Honoring Diversity

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It has been eighteen months since I left my job with Whole Foods Market. I don’t miss the place. But I do miss the people.

What I loved most about WFM* was its grass-roots approach to marketing. Each store had a local feel, catering to the immediate community it served. As everyone knows, WFM encouraged sampling. Part of my job was to plan and create sampling events revolving around holidays and seasons. The most popular event at “my” store by far was the celebration of world cuisines. It was as popular with team members as it was with customers.

Celebrating our team members’ diversity was important. Keeping us happy was one of the company’s core values (WFM is not unionized). It was a tremendous amount of work, but believe it or not, not a huge monetary investment. In return we had happy team members, who came together, taking pride in their own cuisines and cheering each other on. They were on the clock, they were to use ingredients from the store and although it was work, it was out of the daily routine. Instead of being robots cranking the gears of a money making machine, they were human, talented, and creative individuals sharing their own food with a community of world citizens they worked with and customers they served.

My job was to coordinate, plan and promote, armed with a spreadsheet that included names and countries of origin, the list of dishes to be prepared, the number of tables needed. The recipes had to be written, the ingredients had to be shopped and paid for by the marketing budget which I controlled. Signage, posters and name badges needed to be designed, printed and distributed.

The exchange that went on between us was invaluable. We learned so much from one another. Sharing our traditions, our family history and status, our life’s journeys. I don’t believe we ever felt happier and more connected. Due to its popularity, the event had to be divided into two shifts with six to seven stations each, while our Saturday business had to go on as usual. My team had to roll out the stations, set up tables with signage, flowers and flags, serving utensils and sample cups and then clean up and reorganize half-way through the day for the next shift.

Over the years we sampled Fantu’s Ethiopian Dorowat, Paul’s Scotch Broth and Elizabeth’s  “Queen’s Soup” from the Netherlands. Miss Molly made Stew Peas from Jamaica, Brian made spicy Stewed Chicken from Trinidad and Elaine served a Pineapple Ginger-ade for cooling relief. Moses sampled Chapati from Tanzania, Yacine made Fataya (fish or meat pies) from Senegal and Gerard couldn’t have taken more pride in serving  his Lazy Boy Casserole or the best North Carolina BBQ pulled Pork you’d ever tasted.

From El Salvador we had Freddy, Edith, Jose and Wilmer make, stuffed Chayote Squash, fried Plantains and Yucca and Pastelitos de Pina. From Poland, Tom served Bigos. Isabelle, from Burkina-Faso, fried Black Eyed Pea Puffs in front of customers, while dressed to the nines in her beautiful blue kaftan and turban. Fatim and Solange served Peanut Butter Soup from the Ivory Coast and Miss Francis spooned out her richest American Bread Pudding to rival Donovan’s Sweet Potato Pudding from Jamaica. Stella made a fabulous Romanian salad, Kay, a celebration rice from India. From the Middle-East we alternated representation between Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. But the one country that always took the prize was Morocco. Year after year, Khalid went all out with a Tagine of a whole fish, a Couscous with lamb and vegetables and a variety of salads. He alone would require two tables to accommodate his sweeping spread.

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Each year’s event was met with enthusiasm and growing excitement. Preparations became easier and entries more competitive. We celebrated good food, healthy food and world cuisines. But most of all we relished our diversity and our ability to have fun together, to work together and appreciate one another. Our workplace was a microcosm of what makes this country so great. It breaks my heart to witness the political change today that is unfolding before our eyes.

I am grateful for the meaningful exchange between fellow team members that touched our lives for a short while. We shared our fears and joys, our stories of hardship and success, and bonded by sharing our own healing home-cooked food.


On a side note WFM has changed as well: as competition grew, the company changed its marketing strategy, cut labor and steered its marketing dollars in a different direction. And with that, our jobs and events were the babies thrown out with the bathwater.


*WFM opened in DC in 1996 as Bread & Circus and a couple of years later the company bought up Fresh Fields and adopted the name for all the Mid-Atlantic stores. It was not until 2003 that WFM unified all the natural food chains it had acquired under the Whole Foods Market brand.

Christmas Revisited

My mom Loo-oved Christmas! Going all out, she began her Christmas baking in November. First came the dark fruit cake that soaked in brandied cotton cloth for a month. Later, all the different varieties of cookies and Christmas Stollen* would follow in December. When my mother moved to DC, she gave it all up.

I am not a baker but I tried to keep up some traditions especially when the kids were young. Year after year, the gestures, the decorations, the cooking and the baking would gradually get distilled and simplified. The only tradition that was somehow created here under my own roof, was the cookie decorating sessions. I would make the ginger bread cookie dough, roll, cut, bake and store. Then, once everyone was gathered, I’d make the royal icing, color it with natural food dyes and let everyone go to work.

My home is the meeting place for mother, siblings, family and sometimes in-laws. But Christmas happens late in our household: a direct result of a retail job that exhausted me year after year and totally sucked the joy out the holidays. I drag my feet and lack enthusiasm. Our family preparations for Christmas are just more work. We find ourselves, the last people in a darkened lot, scurrying around for the “perfect” tree, while attendants turn off lights and pack up for the year.

Christmas Eve menu is (vaguely) discussed to accommodate the vegans and the meat eaters, the traditionalist, the liberals and the rebels.  Shopping happens last minute. It involves multiple family members, young and old, tagging along for the experience of frenetic holiday shopping and to haggle over who should foot the bill.

Cookie decorating takes place hours before dinner, while putting up the tree. It’s a mad rush to make it all happen. We gather some friends and neighbors to add to the mix. Our dinner is thrown together haphazardly and chaotically—Martha Stewart would die! My mother would be somewhat disapproving— calling us “crazy”.

But we manage and we PARTY! The evening itself is an improvisational act: a mishmash of a Hawaiian luau with leis, African music, Christmas crackers, paper hats and crowns, pork tenderloin and tuna steaks. Don’t ask. A hodgepodge of people, food and drink, music and conversation. It couldn’t be more eclectic and off the wall if we tried!

My mother passed away two Christmases ago. We spent that Xmas week sadly at the hospital by her side or huddled together at home around the dining table quietly staring at a thousand-piece puzzle, trying to make conversation. Downing the drinks, we waited for a better prognosis, but the inevitable came as a shock, despite of our high hopes for a miracle.

Xmas 2015 was avoided: my husband, our two daughters and I spent five days in Tulum for a change of scene, only to come back with a bad case of food poisoning.

This year, we give Christmas another try. We begin a new cycle, by reopening the circle of life.  With my parents gone I have a mission to accomplish: our family spirit of togetherness and generosity, the care and the love we inherited must live on… and so must the baking. It began two weeks ago. It helps that I no longer have my retail job.

I considered attempting my mother’s delicious fruitcake, but it didn’t take long to nix that thought. Sorry mom! I made tiny stars and gingerbread men, some “undecorated”—for the children to do their thing. I also made Pfeffernusse, German spice cookies, inspired by my aunt Mona’s that would arrive every year by post, until, she too, could not bake any longer. I made my own candied lemon peel. I couldn’t bear to use any store-bought lemon peel with sulphur dioxide and other added junk. And although the recipe recommends freshly ground spices, there was no chance in a million that I would grind cinnamon bark and whole cloves—I do not have an electric spice grinder. I draw the line at black pepper and perhaps cardamom. For nutmeg, I use a micro plane but that is it. The rest of my spices come already ground in a jar.

I am contemplating making Chewy Molasses Cookies which I tried at a holiday party last week. The recipe is from Bon Appetit. Maybe, I should wait for my sister and my baking-loving daughter to arrive. Perhaps they will enjoy the experience of bonding over cookie-making. I think my job is almost done, the baking I have accomplished so far is probably sufficient. Delegating is a good thing. It channels guilt, teaches others responsibility and definitely relieves me from stress.

No matter how hard I try to make things right, I expect the inevitable emotional effervescence of my family to bubble over with its dysfunctions, its insecurities and anxieties, like it has at times in the past. But many of our elders are gone and we will miss them always. This year is the beginning of a new dynamic. I brace myself not knowing what to expect. Come what may…. Bring it on.

One thing’s for certain, I made some cookies and next year I will get better at it. The best is yet to come. I will keep you posted.

I highly recommend the Chewy Molasses cookies. If it’s not too late, try them both. The ingredients are almost the same which makes for a more economical use of ingredients. Here are the links:

The recipe for the Pfeffernusse is from an old Saveur
Bon Appetit’s Chewy Molasses Cookies
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*Stollen: German Christmas bread.