Über den Tellerrand
The organization Über den Tellerrand brings people of different cultures into conversation with each other through diverse cooking events. Their motto: Make the world a better plate.
Whether it’s kale, baba ghanoush or tagliatelle – the dishes that people cook around the world may be very different, but in all cultures, food is much more than the mere intake of nourishment: Around the planet, people talk, discuss, laugh and, incidentally, nurture a sense of community at mealtimes.
Über den Tellerrand e. V. (translated as Beyond the Plate) has been using this common denominator since 2013 to promote exchange between cultures and make it easier for people with and without refugee experience to establish contact. The association offers a variety of event formats around cooking together, where participants can meet each other face to face and mutually explore the worlds of taste beyond their own horizons, or, in this case, beyond the edges of their own plates. The headquarters have been the Kitchen Hub in Berlin since 2015, but around 35 other Über den Tellerrand satellites are now active in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Colombia.
Despite the heterogeneity of the ingredients, cooking and eating means experiencing the common, elementary memories that we all associate with the taste of our food, much like Marcel Proust describes in his novel In Search of Lost Time. For the protagonist, the taste of a madeleine dipped in lime blossom tea conjures up the whole world of his childhood. Taste is therefore not simply a sensory impression that lingers on the tongue for a few moments; it is closely interwoven with individual and collective stories, like how and on what occasion certain dishes were prepared in one’s own family, and therefore also stores intense feelings of home. When communicating about food, more and more doors are opened that allow new insights into the cultures of others.
The mobile cooking studio Kitchen on the Run provided additional support for Über den Tellerrand. For this, the initiators had a freight container converted into an “integration incubator” in cooperation with the Department of Architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. The team traveled through Europe with this container for five months in 2016 to bring the idea of an open and diverse society to new places. Both refugees and local residents were able to act as hosts and give others insights into their culture. Around 20 participants helped prepare the dishes, which were finally eaten together at a long table.
Over the next three years, the kitchen container moved to small German towns. The team stayed in each place for seven weeks in order to develop the concept of intercultural coexistence and, at the same time, build up an active community in cooperation with already existing initiatives to organize cooking events and other social activities even after the container had left.
The documentation of these trips illustrates what these kinds of cooking events can mean for refugees. Khaled, a 50-year-old Syrian, told the team how the IS attacked his town and destroyed everything his family had built up. As the children often cried from hunger, they cooked leaves from the trees in their distress. They finally managed to escape to Germany via Turkey. “We smiled at all the people, approached many, invited them to our house for tea or dinner, and cooked dishes from our culture for our neighbors and put them on their doorstep. But nothing worked out,” Khaled explained. His family suffered greatly from not connecting, and so three years after arriving in Germany, they considered moving back to Turkey. Then the kitchen container stopped near them. They spent a lot of time there with others and finally felt part of a community. When Khaled didn’t want to eat one evening, the team asked him why. Khaled replied, “I am full with contentment.”
The documentaries bring many special moments to the reader’s attention. In Duisburg, for example, the human rights choir rehearsed in the church next door while two Iraqi families instructed the cooking in the container. Despite pouring rain, the choir brought its piano into the container and sang the paragraphs of the UN Declaration of Human Rights for fifteen minutes. A week later, three Iraqi singers joined the choir.
The Covid pandemic has, of course, severely limited Über den Tellerrand’s activities, but the 12-member team in Berlin is already making plans for the container’s next itinerary and preparing new meeting formats, such as bringing families together. In addition, the organization, which is politically independent and non-denominational, also offers a wide range of support for refugees, whether in making a new start in Germany or entering the job market.
But the local societies also benefit greatly from its commitment. The communities that come together as a result of the initiative’s impetus demonstrate to everyone else that diversity offers mutual enrichment and that coexistence across generations and social classes harbors unimagined qualities. What many might consider an absolute utopia turns out to be a livable reality in the container, the Kitchen Hub and many other meeting places.
Kitchen on the Run [photo: © Ute Peppersack]