Rhode Islanders hail from all over the world, and so too do the dishes and traditions we practice during the holidays. To sample some of this season’s international flavors, Rhode Island Public Radio sent reporters into several communities. Kristin Gourlay begins our story at a Liberian restaurant. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison and producer Nate Mooney also contributed to this piece.
At Sue's Restaurant, A Liberian Christmas Staple
I’m meeting Komlan Soe for lunch at Sue’s, a Liberian restaurant tucked inside a brick building on Providence’s West side. Soe is Liberian, one of about 15,000 who call the Ocean State home. And he says he always sees someone he knows here.
Soe is soft-spoken, serious and polite. And he’s kind enough to take a break from his graduate studies at Salve Regina University, his internship at the Naval War College, and running a fledgling nonprofit for newly arrived refugees.
Inside Sue’s, the menu is written on a white board. Chef and owner Sue Carter, known as Auntie Sue, explains a few dishes. First, toborgee.
“The toborgee is made from like the little tiny eggplant, it’s the eggplant family.”
It’s kind of a stew, served with rice. And then there’s fufu.
“And the fufu and soup, the fufu is like dumpling, molded into one size…”
Today, Auntie Sue is offering a dozen dishes, including cassava leaf, fried plantains, rice bread.
“And we have the homemade ginger beer.”
But there’s something on this menu that will definitely be on most Liberians’ Christmas table. Jollof rice. It’s a bit like jambalaya. And it’s a staple.
“If I take you back to Liberia on Christmas Day," says Carter, "definitely jollof rice, or the kidney beans. But Christmas is fun in Liberia.”
Even more so this year, she says, without the threat of Ebola.
Sue’s sister Theresa Sharpe emerges from the kitchen, wearing a hair net. She explains that lots of West African countries cook some version of jollof rice, adding different meat, or just vegetables, but she says, she might be biased but, Liberians do it best.
“We put chicken breast, and sometimes we add the corned beef, and then mixed vegetables, and a little bit of tomato paste, and then season it," says Sharpe.
“OK, that’s what I’ll have," I say. "And ginger beer, please.”
Komlan Soe orders the toborgoee and we take a seat in the dining room, where a TV and radio vie for dominance. I ask Soe what he’s planning for Christmas.
“I’ll probably spend it with my brother, he and his girlfriend cook and invite me over," he says. "Because I’m just by myself so they invite me over."
Our dishes arrive – Soe’s a plate of steaming white rice with a small bowl full of toborgee, the eggplant dish. It’s a deep, reddish brown, and it tastes a bit like chili. My plate of jollof rice comes mounded with plantains and two perfectly fried chicken drumsticks.
Soe looks around at the restaurant and says he’s proud of what Liberians have contributed to Rhode Island, ever since they began fleeing civil war to resettle here. For many young refugees like Soe, Liberia is more of a fading memory, accessible only through community, and, of course, food.
“I grew up in Ivory Coast and Ghana," says Soe.
“In refugee camps?” I ask.
Yes, he says. “You know, people carry their culture with them, so whatever they learn, they still do the same thing just like Liberians do in Rhode Island," like gathering the extended family and celebrating with dishes that taste like home.
From Mexico City, Piñatas, Posadas And Pilgrimages
And now, from our producer Nate Mooney, a story of Christmas traditions that have traveled from Mexico to Rhode Island. Nate got some help from a native of Mexico, Juan Carlos Fieros, the owner of Chilangos Restaurant, who grew up in Mexico city and has lived in Rhode Island for more than 20 years.
I met Juan Carlos Fieros at his Providence restaurant, where he took a break from setting up for lunchtime to tell me about the Christmas traditions of his youth.
“What I do remember the most was we were excited as a kid for the month of December because Christmas is not just the day it’s the entire month," Fieros said. "Everything starts with December 12th which is the festivities for the virgin in Guadalupe.”
The virgin of Guadalupe is the most important saint in Mexico. In Mexico City, people make a pilgrimage, sometimes for days, to her principal cathedral. They walk barefoot, and then make the final leg of the journey down on their knees. People give the pilgrims bread along the way, musicians serenade them, and they celebrate the virgin of Guadaulpe’s Birthday on December 12th .
Just a few days later on December 16th come the Posadas, a kind of pre-celebration for Christmas. As Fieros remembers it, a different family hosts a party every day from the 16th until Christmas Eve.
“The first one is usually held by the church. After the mass they share food, fruit, candies and of course the piñata , part of the huge tradition," said Fieros. So it goes on from the 16th to the 24th. It’s just every day party.”
After all those parties, Fieros celebrates Christmas on the night of December 24th, what Americans usually call Christmas Eve.
“So we have the dinner the night of the 24th. When all the family gets together and we celebrate Christmas with tons of food and again, as a kid you expecting breaking the piñata," Fieros explained. "I remember as a kid there was tons of fruit and little candies but lots of fruit.”
The kids in Fieros' family have grown too old for pinatas, but Christmas dinner is still a big affair. Fieros describes a late night meal, eaten around midnight. And then, the next day, some laid- back time with family
“Just spend the 25th all together. Do some table games, some of the kids playing chess, playing cards,” he said."We do have a Christmas tree, but we don’t stuff that with presents. For us it isn’t until January 6th, Dia des Reyes when all the kids get all the presents.”
El Dia des Reyes, or Three Kings Day, celebrates the day the bible tells of wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. Now that he lives in Rhode Island, Fieros says he continues some of these Mexican Christmas rituals. But the Posadas, the tradition of going door-to-door, sharing food and songs with the neighborhood, is the hardest to recreate.
“You don’t see that around here," said Fieros. "It’s not the piñatas,you can get the piñatas here , but its just the vibe."
Every Posada includes cantos, which are like hymns, and bags of fruits and candies.
"And they give you a candle, so you go from the church to whoever’s house holding the Posada. It's a cultural thing," said Fieros.
He may not have the Posadas exactly as her remembers them, but Fieros does celebrate Christmas with his sisters and nieces and nephews. That’s one part of his heritage Fieros can hold onto, even though his childhood home in Mexico City is thousands of miles away.
A Food Pantry And A Special Christmas Ritual
The holidays are a time to enjoy friends, family and good food, but that can be complicated when money is scarce. This year, tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders relied on a network of food banks to make ends meet. At the Silver Lake Community Center on the western edge of Providence, Director Julie Piscopiello showed RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison what’s in a typical bag for her clients this week.
"Cereal and canned goods, milk. Right now we do have frozen hams, and I’ll grab one of those. That’s a rarity," Piscopiello said.
The ham is for Christmas dinner, and the bag also contains a few cans of vegetables, powdered mashed potatoes, some dried cherries. It's an emergency food ration, just enough to last a day or two.
Many of the people who visit this food pantry are regulars, and Piscopiello has gotten to know many of them pretty well. She serves up to 100 families a month, a number that has not gone down, even as unemployment has improved. The economy may be getting better, but Piscopiello finds it hard to see any change in this neighborhood.
"Every month I see a new face, a new person moving into the area, it’s constant," said Piscopiello.
When asked whether the numbers are leveling off at all, she responded, "No I don’t. Maybe some places, but not here."
"Most of our clients are on food stamps," continued Piscopiello. "So by the end of the month they’re running low on food, so they come in to supplement. They used to issue the food stamps prior to Thanksgiving and Christmas but they stopped doing that."
After years of working with families in need, Piscopiello has developed a holiday tradition of her own. Every year, she and her mother and sister adopt a family for Christmas.
"This year we’re adopting a woman who was a former homeless woman, and she just got an apartment, and she moved in with nothing, so from bed sheets to pots and pans, we’re helping her with," Piscopiello explained.
Many people think about helping the needy around the holidays, but as Piscopiello points out, the need for help lasts all year long. If somebody else wanted to adopt a family, Piscopiello said she can arrange that.
"One phone call, and we can easily set up a family. I mean, Christmas is approaching, but we would be able to find someone."