Preserving Tradition with the Soul Food Sisters

What does your perfect meal look like? Think beyond the dish. See the room, the people, the crockery, the climate…

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The dining area at Limnisa Retreat – home to many feasts. 

I expect for most it was plentiful – much food, many people. I expect it left you warm and content and craving a warm summer alfresco evening or a cosy gathering away from the winter chill.

When I think of the perfect meal, my mind takes me back to home cooked meals in Greece, provided for by the extended families of hotel owners and holidays hosts. They’re a true family affair, even if not with your own family, and like any Mediterranean dining experience, involve simple but perfect food in plentiful amounts. Dinner becomes a web of limbs reaching across tables, tentatively dodging candles, eagerly refilling wine glasses, keenly grabbing for the olive bowl. Mediterranean dining is never just a meal with the purpose of filling your stomach, but rather an event intended to fill your heart, head and soul as well.

In the UK, our relationship with food is far different, less sprawling and more regimented, yet equally precious. Most Brits are used to fairly measured portions of a meat and two veg meal served in a neat and timely fashion. It’s eaten over a quick debrief of the day and followed by a joint effort to clean up greasy pans with soapy suds. British dinner times are efficient and effective, yet still warm in their habitual familiarity.

Memories of meals are among the most vivid, often invoking nostalgia and longing for simpler times, yet modern day habits have seen this tradition fall out of fashion. Now, sit down meals are not the norm, and amidst the madness of a working week, the effort of a shared meal may seem like a chore. The decline of the dinner time however has been accompanied by the decline of much more. 

Dinners used to be an occasion where food was tasted, shared, discussed; days were debriefed, unpicked, deliberated; connections were forged, fused, fired. Today, we need gentle reminders to listen to stories, heid advice and practice acceptance. 

Enter Soul Food Sisters, the not-for-profit organisation that’s been inspiring, educating and enlightening the people of Glasgow since founding in 2013.

Welcoming migrant women as volunteers to their kitchen, Soul Food Sisters are a collective, a multicultural family whose aim is to strengthen cultural links and empower women through preservation of their stories, traditions and cultures. They cater for events, run regular workshops and open the doors of 202 Gallowgate as a cafe over weekends and their menu is as diverse as the women in the kitchen – and as soulful. A better fit couldn’t have been found for Creative Morning Glasgow’s May meetup on the theme of ‘Preserve’.

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Preservation – of cultures, history, tradition, stories – is the vital lifeline of our society, and the Soul Food Sisters mission is to share that message. Their manifesto calls for women raising women; integration of migrants in to community; the preservation of history and cultures; the sharing of stories, union of people and creation of powerful human interaction – all through food. In doing so, they endeavor to end social isolation and empower women.

Since 2016, Soul Food Sisters have been based in the East End. Though they originally searched for premises in the trendy Southside, their presence in the Glasgow’s East seems most fitting. Walking around the home of the Barras, it’s hard not to feel history and community breathing from the buildings: shoes tapping on the dance floor, the heavy bass of bands past and present, the noises of busy weekend markets, Glaswegians spiritedly bartering or brawling. Even when there’s not a soul around, this part of town holds Glasgow’s unique energy within its walls. Soul Food Sisters mission couldn’t be more at home there.

Djamila welcomed us into their kitchen as if it were her home, embodying the ideals she spoke of: warmth, generosity, passion. Food was in abundance, smiles were genuine and conversation was flowing.

With food aplenty, we tucked in to dishes from Algeria, Poland, Spain and Ethiopia. There were flavorsome variations on scrambled egg, bowls of paprika-sprinkled hummus and baba ganoush, pots of roasted peppers, rich bean stews and flatbreads piled high in woven baskets. From the moment the first plate was placed on the table between a group of strangers, a barrier was broken down that made way for a flood of conversation, lifted spirits and laughter loud.

It made it all the more easy to relate when our chefs of the day shared their stories. Munira’s passion for food comes from working with her hands, “using spirit and creativity” to mix, shape, mould a dish which can be shared with family. In doing so, it becomes infused with sentiment as strongly as it does spices.

The Ethiopian dish ‘ga’at’ or ‘genfo’ was a stiff and heavy mound of dough served with yogurt or honey, depending on your preference for spice. Its density ensured it made sense for it to be a popular food for consumption in the Ramadan break. Also served on the morning of wedding ceremonies in Ethiopia, Munira gifted us her ga’at in much the same fashion: with ceremonial pride and generosity. 

Janina’s Polish upbringing has instilled her with a passion for responsible consumption and sustainability. She brings her memories of picking produce from the garden to her recipes now, resisting GMO, shopping local where possible and banishing plastic from her kitchen in favour of glass.

While the world around seems to run out of time to think about health, diet, culture and climate change, Janina and the Soul Food Sisters are bringing it to our front doors, encouraging us not to become complacent. They offer cookery classes to local residents, work across Scotland to spread their values, welcome diverse volunteers with varied skill sets and intend to make a powerful social impact through food.

I spent only two hours in the presence of the Soul Food Sisters, and I left feeling invigorated, inspired, empowered and educated. Their stories astound, their food nourishes and their spirit is contagious. In a climate where we endlessly think forward, set on advancement and progress, perhaps we sometimes forget that some of our answers may lie in the past.

One meal with strangers and I was transported back to childhood, to those family meals around foreign tables, and with it, I was reminded of the values that often get overshadowed by the modern day: curiosity and inquisitiveness, free-spirit and unadulterated joy, playfulness and being present.

Food is powerful, with abilities far beyond physical nourishment. We should take from the Soul Food Sisters, who prove that cooking and eating can be a gateway to more joy, more tolerance and more acceptance. We should use it more wisely, allow it to transport us and, most importantly, preserve what we find at our destination.

Thank you to Glasgow’s branch of Creative Mornings for bringing Glasgow’s creative community this wonderful event on Friday 31st May 2019. Creative Mornings have branches around the world and host events on the last Friday of each month to local communities on a set theme. See here for your nearest branch and updates on June’s theme of ‘WONDER’. 

And thank you once again to the Soul Food Sisters for the food and life lessons shared with us! 

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