We all come from somewhere else. You might have to go a few generations back, but we are all immigrants. I try to imagine how they felt, these ancestors of mine. One branch came on a convict ship in 1792. Perhaps they considered themselves lucky to have left the grimness of Britain, maybe not. This family ended up in Tasmania and there’s a murky family legend of a bigamist great-great-great grandfather and involvement with a bushranging gang.
Several decades later, James McGill came from Scotland to the Victorian Goldfields to strike it rich. He didn’t make his fortune but was comfortably off. For the next few generations, his descendants lived a genteel life in Melbourne. They were shopkeepers, printers, and clerks. They went to church dances and played cricket and holidayed in Healesville. My paternal ancestors also had gold-fever; coming from Glasgow they settled at the foot of Mt Buninyong. They ended up living in South Gippsland via a stint in the western Riverina of NSW.
The Mister (aka my husband) is an immigrant from the UK. His life has been one of moving from continent to continent. He was born in Iringa, a town perched on a cliff above the Little Ruaha River, in the highlands of Tanzania. The family returned to India when he was three and he spent several years living in Lakhanpore, a tiny village in Gujarat surrounded by rice fields.
At the age of six, he got on a plane and they all went to live in a red brick house in Manchester. His nomadic tendencies manifested in later life when he stayed in a series of shared student houses in Portsmouth, London, and Melbourne. Work took him to Hong Kong for a few years and finally there was the move back to Australia. And sometimes I look at him and marvel at the funny chain of events that brought us together; my convict ancestor’s rash idea of stealing a sheep in 1792, my great-great-grandfathers leaving Scotland to take their chance on the Goldfields in the 1850s, and my father-in-law’s decision to emigrate to Enoch Powell’s England of the sixties. The end result is my family live on this island continent at the bottom of the world, and our children are Australian.
The common ground amongst this hotchpotch diaspora of all our forebears is that they saw the opportunity to make a better life for their children and they grabbed it with both hands.(with the possible exception of the convict ancestor)
All this was running through my head the other night when the Mister and I went to a community dinner for The Welcome Dinner Project. I was unsure about what to expect when we walked into the small hall in Reservoir.
The Welcome Dinner Project brings together newly arrived and established Australians in local homes to share food and stories. It is pot-luck style with facilitator volunteers leading proceedings. The project took off in NSW and has spread throughout Australia, tapping into people’s generosity and willingness to connect. Most dinners are held in private homes, and some, like the one we attended, are in local community centres.
The proceedings began with an address by State Coordinator, Rachel Clark; a Welcome to Country from Aunty Di Kerr; and finally, a call to prayer from Iman Abdul-Rahman.
People strolled around the tables looking at the platters of food. Our table held an eclectic mix of dishes; Irish, Indian, and American style BBQ; two types of dhal, Persian-style rice, a veggie curry, soda bread, date scones and a lemon meringue pie.
We were asked by our table facilitator, David, to introduce our food. Dilnaz is originally from India, but her roots are far back in Persia, and for that reason, she made Persian style dhal and rice. Michelle, the maker of the soda bread, said that her bread was as close to her grandmother’s recipe as she could get. ‘The Mister’ cooked Gujarati spiced cabbage and potatoes and dhal. David whipped up a French style tart not because he is French, but because of his love of French food.
Although sharing of the food was not mandatory, we were encouraged to do so. People were eager to try the unfamiliar and were questioning unusual flavours and quizzing one another about ingredients. And that was just our table. Around the room, people were coming together to celebrate diversity, forge friendships and develop a sense of community simply by sitting down and sharing food.
Halfway through our dinner, we were encouraged to swap tables and connect with others and try some of their food. This was like culinary speed dating but with no awkwardness, because talking about food, the ingredients, and its origins comes naturally to most people.
I reconnected with Jackie, a classmate from a course I took years ago. I chatted to a lady about reading and we discovered we had the love of an author in common. My husband found that Dilnaz came from a village in the same part of Gujarat as his family. We spent so much time chatting that we didn’t take any photos of the food.
Out of these dinners, a friendship may begin, an idea exchanged or an attitude could shift. A low-key dinner eaten from paper plates at a community centre in Melbourne may have a much more far-reaching effect at the grassroots level than any government think tank.
If you’d like to get involved with The Welcome Dinner Project, visit joiningthedots.org