Jennifer Brooks
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In the bleak early days of the pandemic, as Americans cocooned themselves in jigsaw puzzles, half-sewn face masks and bubbling tubs of sourdough starter, student journalist Nina Raemont started cooking.

The University of Minnesota junior had always enjoyed cooking. But now — taking classes online, writing for a newsroom she'd never set foot in — she had a lot more time to spend in the kitchen.

"I just found myself making a lot of food and feeling upset that I wasn't able to bring it to my friends," Raemont said. "I thought, 'When is the next time that I'm going to be able to really share a meal across a table with people, and talk about the food, and eat the food and have that collective experience with someone else?'"

Turns out, there's more than one way to share a meal. Raemont pitched the idea that became "Sharing Food" to her editors. A recurring feature where students teach one another how to make their favorite comfort foods — from hot dish to chicken adobo to a savory bowl of qaib rau tshuaj.

She was looking for dishes simple enough to whip up in a minimally stocked college kitchen, on a minimal college budget. The sort of meals you share at Grandma's, not the kind you order in a restaurant.

She reached out to student organizations across campus, looking for recipes, and the stories behind the recipes.

"What's something comforting that you love and you love to make?" she wanted to know.

A dozen members of the Oromo Student Union banded together to share a meal with the entire campus. Eventually, they settled on a dish Derartu Ansha's grandmother used to make back in Ethiopia, before Minnesota was home.

Cacabsa is a breakfast staple in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. A chewy aromatic bread dish made with teff flour and spiced with cardamom, ginger, coriander, fenugreek and half your spice rack.

"This dish, I hope it provides comfort. And I hope if anyone tries [the recipe], they share it with someone else," said Ansha, a junior majoring in sociology. "A huge part of food in our culture is that we do it as part of a family or a community, and you're sharing with someone. That's the best thing about it."

That's the real comfort of comfort food. The people we shared these dishes with in the past. The people we share them with now.

The meal sophomore Emily Nguyen shared starts with the memory of a crowded kitchen and the sizzle of batter hitting the pan. Bánh xèo, with nuoc mam cham on the side.

She and other members of the Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota worked to share the recipe for these savory crêpes and dipping sauces. If you can make pancakes, you can make bánh xèo.

"Growing up, my grandma and my mom would be in the kitchen a lot. This was a really good time to bond with them," she said.

It takes time to prepare a meal like this, painstakingly producing each crêpe loaded with shrimp, pork belly or tofu, then moving on to the next. But making a meal together has always been about more than just the food.

"It's reminiscent of my childhood and family," Nguyen said. "That's one of the reasons why I love this dish."

In October, Minnesota Daily readers learned about the "homey, nutritional and earthy" charms of qaib rau tshuaj, a chicken and herb broth traditionally served to new mothers.

Mayflower Vang, of the Hmong Minnesota Student Association, walked Raemont through the ingredients — sweet flag, joe-pye weed and iresine aren't hard to find in a state that's home to more than 66,000 Hmong Americans — and why the pungent herbs she disliked as a small child now taste like home and comfort to her.

This week, as students at the U returned to class — if not necessarily to campus — Sharing Food returned with a recipe for hommous bi tahini, courtesy of Nadia Aruri, outreach coordinator for Students for Justice in Palestine.

For Aruri, the meal is tied up in memories of waking each morning to the whir of the food processor as her mother whipped up a fresh batch of hummus to be enjoyed with every meal throughout the day, blended with herbs and drizzled with Palestinian olive oil. The recipe is just chickpeas, sesame seed paste, garlic, salt and lemon juice, and it's going to put you off grocery store hummus forever.

Raemont is an Illinois transplant, so when it came time to share a recipe for hot dish, she took a page from the Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook from Grace Lutheran Church in Mankato.

The recipe, submitted in the 1930s by Mrs. C.W. Anderson and tested through 90 years of church suppers, features the pure alchemy of beef, cream of mushroom soup, Tater Tots and nostalgia.

Why, Raemont asked Joan Hertel from the church office, did they pile all this stuff in a pan, cover it with Tater Tots and call it hot dish?

"My personal opinion," Hertel told the newspaper, "is that, in those days, they just didn't worry about naming stuff."

To share a meal with the Minnesota Daily, or to check out some of the past feasts, visit: mndaily.com/?s=sharing+food.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com

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