PORTLAND, Maine — Unlike so many other things in the modern-day world, food has the power to help people overcome barriers. That's a key message for this year's Welcoming Week in Portland, a nationally recognized effort happening from September 10-19, 2021 to bring together neighbors of all backgrounds.
The theme of this year's Welcoming Week is "belonging begins with us". To help bring that idea to life, Portland's Office of Economic Opportunity has been partnering with Wayside Food Programs, giving people from around the community an opportunity to taste and cook dishes from different cultures.
On Monday evening, the two featured local chefs for Portland's Welcoming Week 2021 whipped up some samples of their food to serve visitors in the green by Wayside. One of the chefs, Shanna-Kay Wright, is the owner of Jamaican restaurant YardieTing. She was born and raised in Jamaica and moved to Maine in 2005 at 18 years old. She says learning to cook dishes from her culture helped her adapt to living in a new place.
"Maine is now my home. I wouldn't think of going anywhere else," Wright expressed, noting how happy she was to be asked to take part in Monday's event.
"Food is definitely a merger -- like, everybody loves food," Wright said, adding, "An event like this -- we're bringing people together and saying, 'Hey, let's all come together. You're all welcome here.'"
The other featured chef, Andres Espinoza, owner of Empanada Club, has been in Maine for about five years now and decided to learn to cook a few years ago to make a better living for his daughter.
"I didn't know how to cook when I came here, but I started to work in a restaurant -- and that's when I started getting this idea of making empanadas, like in Bolivia," Espinoza recalled.
People from all different backgrounds tried Wright and Espinoza's dishes on Monday, including mother Ksenia, who is from Russia and moved to Maine six months ago when her husband got a job opportunity.
"I wanted to try to taste some food (from) restaurants," Ksenia said about why she decided to partake with her two children. "It's interesting to taste something new."
For Julia Trujillo, director of Portland's Office of Economic Opportunity, bringing that new experience and connection to people is the goal of Welcoming Week.
"There are not many opportunities for people to come together like this, so we really try to be intentional about it," Trujillo explained.
To do so, Wayside employees helped put together meal kits to hand out at Monday's event. In each bag, they included ingredients and recipes needed to make the dishes Wright and Espinoza shared -- a coconut curry and carrot salsa.
"The theme of this year's Welcoming Week is belonging -- so, just sending the message that everyone in Portland belongs," Rachel Freedman, the communications and events manager for Wayside said, also saying, "It means families can cook together, try new recipes together, and enjoy food together."
On Wednesday, September 15, and Thursday, September 16, the city will be hosting Facebook live streams, where Wright and Espinoza will virtually teach people how they make their dishes, using the ingredients in those meal kits. If you didn't pick up a meal kit but would like to follow along, you can find the recipes by clicking here.