece of advice , and that is: Be there!

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