Cincinnati’s Table Connects the Recently Immigrated to Their Neighbors Through Free, Traveling Dinner Parties

Centered around themes such as “gratitude” or “exchange,” each meal features the cooking of immigrant chefs from across the globe and includes activities to bring together groups of strangers

click to enlarge A Cincinnati's Table dinner - Photo: Biz Young
Photo: Biz Young
A Cincinnati's Table dinner

Cincinnati’s Table is shaping communities one dinner party at a time. From October 2018 to October 2019, the traveling monthly series is hosting free dinners across the city with the goal of connecting immigrants and refugees to each other and their U.S.-born neighbors. Centered around themes such as “gratitude” or “exchange,” each meal features the cooking of immigrant chefs from across the globe and includes interactive activities to bring together groups of strangers, like guided meditations and round table discussions, art installations and simple projects. 

Cincinnati’s Table is an effort of The Welcome Project, a social enterprise started in 2017 by Camp Washington’s Wave Pool gallery and the immigrant and refugee resource group Heartfelt Tidbits. Part workshop, part retail space and part cozy hangout, the Welcome Project began as a way to empower Cincinnati’s “newest neighbors.” The Welcome Project, which operates next door to Wave Pool on Colerain Avenue, will expand to offer a market and teaching kitchen in November. Currently, individuals from countries including Iraq, Syria, Tanzania, Bhutan, Mexico and Nepal gather there for everything from ceramics classes and art openings to Spanish lessons and entrepreneurial workshops.

While language and cultural differences could at times make meeting new people difficult, food became an ever-reliable common denominator. In September 2018, the Welcome Project received a $15,000 grant from the United Way of Greater Cincinnati to bring Cincinnati’s Table to life.

“Welcome (Project) had done a couple of these welcome dinners,” says Abby Schnure, Wave Pool’s former administrative assistant. “We had already started doing events to showcase immigrant cooks and different types of food. It was kind of like a natural evolution.”

Since the inaugural dinner at Mount Healthy’s Tikkun Farm last October, Cincinnati’s Table has featured a full passport’s stamps worth of cuisine without ever leaving the city limits. In March, guests ate dinner at the Contemporary Arts Center amid the exhibition Archive As Action. In June, Cincinnati’s Table chefs took on the Cincinnati Refugee Day World Cup, cooking for hundreds of hungry soccer players and attendees at Xavier University.

In May, Cincinnati’s Table made its way to La Iglesia Episcopal church in Forest Park. A meeting hub for community groups from Nepal, Mexico and Ghana, the dinner became an international mixer that blended tradition, music and food from three tight-knight groups who had used the same gathering space but, up until the dinner, not known each other. 

Esther Boakye, who is from the Ashanti region of Ghana, was among those at work prepping dinner, sharing a bustling kitchen with other chefs and helping hands all eager to distribute samples of the evening’s meal. 

While dinner simmered on the stove, kids played games in the common area and those who didn’t cook watched, waited and tasted. A team of quick hands filled spicy momos, while others went to work on chow mien, rich pozole and tacos al pastor. Boakye fried plantains and baked sheets of meat pies — an easy, crowd-pleasing pastry filled with corned beef and onion.  

“Meat pies are what I do a lot at home, like almost every week,” she says. The dinner parties celebrate good, home cooking en masse. True to its mission, Cincinnati’s Table creates the feeling you’re being fed right from your next-door-neighbor’s kitchen table. 

“Food has a magical quality,” Schnure says. “As soon as you’re around a table with food you’re willing to talk and meet new people. It’s hard to get people in a room to talk to each other, but then you put food in between them and people can have conversations and not feel so awkward.”

The dinners also present an opportunity for immigrants to spread their love of their home countries. 

“People see Africa as…it’s not a place that they wanna go,” Boakye says. “But Africa is beautiful. Our culture is beautiful. Our food is awesome. It’s a blessing. I just thank God that I get to share it with everybody.”

Empowerment through neighborly love and cross-cultural sharing is at the core of Cincinnati’s Table, especially when it can be so difficult to find a community in new places. Manzara Reed, who cooked her West African recipes for March’s dinner, was just 14 when she first moved to Atlanta from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. 

“As a teenager, that’s when you’re just figuring things out, and then you’re uprooted to another country, and you have to relearn everything,” she says. 

For Reed — who goes straight for a hug when she meets someone new — even the way Americans make friends came with a learning curve. “In Africa, you just meet someone on the street and you just talk. But here, you can’t just start a conversation,” she says. “I’m always striving for a community, you know? I left my community in Africa, and I’m always trying to find a place that feels like that.” 

Cincinnati’s Table aims to bridge the gap in connection. 

“That’s the goal of Cincinnati’s Table — to open the door for communication to people in the same neighborhood,” says Welcome Project manager Erika Nj Allen. “When you share food, even with strangers, that opens this door that allows you to communicate, or at least try to be friendly or giving. ‘Thank you.’ A lot of people know what that means, even if it’s not your own language.” 

For September’s event, everyone is invited to a special farm-to-table dinner at Cincinnati State that will feature the cooking of four to five chefs. The dinner will coincide with Welcoming Week, which includes thousands of events held across the country to unite immigrants and non-immigrants in the same communities. 


For more information on Cincinnati’s Table, visit welcomecincinnati.org.



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