Recipes and Food Stories from the African Diaspora
I’ve spent a lot of my adulthood trying to live a life of purpose by trying to keep close to my roots and honor the collective ancestry of my Persian mother and Trinidadian father—mostly through feeding other people. Like many other chefs, I’ve spent my fair share of time volunteering to feed the hungry, raising awareness around hunger issues and striving for lasting solutions to the situations that keep others’ hungry in the first place.
In doing this, I thought was living the Kwanzaa principle of Nia—purpose.
But let’s talk truth for a minute. The fact is, purpose is tiring. It’s hard not feel overwhelmed by the mountains to climb and the length of the road before us. Sometimes, it’s hard not to feel resentful when our efforts go unacknowledged.
I accepted this aspect of trying to live a purposeful life as inevitable. It came with the territory, I supposed, and I just had to deal with it and keep on trucking.
And then I met someone who embodied the principle of Nia so thoroughly that it made me rethink whether or not I was doing enough, or doing with true spirit.
That person is Chef Kashia Cave. Born in Trinidad, like my father, Kashia is the founder of My City Kitchen, a nonprofit based in Meriden, CT that largely serves a population of kids in need and at-risk. The goal of My City Kitchen is to teach these young people about good nutrition and positive self-esteem by learning to cook. Healthy bodies, after all create healthy minds and vice versa.
These days there are a lot of folks doing this kind of work—and for that I’m grateful—but I’ve never met anyone who does it with quite the sense of innate purpose as Kashia Cave.
Many of the kids she works with are a half step away from juvenile detention or jail. One particularly dedicated student came to her pregnant and homeless at fifteen. Others are in foster care, having been removed from abusive homes. The “lucky” ones with intact families often don’t have enough to eat—the chance to cook at My City Kitchen is a chance to have a hot meal.
Under Kashia’s ever-cheerful demeanor and gentle but firm tutelage, even these kids thrive. They grow and begin to feel their own sense of purpose. They begin to feel that they matter.
But here’s the remarkable part—remember that feeling of weariness and resentment that gets us all from time to time? In all the years I’ve known my fellow chef Kashia Cave, I’ve never seen her falter. I’ve never seen her become angry when the kids, being kids who are often in distress, are rude or mouthy or just seemingly ungrateful. Her sense of purpose is so ingrained that straying from the path even for a moment isn’t an option.
I’ve had a lot of opportunity to watch Chef Kashia with her students. A few of them were featured in my new book FutureChefs: Recipes from tomorrow’s cooks around the nation and the world (RODALE, 2014). Together, and under Kashia’s guidance, many of them worked to test recipes for the book as well.
What strikes me every time is how deftly this cook and community leader makes the fellowship of food the powerful tool we know it is. Sharing a kitchen and sharing a meal crosses boundaries and sustains the soul—this is true in every culture through every era but it is a remarkable thing to bear witness to this in seamless practice among those with the most want.
When it comes to Nia or purpose, the person I need to learn most from is Chef Kashia Cave—yet I think I could be with her every day and never achieve a quarter of what she does. Why? Because her sense of purpose comes first from a boundless well of love—not just for other human beings but for the craft of cooking that she has used as her sword in the war against injustices large and small. For isn’t a world where our youngest citizens are facing society’s worst possibilities an unjust one?
If you ask Kashia Cave about how she can be unflagging in her purpose, she will tell you that she isn’t that different from anyone else. She will tell you that she’s doing what anyone else would.
But that isn’t really quite true is it? It’s hard to live a life of true purpose but it’s one that we should all strive for. If I thought I was getting there before, I know now I have a long way to go—but I also know that I can sit at a table with my sister Kashia, eat a bite of her good, healthy cooking and watch and learn from the true master.
And what I’ve learned most is that Nia isn’t a set of tasks or hours served. It’s not about doing the right thing and then moving on until the next opportunity arises. What it’s really about is, like Kashia, being ready. Ready for the call to duty, ready for the call to help, and ready to understand that their may not be any reward ever—but still being ready to go on.
About the Author:
Ramin Ganeshram is the author of Stir It Up!—a scholastic book fair featured selection—and a 20-year veteran journalist who trained as a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, Saveur, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Forbes Traveler, and National Geographic Traveler. She currently teaches food writing at New York University.
The word "Kwanzaa" comes from the phrase, "matunda ya kwanza" which means "first-fruits." Kwanzaa's extra "a" evolved as a result of a particular history of the Organization Us. It was clone as an expression of African values in order to inspire the creativity of our children. In the early days of Us, there were seven children who each wanted to represent a letter of Kwanzaa. Since kwanza (first) has only six letters, we added an extra "a" to make it seven, thus creating "Kwanzaa." To learn more about Kwanzaa, visit the Official Kwanzaa Website.