Proust had his madeleine. For Daury Moran Nuñez, a skinny 15-year-old with a peach-fuzz mustache and a well-picked afro, the taste that transports him back in time is mangú, a plantain mash covered with fried eggs and salami.
“I miss my mom’s food,” says Daury, who left the Dominican Republic for Brooklyn two years ago and still speaks with a thick accent. “She’s not here. Only my father and my brothers.”
Daury is a sophomore at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a public school that teaches English to recently arrived immigrants from more than 45 countries. Like many Dominicans, he grew up eating mangú for breakfast. So when the school invited students to bring a home-cooked dish to a food festival one Saturday, mangú was Daury’s obvious choice—and he was the obvious person to make it. Daury’s father works all day at a cemetery, often leaving the boy in charge of the kitchen.
On the morning of the Saturday festival, he rises at 8:00 to peel and boil plantains and fry up onions, and by early afternoon his creation is one of many dishes displayed on a long buffet table in a concrete courtyard outside the school.
“Dine in Brooklyn” this is not, but Marty Markowitz couldn’t ask for a better showcase of the borough’s diversity and solidarity than the global potluck hosted annually at the International High School, where more than 28 languages are spoken, and today the smells wafting from aluminum trays transport you around the world.
The pride is palpable. As bachata blares from the speakers, students and their families stroll in, hoisting their homemade dishes in the air like trophies. A Honduran mother arrives sporting an ornate straw hat and lugging an enormous pot filled with tamales. A Pakistani girl in a black headscarf carts a tray of kofta chicken meatballs. A fair-haired family from Denmark bears creamy scalloped potatoes, and several members of the school’s Chinese Club contribute an assortment of takeout they ordered by the pound: spare ribs, sesame chicken, fried shrimp, stir-fried bok choy and whole roast duck. The club considered ordering alligator feet, but eventually decided against it.
I got to know many of these students while writing a book entitled The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens. Their backgrounds and experiences are as wide-ranging as the dishes that they have brought today. The kids are Christian, Buddhist and Muslim. They hail from Mexican villages, the Tibetan plains, the diamond mines of Sierra Leone, the ancient cities of Yemen and the coasts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. But now that many of the students live in Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Crown Heights and Sunset Park, they share a certain amount of homesickness, especially when it comes to food. That’s one reason why the administrators decided to host a food festival in the first place, back when the school opened in 2004.
“Food has always brought our kids together. It’s kind of like an introduction to where someone comes from,” says Dariana Castro, the coordinator of special programs. “Our kids are very proud of their food, and it’s part of their history.”
It has been said that in the process of adapting to life in America, food is the last thing to go. Over time, if it isn’t used, language is lost. Clothes change. But a culture’s food endures. The students at the International High School are only in the beginning stages of adjusting to life here, but already they are holding tight to their family recipes even as they let other traditions slip away.
For the mother who made the time-intensive tamales, cooking is a labor of love not just for her kids, but for her country. “I want my children to know the typical food of Honduras, so they don’t lose the customs,” she says in Spanish, as her 18-year-old son, Lesly Vinicio Manzanarez Bronfield, translates.
Still, Mrs. Bronfield might be more familiar with some American food than her children are. By day, she works at McDonald’s. She says she likes the Big Mac sauce—but slow food is more her style.
“Her recipe is from long time ago,” Lesly says. “My grandma’s mother taught my grandma, my grandma taught my mom and my mother is teaching my little sister how to do the tamales.” Lesly points out his younger sister, a pretty, dark-haired girl wearing a traditional Honduran dress, white with colorful embroidery. “It’s like a chain,” he says.
While new Brooklynites make everything from roast pork to yak-butter tea—thanks in part to the borough’s abundance of ethnic grocery stores—the common refrain is that, stateside, dishes almost always falls short. as Netcha Estime, a 15-year-old from Haiti, explains: “Even if we buy the same ingredients, it doesn’t taste the same.” People adapt to America’s electric grills and frozen meat, to vegetables picked not from the field but from the supermarket. Tibetans make yak-butter tea with cow’s butter, and Sierra Leoneans improvise fufu, subbing in Bisquick and instant mashed potatoes for pounded cassava.
It’s not just new ingredients in ancient dishes. For some, even silverware is unfamiliar. One year, a group of teenage girls from Sierra Leone and Guinea who learned to read and write in class would stay after school to master forks and knives. And every September in the school cafeteria, a few freshmen try pizza or hamburgers or Tater Tots for the first time.
The day of the potluck, Daury gets in line for something he’s never tasted before: lasagna, which he’s wanted to try ever since he watched Garfield: The Movie back in the Dominican Republic. “He liked lasagna a lot,” Daury says, loading up his plate.
Others stick to what they know. “I’m very particular in terms of what I’m eating—like, is it halal or not?” says Aisha Azam, a 16-year-old from Pakistan, who skips a dish cooked by Netcha, the girl from Haiti. Netcha made griot, a rich mix of fried pork, onions, bell peppers and spices.
“We cook griot for communion, wedding, family party,” Netcha says. “It’s a national dish.” Tasting it now, she thinks of her country. “I remember the people I eat it with, my family. We eat it with plantains.”
That starch is a staple for many students’ families, but Nedda de Castro, the school principal, points out the grain that reigns supreme: “Everybody eats rice.”
Another common denominator: The majority of the students qualify for free lunch, and many work long hours after school, some as dishwashers or corner-store cashiers. Back at school, they shower the staff with gifts—the edible kind. Over the years, students have presented Dariana with everything from rice and beans to a Chinese cake she was instructed to deep fry. “That’s how they ‘pay us back,’” she says. “They always bring us food, and say, ‘Oh, my mom made this for you.’”
Daury did the cooking himself today, but now he’s got a problem. He served himself a heaping portion of lasagna, only to realize that all the plastic forks had been taken.
“How can Chinese people eat with these?” he wonders aloud, examining a pair of chopsticks, just as Dariana comes over to give a demonstration. After a few false starts, he is handling the chop- sticks nimbly enough to try his first bite of lasagna.
Daury takes a minute to find the right words in English. “I like it because…,” he closes his eyes and finishes chewing, “it feels good.”
Marty Markowitz couldn’t ask for a better showcase of the borough’s diversity than the potluck hosted annually at the Prospect Heights International High School, where more than 28 languages are spoken and the smells wafting from aluminum trays transport you around the world.
Photo credit: Virginie Blachere.