Refugee, immigrant women collaborate on 'memory' cookbook

Refugee and immigrant women in Waterloo region have taken recipes traditionally prepared from memory and created a cookbook now sold by a community arts group in Waterloo.

Artist Hiba Abdallah helped women record recipes currently made only from memory

The Memory Cookbook from Waterloo-based Button Factory Arts records recipes traditionally prepared from memory by refugee and immigrant women. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

Refugee and immigrant women in Waterloo region have taken recipes traditionally prepared from memory and created a cookbook now sold by Button Factory Arts in uptown Waterloo. 

The Memory Cookbook was a collaboration between the 27 women and Toronto-based visual artist Hiba Abdallah, and was funded through the Button Factory's outreach program. 

"I think some of them thought I was really weird," Abdallah told CBC News. "I was asking them such specific questions  about the thing they make every day."
Toronto-based visual artist Hiba Abdallah worked with 27 women to create a cookbook of traditional recipes, many of which had never been written down before. (Button Factory Arts/Facebook)

Food for thought

The project not only resulted in a small publication, but also created new connections among the participants. Through conversations about food, Abdallah said women in the program began to form quick and close relationships with each other. 

They began to share their favourite grocery stores, favourite ingredients, and tips for how to prepare different dishes. 

"It was really kind of incredible to see, across the board, how much more we all had in common when it comes to food," Abdallah said. "That was a really rich ground to work with."

Although some of the recipes in the book follow a conventional pattern — beginning with ingredients and ending with the method of preparation — many do not.

Many of the recipes do not follow a conventional pattern, as Abdallah tried to stay true to the way the recipes are passed down orally from generation to generation. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)
In order to capture the oral tradition invoked by many of the dishes, the book is not as rigidly structured as conventional cookbooks. Some will have ingredients listed, but the quantity will be vague. Other recipes just jump right into the instructions. 

"It's not going to be as specific as most stereotypical cookbooks are, because they're just going off their memory," she says. "I kind of wanted to keep that truth translated when I went to go design the actual cookbook."

Abdallah said many of the women found it useful to draw the instructions, which has resulted in the book also containing a lot of illustration.
Pages from the cookbook will be on display at the Button Factory Arts centre until May 28 as part of the Outreach Exhibition. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

Larger outreach initiative

The Memory Cookbook is just one of the projects to come out of the Button Factory's program, which began in September 2017 with a $30,000 grant from the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation. 

Artists and art therapists paired up with clients at the Sexual Assault Support Center, The Working Centre's Green Door used clothing store, and the YMCA's Newcomer Women to Canada program, providing them with unique art experiences.

It was the centre's first big outreach initiative. Allie Brenner, Button Factory outreach manager, says it was a lot of work but worth every minute. 

"I'm tired," she said, "but I'm also excited... I'm very happy with how it went."

She says the program will expand in the coming months to include two more community organizations: Ray of Hope and Reception House of Waterloo Region. 

Art created during the first phase of the program will be on display at the Button Factory in uptown Waterloo until May 28.

The Memory Cookbook can also be purchased at the Button Factory for $12.