Though they’re half Puerto Rican on their father’s side, Veronica Perez knew very little about that part of their heritage until last year.
Perez was raised in a predominately Italian part of New Jersey, and their mother’s Italian background set the cultural tone at home. Their mom – Perez uses they/them pronouns – cooked traditional Italian food for the family, and Puerto Rican cuisine never entered the picture.
“He just decided not to share that part of his culture with us,” Perez said of their dad. “And so as I got older, I always felt there was something lacking, kind of like a missing part of my identity.”
Perez, 39, moved to Westbrook in 2014. They were aware of Maine’s demographic distinction of being the whitest state in the country – about 90 percent white according to 2020 census data – circumstances that didn’t seem to favor Perez finding a way to embrace their Puerto Rican heritage.
“It’s very white up here,” Perez said. “Experiences from other people or cultures sometimes fly under the radar or aren’t talked about.”
Then in March of 2021, Perez attended a virtual ramen party on Zoom put on by a Portland-based group called Tender Table, which aims to celebrate the culture and traditions of Black, Indigenous and people of color through storytelling and food.
Before the Zoom party, group founder Stacey Tran had sent each of the 20 attendees – most of them Maine residents, with some out-of-state attendees as well – a package containing ramen noodles to top or mix with their own favorite ingredients, along with some lychee and mango jellies Tran loved as a child.
The foodstuffs were meant to evoke nostalgia and forge a bond among the people of color at the event, many of whom dearly missed the international cuisines of their families or homelands. For Perez, the event hit home.
“Stacey had sent out these cute little care packages, and it just showed so much heart and soul in one little package, one little bowl of ramen. I just felt like I had found my people,” Perez said.
“I knew this was a space I hadn’t seen or experienced in Portland before that I deeply knew I wanted to be a part of as a biracial person,” added Perez, who works as a sculptor and is now a Tender Table co-organizer with Tran. “Tender Table allowed me to embrace that part of my identity I thought was gone or missing.”
After being introduced to Tran and Tender Table, Perez grew motivated to cook traditional Puerto Rican dishes they remembered their father talking longingly about, like mofongo, a plantain-based dish with plenty of garlic and salt.
“Since meeting Stacey, I’ve been able to tap into my Puerto Rican side by cooking these dishes that I’ve never tasted,” Perez said. Tender Table helped Perez feel at home in Maine.
“I was going to leave Maine, and now I never want to leave Maine, specifically because of organizations like Tender Table,” Perez said.
“I think it’s important that there are spaces for and by us, as people of color,” said Tran, 31, the child of Vietnamese immigrants.
Born and raised in Oregon’s Portland, Tran said she learned about her family’s Vietnamese culture through the stories her parents told at the dinner table. Like Proust with his madeleine memories, Tran is keenly aware of the connection between food and remembrance. “Ingredients and dishes have the power to take us back in time,” she said.
Tran’s own madeleine is bun bo hue, a traditional Vietnamese dish of noodles, beef and pork. “When I crave that, I only want my mom’s,” she said. “Whenever I got it at a restaurant, it’s not the same. She takes care to make it really good, and not so fatty,” she said, adding that the aromatic allure of the fresh mint and cilantro in the dish further triggers fond memories of her mom’s food.
In 2017, while still in Oregon, Tran launched Tender Table. The initial concept was to hold a series of events in which storytellers of color would cook a dish for audiences of up to 50 people to sample, then they’d tell a story about their family or cultural background that is connected to the dish.
Tran moved to Rhode Island in 2018 and continued the Tender Table series there until she and her husband, South Portland native Jack Gendron, moved to Portland in the summer of 2020 (they now live in Westbrook).
Tran, who works as a community organizer, had already established Tender Table as a presence in Maine with a 2019 collaboration event with Vietnamese restaurant Cong Tu Bot on Washington Avenue in Portland. The pandemic meant that Tender Table’s first few Maine events in 2020 and 2021 would be virtual, but they had a big impact on participants.
“I did not know the other people on the call, but there was an immediate connection,” said Gloria Aponte-Clarke, 52, of Portland, whose first Tender Table event was a Zoom book discussion on the science fiction novel “Wild Seed” by Octavia Butler. Aponte-Clarke immigrated to the United States from Colombia, though she’s lived in Maine for 22 years. “It’s nice feeling part of a community.
“In Portland, I see people of color more than in other parts of the state,” she added. “But you could go days walking around my neighborhood and not see a (person of color).”
“I was so shocked to hear my own story in all of these people,” said Coco McCracken, 36, of Portland, a half-Chinese writer and photographer who moved to Maine from San Diego in 2019. She had attended a Tender Table potluck picnic on the Eastern Promenade.
“A lot of the people there were mixed race or had different immigration backgrounds, and we just shared our stories,” McCracken said. “It was nice to be in supportive company without having to explain yourself.
“The idea that people of color need their own space can be a point of contention,” McCracken added, noting that some Tender Table events are exclusively for people of color. “It’s really important to remember that when you come from a marginalized group, to have that safe space, to be put first, it’s really powerful.”
Tender Table stepped up its offerings last summer, hosting a food and poetry fair in Congress Square. Hundreds attended, both white and people of color, and Tender Table hired McCracken to photograph the event.
“It was so beautiful. It was like we weren’t just this small group of people going through issues of identity and race. It was like a whole fair filled with the vibrancy of Maine,” McCracken said. “It made me realize that Maine is diverse, actually. I was only thinking of Maine in only one way before.
“Food is such a good entry point… a way to put the topic metaphorically on the table and get the conversation going. This is what my grandmother used to make, what I enjoy making,” McCracken said.
The food-centered format puts everyone at the Tender Table gatherings more at ease. Then as the stories flow, people start to connect.
“The connections I’ve made over four events, whether with new business clients or new friends, the growth has been exponential,” McCracken said. “And that’s just me. The more they grow, think of all the connections, all the webs that are made across Maine. I believe it’s a butterfly effect of change.”
Tran and Perez said Tender Table’s food-and-story events are on hold for now as they prepare for their second annual food and arts fair in Congress Square Park, scheduled for Saturday, Sept 3, and featuring traditional food and artwork from Mainers of color.
Tender Table also won a $5,000 grant earlier this year to fund videos they’re calling the Kitchen Table Series. “We’re going to interview (Black, Indigenous and people of color) across Maine about how they’re connected to their culture through food,” Perez explained, though the group needs another $10,000 or so to get the project off the ground.
Much as the events group aims to benefit participants, Tender Table has helped Tran just as much. “Tender Table has been a great way for me to meet people of color and build community as a newcomer. As a person of color moving to Maine, I was feeling kind of nervous about that, honestly.”
The nervousness is gone now for Tran, who actively engages Maine residents in her group’s mission. “I’m really grateful for how the community has received Tender Table,” she said.