The Story

Cooking Standing Up
By Lindsay Sterling
I’m heading into a public housing duplex. It’s two stories: red bricks on the bottom and cream vinyl siding on top. I’m looking forward to a Sudanese cooking lesson. Inside lives the Yanga family: two young kids, one tween, four teenagers and their parents, Rebeka and John. It’s John who teaches me how to cook batatis, his favorite dish from Kuli Papa, a village not far from Juba in Southern Sudan. Batatis is surprisingly similar to beef stew, only it features peeled baby potatoes and is not served in a bowl, but on a plate with white rice, okra, and salad.
For the salad, he uses iceberg lettuce but says he’d prefer arugula. “Arugula?” I ask. I didn’t think people who lived in public housing ate arugula. John says it’s what he’d serve in Sudan. It’s also what he’d serve if we were cooking together in July because he’d get it straight from his farm. “Your farm?” Two years ago, Cultivating Community, a local nonprofit, helped him start Yanga Family Farm on 2 acres they leased from a retired farmer in Lisbon. John drives a van forty minutes back and forth between home and the farm, and on Saturdays to the Deering Oaks Farmers Market where he sells local, organic produce. But since the farm is covered in 3 feet of snow now, he fetches baby potatoes and a garlic head he grew last summer from cardboard boxes in his basement.
John’s dream for his retirement is farming full time. Right now he still works five days a week at an engine parts factory. He wants to grow Yanga Family Farm to provide jobs for his children. Even though the economic future of small farms in America depresses me, it doesn’t appear to bother John. His business is growing. Last summer, Yanga Family Farm allowed John’s family to cut their food stamp usage in half, eat local, organic food, and make a profit. John is so thrilled with what he’s learned about the farming business here that he’s going to Kuli Papa for a month to help clear land and teach. “If you have a farm,” he says, “You help the country itself.” He knows all to well that the country needs help.
He left Sudan when he was a teenager because he won a college scholarship in Egypt. His parents encouraged him to go, not for the opportunities education would bring, but because Arabs were killing the most educated in their village first. Indeed, after he left, civil war exploded. Much of his family died. Rebeka described what John missed in her severely limited English: “planes flying low, bullets coming down.” She couldn’t tell me how many people she saw die. John translated that she didn’t see because she was hiding.
John and Rebeka married and lived in Egypt where he finished his bachelors and masters degrees in geography and theology and had five kids. They also raised John’s sister’s three children because she was murdered in the chaos in Sudan. When John was told he couldn’t work in Egypt because he lacked citizenship, they applied to become refugees. They arrived in Portland, Maine, ten years ago. At 51, John laughs at many of the shocking culture gaps his life straddles. I must have made some comment about his kitchen, that he needed more pots or Tupperware because literally every single pot he owned was holding leftovers in the fridge. He laughs and says he’s happy to be cooking standing up – in front of a stove. In Sudan, he cooked bent over a fire.
copyright Lindsay Sterling 2011