MISSOULA — Whether it’s grandma’s cookies or mom’s chicken noodle soup recipe, food has a special way of connecting us with home.
And for immigrants, that connection can be even more meaningful.
United We Eat, a program through Soft Landing Missoula, gives immigrants the opportunity to share their culture’s traditional cuisine with local residents.
Soft Landing Missoula is a non-profit dedicated to welcoming immigrants to the Garden City and helping them feel comfortable with American culture.
For Beth Baker, program manager of United We Eat, food is an important way to celebrate culture.
“I think one of the things that I love about Soft Landing is its emphasis on celebrating,” she says. “We celebrate people’s new babies, we celebrate their citizenship tests or driver's licenses, and we celebrate with them through food.”
The goal of United We Eat is to both provide supplemental income for their chefs, as well as offer cultural connection through food.
They do this by offering weekly take-home meals for purchase, opening bi-annual pop-up restaurants for the community and hosting cooking classes.
The United We Eat cooking classes are held about every month and are typically offered virtually.
Chef Suhad Munshid led a class through a recipe of Baklava on Wednesday, December 13, 2023.
Munshid — who moved to Missoula from Iraq in 2019 — remembers learning to cook from her mother.
While she misses her time with her family, she was excited to share a traditional dish with Missoulians.
“I’m happy,” she said in Arabic. “This is my first time teaching American people the dishes I make. I hope this program will develop and you will learn more about us.”
The class was led by Munshid and a translator, and each student was given the necessary ingredients to make about two rolls of Baklava.
For most of the class participants, the dish was a new recipe, but they were all eager to try something new.
“Baklava, which I had never made before, and it just seemed like an interesting thing to do for the holidays,” said Quincy Gardner.
And they were even happier as they took home their box of Baklava at the end of the class.
“I’m just really glad that I came,” Merritt Hicks said after the class. “It’s a great way to learn how to make Baklava, and I’ve learned how to pronounce it right. And just to get to know other people, and I mean everybody has been so warm and friendly.”
Much like Munshid, Hicks remembers cooking with her mother — the sort of similarities and connection that can only be made through food.
“I think food is just one of those basic ways to break down barriers,” Baker says.
United We Eat virtual cooking classes began during COVID-19, and it was a perfect way for people to feel transported when travel was closed down, according to Baker.
“I think especially for when people were locked in and not able to travel and not able to be a part of the world, this was a great way for them to try some food from around the world and feel like they were transported and a part of somewhere else," she says.
The next cooking class will teach the Afghan dish, Curry Murgh, and will be held on Tuesday, January 9, 2024, from 5:30 p.m. until 7 p.m. Information on signing up can be found here.
The other aspect of United We Eat is UWE@Home where a menu is curated by a different chef each week, and the meals are sold online.
A pre-order can be made starting at 9 a.m. on Thursdays, then the chef, along with volunteers, prepares the meals for pickup on Tuesdays.