Fair warning: if you’ve been dreaming about taking a leap towards work that’s deeply meaningful, this story might be just the push you’re looking for. In 2007, Meg Erskine met Johnson Doe and Paul Tiah, Liberian refugees who had recently landed in Austin, and in a moment, her life was changed. Drawn into their stories of fleeing war and civil unrest, and inspired by their ultimate triumph over challenges most of us could never imagine, Meg knew helping in any way she could would be her life’s work. Johnson and Paul understood from direct experience how challenging it was to resettle in an unfamiliar new community with no support system, no career prospects, and a personal history torn asunder, and they wanted to help others who found themselves in the same situation. The three soon met co-founder Sarah Stranahan, and Multicultural Refugee Coalition was born.
*photography by Thomas Winslow
MRC empowers refugees settled to Austin towards self-sufficiency through education, community, and reconciliation, and because they come from all over the world from vastly different cultural backgrounds, food is often their common language. Many refugees have farmed their whole lives, but now find themselves in small apartments with no room for a garden. So Meg, who has long been a supporter of fresh, healthy, local food, searched for a way to help these folks get their hands back in the dirt, growing good things to eat and providing for their families.
Now, each week, the refugees meet at Festival Beach Community Garden where they grow food to supplement grocery budgets stretched tight, but also to get their hands in the earth of their new community, to remember the flavors of their homelands, and to grow roots here, together. I caught up with Meg recently to talk about how her work with MRC has inspired her own views about food and hospitality.
What is ‘comfort food’ to you?
My Mom’s pound cake and homemade macaroni and cheese, and my Aunt Betty Anne’s grits and skillet biscuits.
What’s your favorite ingredient?
You can pretty much do almost anything with good olive oil and sea salt.
Tell us about a meal you will never forget.
One of the great benefits of working with the refugee population is being able to share great food traditions. Some of my most memorable meals have been sharing and learning about different ethnic foods at the homes of refugees from Iraq, Bhutan, Congo, Uzbekistan and more. Delicious food and great conversation– which inspired us to start the quarterly Ethnic Dinner Dialogs at MRC so that more people can learn and experience these great ethnic foods and cultures.
What does the table look like when you host a dinner party?
Full of delicious homemade local foods, great wine selection, serving dishes that tell a story, and of course good friends.
What’s the one cooking tool you can’t live without?
A good knife and good cutting board.
If you could pass on one trick or technique to a newbie cook, what would it be?
Get a good cookbook, such as Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, that is detailed about how to cook good and simple food and take a basic knife skills class. Both of these increased my confidence in the kitchen greatly.
Kitchen Inspirations ::
Inspired by hours in the kitchen with Iraqi refugees, Meg loves this recipe for Vegetable Biryani.
Your favorite food businesses in Austin:
I love all of our local farms and going to the Wednesday farm stands at Boggy Creek Farms and Springdale Farms. It’s great to be able to speak directly to your farmer and hear about what’s happening on the farm that week. Farmhouse Delivery delivers fresh and local produce right to our door each week. I also love Wink, Olivia and Lenoir, with their commitment for creating great foods with what’s grown locally.
Your favorite fall recipe:
Butternut squash soup.
Your favorite seasonal cocktail:
I am mostly a wine drinker and enjoy local wineries such as Duchman.
What are you cooking this week?
Whatever is in my Farmhouse Delivery basket, that’s the fun of it! Creating with what is provided to you each week. Most likely some roasted okra, a big salad, red lentils and collard greens, a pear tart, and butternut squash soup.
Favorite food and drink pairing:
Dark chocolate and a big, bold red wine.
Favorite quickly assembled appetizer:
Texafrance Garlic Pesto and fresh ciabatta is a quick go-to.
See more of Elizabeth’s work at Making Groceries.
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Loved reading about this organization and the way they are using food to foster a sense of community. The recipe for vegetable biryani sounds absolutely delicious!
Thank you Corinna–I can’t wait to try making it myself!
This is such an inspiring story. I normally never leave comments, but this time I felt compelled to do so. This project and these people deserve the greatest respect. Even in times of war, leaving your country, leaving everything and everyone you know behind takes courage. Yet, when they get to a safe haven, refugees are often treated as second rate citizens and integration is difficult, sometimes impossible. With this project, they enable refugees to grow roots, both literally and figurally, and make their host country a home country, even if it is only for a while. All my respect!
Birgit, thank you for leaving this comment! The resilience of these folks is truly inspiring, and touched me deeply.
Really inspiring story. It’s nice to meet someone who is working with food not merely for profit but to empower people in need.