Food & Drink » Food

African Culinary Heritage Conference Unites Cultures with Food

Bridging continents through discussion, panels and food


Iron Chef was on TV when Susan Obasi-Ikeagwu got the idea for an African culinary festival.

At the time, more than four years ago, she was living in El Paso, Texas before a job with World Relief brought her to Boise. She was starting to feel disillusioned with how she saw Africans being treated in the United States.

"Before I came here, I always had it in mind that America is an amazing place where everybody can find their place in it," Obasi-Ikeagwu said. "But when I came here it was quite different from what I had understood."

In her day-to-day life, she saw that African immigrants were perceived as a threat to local jobs and the economy, but on national TV, she watched as a chef lovingly prepared a dish of black-eyed peas that she remembered fondly from her time in Nigeria.

That's when Obasi-Ikeagwu realized food is a universal language—one that could help unite Americans with African immigrants facing discrimination in their new homes.

It wasn't until she moved to Boise, where she began helping resettle African refugees fresh from war-torn countries, that an event focusing on African cuisine started to take shape.

Now, in partnership with Boise State University, the inaugural African Culinary Heritage and Integration Conference is set to take place Friday, Nov. 14 through Saturday, Nov. 15.

The conference runs 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 14 in the Boise State Student Union Building's Simplot and Jordan ballrooms, with panels on food security, ethno-ecology and preserving traditional culinary culture. Keynote speaker, Indiana University's Dr. Gracia Clark, will give a speech titled "Money, Sex and Cooking."

There's also a free luncheon on Friday at St. Paul's Church, 1915 W. University Dr., which will feature food samples from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Somalia, along with other international cuisine.

The event continues Saturday, Nov. 15, from 4:30-10:30 p.m. at the Powerhouse Event Center, where a $25 donation is suggested. The evening will include a dinner buffet with Eritrean and Ethiopian Food from the Red Sea; Arabian and Egyptian Dishes from Goodness Land and American foods from Big Valley Ranch. Afterwards, there will be a drumming workshop, a storytelling/poetry event, a fashion show and a dance party with Afro and South American beats.

According to Kathy Tidwell, who helped Obasi-Ikeagwu organize the conference, food is a gateway to wider issues. Immigrants and refugees often lose the sense of community, health and security that comes from familiar meals when they leave their countries.

Tidwell runs a mental health clinic that works with refugees whose histories contain no small amount of trauma. Losing something as simple as a traditional diet can make many people feel even more isolated from their roots.

"Food is such an intimate thing for all of us," Tidwell said. "For refugees, in particular, who have been involuntarily transplanted, having so many losses and to also lose the way that you've nurtured your body with food... When they get here, they don't recognize a lot of the food we have here, they can't find the food they would recognize, they don't know the names of things in English. That's a huge part of the disruption."

Tidwell put together a panel of four African immigrants and refugees called "Nurturing Mind, Body and Spirit: Stories from Africa," which takes place Friday from 2:30-4 p.m.

"They will each tell a story or two about how they were nurtured in Africa, related to food," she said. "Some stories may have to do with the growing of the food, it might have to do with harvesting the food, it may have to do with preparing the food, eating the food, cleaning up. It's a huge part of what they've lost. The whole way that they prepare and eat food together is very different from here."

The food African transplants eat when they get to the United States tends to be drastically different, too. Obasi-Ikeagwu said the highly processed, GMO-filled foods that are found in American grocery stores wreak havoc on many immigrants' bodies and minds.

"People get here and they eat all this kind of food and they [gain] weight, they get depressed, they have mental health issues and they get on medication upon medication," she said.

In an effort to provide healthier, more natural options, Obasi-Ikeagwu and her husband opened a shop selling organically raised meat at the Boise International Market, located at 5823 W. Franklin Road. She said the high-quality meat found at Whole Foods and Natural Grocers is often too expensive for most refugees, so she's trying to provide a cheaper option. Another important part of the conference is bringing awareness to the community that resources like the Boise International Market exist for immigrants, refugees and natives alike.

Obasi-Ikeagwu and Tidwell both hope that the event brings together many different cultures to have open discussions centered around a shared love of food.

"I want to see a crowd of different colors [at the conference]," Tidwell said. "I want to see other refugees here, to see people like them who have gotten through the transition. Having that hope even in so much despair, to see someone like you that was able to make it to a different place, I think is incredibly powerful."