The Language of
By Heather Gausline Tate | Photography courtesy of Ryan Coon
Language is not a barrier for this Tupelo culinary non-profit, which is expanding nationwide.
Lauren McElwain believes that creating a meal together in one’s home, even when there is a language barrier, can build community. Her non-profit organization Cooking as a First Language celebrates the diversity in Tupelo through monthly international cooking classes and demonstrations held in the homes of hosts who hail from different cultural backgrounds.
In the last two years, McElwain’s organization has hosted more than 30 classes specializing in a variety of cuisines, including Greek, Moroccan, Indian, and Japanese. What sparked from her passion for food and entertainment and celebrating the diversity in Tupelo has launched into a non-profit that is now gaining traction on a national level.
During her college years, McElwain and her husband, Lucas McElwain, would watch cooking shows on The Food Network and often try to recreate the recipes. She also developed an interest in other cultures while living in Jackson and Birmingham, then moving to Tupelo. “Though we are a small Southern town,” she says of Tupelo, “we are diverse, and I want to celebrate that diversity.”
She started reaching out to the local international community with a food blog called The Filigree Fig, initially corresponding with several women in the Japanese community. After talking through social media, McElwain welcomed the women into her home for a luncheon of poppyseed chicken and seven-layer salad.
“Even though we couldn’t speak together, it didn’t matter,” says McElwain.
The meeting initiated the idea for regular international classes led by native cooks in their own homes, beginning with the Japanese women teaching a sushi class, which included McElwain’s American friends. After the successful first lunch, Tupelo volunteers began contacting McElwain offering to teach cooking classes in different cuisines.
“I want to embrace those people and provide them an opportunity to share their culture,” McElwain says of the classes.
Pyar Brazile, originally from Chicago, is grateful for the connections she has made through Cooking as a First Language. “I’ve hosted as well as participated in classes and I not only have learned about the food, I’ve learned about the traditions of others,” Brazile says. “In Chicago there were no minorities or majorities. We were a melting pot. A lot of my friends were first generation Americans, so another language, traditions and foods were in their homes. I miss that very much, and I’m proud that Lauren has found a way to expose Tupelo to the wonderful diversity that I grew up with. It makes you more accepting, understanding, and well rounded.”
There is at least one public class per month and private classes are offered. Cooking as a First Language classes, typically involving 12-to-15 people, are small, intimate and held inside the cook’s home, says McElwain. To keep prices approachable, the average two-hour class costs $22 per person, which is used to reimburse the host chef for the cost of the ingredients. Any leftover funds return to the non-profit as the hosts are volunteers. Since menus are planned ahead of time, the class can accommodate allergies and special diets.
Expanding Cooking as a First Language
McElwain hopes that others also break down barriers in their own communities through cooking together. She is currently in the process of franchising her organization and providing a start-up kit to give new groups everything they need to activate a chapter in their towns. Oxford is the first city to start a franchise and San Diego, Calif., has expressed interest. McElwain is flying to California in March to teach a class and hopefully induct the third city.
This past fall was an intense time of development for the organization, McElwain says. When a city chooses to become part of Cooking as a First Language, they have access to other subcategories, such as Cooking as a First Language Kids and Cooking as a First Language Cares. Hannah Maharrey of Tupelo is the coordinator for the Cooking as a First Language Kids component, which plans to have classes every other month for kids ages 7-11. Their first class in September featured an Italian menu. Cooking as a First Language Cares provides fundraiser opportunities for organizations or private classes. In October, its Language of Pizza was held at Vanelli’s Bistro for kids with autism.
“There is not a language barrier in the traditional sense,” McElwain says of the October event. “Nevertheless, cooking also becomes a way for children who may struggle with communicating verbally to communicate through the language of pizza.”
McElwain, who was recently nominated as a finalist in the 2019 Tupelo Journal’s Top 40 Under 40, reiterates her ambition to unite people through food.
“I want to encourage and even teach other people how to embrace and celebrate our differences,” she says. “Food is our common ground. No matter what we disagree on we can all agree that food is good. And when we find that common ground and build a relationship, then the possibilities of what we can do together are endless.
“The legacy I would like to leave through Cooking as a First Language is that I helped people from all backgrounds feel comfortable and welcome in our community,” she concludes. “And that I provided a safe space where cultures could be shared and celebrated and relationships formed.”