Nourishing stories

I'm a big fan of cookbooks that celebrate a culture, people or tradition through food. Women for Women International's "Share: The Cookbook That Celebrates Our Common Humanity," offers everything I love in a cookbook, and more. Women for Women International is a nonprofit organization that promotes work and education opportunities for women in developing countries who have survived incredible hardships such as war, rape, starvation and loss. Women who enroll in its one-year program learn job skills and receive business training so they can earn a living. The idea is that, with these skills and education, these women will be better equipped to understand their rights and to fight for those rights in their homes and communities. The organization's cookbook is a happy celebration of its mission and the enduring spirit of women everywhere.

I came across the coffee-table-size book at the Ashland library and, at first glance, thought it was a photography collection. While it is definitely beautiful, don't think of it as a table or kitchen decoration. This is a cookbook that is meant to be used. Along with the gorgeous photos of yummy dishes and hard-working women, there are about 100 easy recipes that focus on fresh ingredients intended to nourish the heart and soul rather than show off the latest trends. There also are thoughtful stories by or about the women who have benefited from the Women for Women program.

It is full of comments and recipes from celebrities who support humanitarian causes. Actress Meryl Streep wrote the foreword, and recipes were contributed by chefs Jaime Oliver and Alice Waters, as well as musician Paul McCartney, actor Judi Dench, and many others. There are also recipes from well-known activists including Nelson Mandela, Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi, and Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women. Many lesser-known but equally hard-working heroes are also included, with recipes from women in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As for the food, the title says it all. These are dishes to be shared. Alice Waters' lentil salad with shrimp takes almost no time and only has a handful of ingredients, but it is delicious. Even my picky kids went back for more. I've happily made the Burmese fish curry and Congolese corn fritters. All simple and tasty dishes that I plan to make again. In addition to the pleasure of trying out a new recipe together, the photographs and stories about the countries were educational for my whole family.

While the stories from women who participated in the Women for Women programs were quite moving — at times heart-wrenching — they also are hopeful. They share how they were able to take charge of their lives and become independent. Their harrowing accounts are often in contrast to the sunny faces of the women and the vivid plates of food on the surrounding pages, but that helps remind us of what great changes we can make when we help one another. There's a woman named Matida in South Sudan whose home was burned by a militia when she was a child, and who later lived in squalid conditions at a refugee camp. She writes of her training in agribusiness and her now successful farm, "I've had much darkness, but also much light in my life."

This glossy, gorgeous book illustrates how food unites everyone, how people build relationships through creating and sharing food together. "Share" also shows how food can form the base of employment and economic stability in the developing world. All profits from the book sales go to financing and training women in the business of food production and agricultural sustainability.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at

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