Finding friends and food aplenty at Montreal's Supper Society
Başak Büyükçelen's monthly dinners help newcomers build bonds — one supper at a time
Food Connections is a series that explores the ways food brings Montrealers together in celebration, adventure and social solidarity. It's a collaboration between the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and CBC Montreal.
This story is the work of a 2019 graduate student in visual journalism, Lina Forero.
- Meet the team of student journalists who teamed up with CBC Montreal.
It's going on 7 p.m. on a recent Saturday evening, and Başak Büyükçelen is putting the final touches on the chili she and her husband are preparing for their dinner guests.
She's a little anxious, but when the doorbell rings and she rushes to answer it, there's no sign of nerves as she introduces herself with a smile and a handshake before welcoming the visitors inside.
One Saturday night each month, Büyükçelen opens up her home to friends and strangers, to host a potluck dinner party where locals, immigrants and refugees come together to share experiences and food.
She calls her year-old initiative the Supper Society.
Some people might find it awkward to have 30 to 40 people over for dinner — many of them hardly acquainted — but not Büyükçelen.
"I don't feel like they're strangers in my house. I feel like they are new friends in my house," she says.
It all began one Thanksgiving
Büyükçelen decided to start hosting these dinner parties after facing her own challenges as an immigrant when she moved to Canada from Turkey in 2013.
"I came by myself, so I didn't know anybody. I didn't know where I was going to live, how I was going to meet people, what kind of job I was going to look for, how I was going to learn French," she says. "I was completely lost."
Then a new friend invited her to a Thanksgiving dinner.
"For a few hours, I felt like I belonged. I felt like I was a true Canadian. Nobody called me an immigrant," says Büyükçelen.
That experience made her want to replicate it for others.
Büyükçelen organized a pilot dinner last May. She thought there'd be five or six people — her friends and a few newcomers. To her surprise, around 30 showed up.
That meal set the stage for each monthly dinner since.
Büyükçelen asks established Montrealers to bring a dish. Newcomers, however, are asked to bring nothing. After all, it's a dinner party to welcome them.
Everyone fills out a name tag upon arriving, to identify themselves as either a new or longtime resident.
Hamid Ayoub wears a newcomer label. Even though he moved to Canada from Sudan in 2001, he just recently came to Montreal to continue his studies. He says living alone in the city has been a challenge.
"The meetings are really helpful because you connect with new people. You feel like you are not alone in the process of being new in the city — that you are not the only one who feels lonely," Ayoub says.
After everyone has settled in, it's time for an icebreaker. Büyükçelen always makes sure to prepare a couple of games to encourage people to mingle and speak to others they don't already know.
"Who here can speak three languages?" she asks, glancing at her prepared list. "Who here knows how to drive?"
She invites people to introduce themselves to others, based on their responses.
At last, it's time to eat. The kitchen table is crammed with a variety of dishes from all around the world. Chicken biryani, Iranian lentil rice, Greek tzatziki, chili, guacamole, sushi and pita bread are there, alongside local foods like pizza and roast chicken.
- Check out this recipe for Adas Polow, Iranian lentil rice, Maryam Shoja's contribution to the potluck dinner
Guests cluster in small groups while eating, but everyone has the chance to talk to each person at least once during the evening — and there is no end of topics for discussion.
"Montreal is such an international town where people have either travelled a lot or have been around people who have travelled a lot," says Büyükçelen.
An antidote to racism
For Alexie Doucet, an established Montrealer and a regular at Supper Society evenings, this kind of initiative is a remedy to racism.
"It is the best antidote to all the prejudices about immigrants," she says.
Nicole Ives, a McGill University associate professor of social work, agrees.
"When you meet someone and you sit down with someone, and you share a meal with someone, you get to know [them] well. It provides opportunity for you to engage with someone and break down stereotypes and biases, whether you are aware of them or not," says Ives.
Newcomers often face difficulties integrating in their new countries, especially when it comes to overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers, she says.
"Language is probably the primary issue for both refugees and immigrants," says Ives, who has worked with migrant and refugee issues for nearly 30 years. "On top of that, you have finding a job, finding appropriate housing, and creating a social support network."
Ives says initiatives like the Supper Society present excellent opportunities for newcomers to learn about how to navigate their new country and to strengthen social networks through food.
Looking toward the future
Büyükçelen is looking for ways to expand the Supper Society, to make it bigger, to help reach even more people and maybe even hold the dinners in other places than her home.
For now, she's invited five women whose support has been crucial in organizing the dinners to be part of the Supper Society advisory board.
"My future hope is that it will come to a level where there will be mini-suppers happening around town at any given time, where established people will be inviting newcomers into their homes and having a dinner together," says Büyükçelen.
By 10:30 p.m. at her March supper, most of the evening's guests are getting ready to leave, while some linger over a cup of coffee or tea. Before people go, Büyükçelen asks each of them to fill out a survey with their contact information and their thoughts about the meeting, to help improve future dinners.
No one is asked to help clean up.
"People are always trying to help to clean out afterwards, but I keep telling them, 'Don't do this: you're not here to collect after anybody else. We're here to talk,'" she says.
"After all of this incredible socializing on a big Saturday, I run the dishwasher a couple of times, and then we take care of it slowly. The next day we just calmly clean up the house. That's it. It's fun."
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Food Connections is a collaboration between the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and CBC Montreal.