Sociology major finds nostalgia in recipes
If you ask sociology major Phalika Oum ’23 about her mom’s oxtail soup, you’ll get a recipe—and a story:
I’d recognize the smell of my mom’s kuy teav from anywhere. From my sleep, even. I should win an award for the number of times I’ve woken up to the smell of onions, carrots and oxtail dancing in a star anise, cinnamon and galangal brine. Nothing scream Cambodian the way kuy teav does—it defies all laws of eatery. It’s is an all-three-meals food, I don’t feel so well food, I feel amazing food, I have to recycle my leftover food, and I miss the smell of the earth during sunrise food. I do not have the dexterity for a soup spoon, so I drink directly from the bowl. Even as a noodle dish, I always end up eating leftover soup with rice. Tiny glimpses of Heaven, I think.
That’s just one of the stories in her cookbook, “Stories From Small Numbers,” a collaboration between Oum—who is the Grantham Community Garden Coordinator—and the Office of Sustainability. As the Grantham Community Garden coordinator, she says that a garden is a sacred space, because it’s where food and stories begin.
“I was taught that seeds hold stories. You pass down the seeds and you pass down the stories. When you’re cooking what you’ve grown and spending time with your family, you make cultural memories. I hope the cookbook shows that,” she said, who grew up in Cambodia but relocated to Dover, Delaware, with her family at age 17.
The cookbook includes 55 recipes from around the world and the stories behind them, all contributed by Messiah students, faculty and staff. The title comes from anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s book, “Fear of Small Numbers,” in which the author discusses the strength and resilience of those who have been marginalized. Oum also used Appadurai’s work "Modernity at Large" as the theoretical backdrop for her senior thesis "Liturgy of the Dispersed: Memory, Transnationalism, and Cambodian Cuisine in the American Diaspora,” which she presented at the 2023 Humanities Symposium in February.
“Our family has been impacted by the Cambodian diaspora. My parents lost a lot of family,” she explained, detailing the 1970s genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Through migration and resettlement, parts of a culture are lost. Sometimes, though, the recipes—and the resulting stories from them—remain.
“Cooking traditional Cambodian meals takes hours. In those hours that I spend with my mom in the kitchen, she tells me stories of my grandma, of my siblings, of her growing up,” said Oum.
As she finishes her final semester at a public health-centered study program in Baltimore and graduates, she and her family plan to visit her grandmother in Australia whom she hasn’t seen in many years. One can only guess at the number of stories and recipes that will result from that visit.
“There’s a lot to learn from food history. It’s a way for people to write their cultural history and have it preserved for years to come,” said Oum.
More than recipes
Each of the 55 recipes in “Stories From Small Numbers” includes a story behind the recipe. Here are just a few:
Katy Deets ’22, sociology major
Senegalese maffe (peanut butter stew)
Dish origin: Senegal
This is one of several Senegalese dishes that my family makes that will always remind me of home. The way that Senegalese eat this and the way that our family has always eaten it is with the large dish in the middle of the table. Everybody eats out of it communally, either with hands or spoons. Each person usually sections off their portion, but if you eat with Senegalese families, you should expect them to keep pushing more food onto your side because they are happy when you like the food and eat a lot.
Abraham Torres ’23, psychology major
Dish origin: Puerto Rico
My brother and I are notoriously picky eaters, and as a result, we stuck to just chicken, cheese and other staples of Latinx culture. Growing up, we couldn’t stand each other, but one thing we gladly worked together on was this basic recipe for our favorite fried food. We usually don’t talk. We just sit in silence as I watch the fryer and as he constructs more empanadas for the fryer. As we have gotten older, when my family would ask me to make it, I would look toward my little brother knowing he would have my back as we work to feed our huge family.
Anastasia Couch ’21, peace and conflict studies major
Dish origin: Ukraine
The world now knows Ukrainians for their resilient resistance. Their gardens carry the same quality. The ingredients in this dish may be humble, but the first things that my family planted this year were beets and potatoes and cabbage seedlings, even as the regions around them were bombed. Of the many times I’ve made borscht, it’s been a prayer more than anything, echoing generations before me: “Strengthen my hands to be stubborn. Teach me resilience.”
Katriel Moss ’23, business administration major
Dish origin: The Bahamas
This meal is one of the most common native dishes found in the Bahamas, served as a side with meals any day of the week. It is also a must-have, served at holiday gatherings or celebrations. When living in another country, Bahamians love to share this dish with others. It is such a delectable delight in the country! This dish is one of my favorites to be served, and I always look forward to eating it or making it with family. This dish helps me to think of nothing but good memories and experiences whether home or abroad.
Brooke Wimberly ’23, social work major
Grammy’s deep-dish apple pie
Origin: Aiken, South Carolina
My great-grandmother passed away when I was 13 years old. Growing up, my dad had always shared favorite memories of traveling to South Carolina to visit family. A common theme throughout these stories involved fishing with his grandma and mind-blowing meals. A part of those meals was my great-grandmother’s pie. She passed this recipe on to my mother who has continued to pass it on to her children.