Armenian lahmajoun. Tamales from Mexico. Taiwanese dumplings. Stir-fry from China’s mainland. Spicy curries from India. Irish breads. Hungarian lecho. English plum pudding.
No, it’s not an exotic international food bazaar. It’s the aromas coming from the households that populate Leslie Wittman’s neighborhood in Bedford.
And it was this awareness of how much ethnic cooking surrounded her that inspired Wittman to document the multicultural flavors of her community on film. Sponsored by a grant from the Bedford Cultural Council, the project is a natural outgrowth of the company Wittman started a few years ago, called Flavorful Memories, which she formed to combine her love of cooking with her professional talents behind the camera.
Wittman herself is a first-generation American; her parents emigrated from Hungary in the 1950s, and the scents and flavors of their native cuisine suffuse the memories of her childhood.
“Many of our favorite memories revolve around the kitchen. I started the business to help people capture and preserve the recipes and traditions that are important to their families,’’ she said.
Families and friends have always passed down favorite recipes, of course, but some cooks are imprecise when preparing age-old specialties, and some techniques can be hard to describe in words. How to form homemade ravioli or knead dough, for example, is much better shown than told, Wittman said.
Customs from other lands have always interested Wittman, dating back to high school, when she was part of a club that hosted foreign exchange students. She studied international relations in college, thinking it might be a pathway to a career in exploring other cultures, but she was disappointed to discover that as a discipline, international relations focuses more on politics and economics than food, art, language, and traditions.
So, she turned her attention to videography and embarked on a career making corporate videos.
But in the past few years, Wittman noticed the political and financial uneasiness that dominated the headlines seemed to be causing people to want to stay closer to home and connect more solidly with their roots. “One way people do this is remembering and re-creating the food and traditions that have always been part of their lives,’’ she said.
She recruited a friend to act as guinea pig; over the course of numerous cooking sessions, Wittman filmed her friend making barbecued chicken, lasagna, chicken soup, stuffed French toast, and a special chopped vegetable salad that she prepared in tribute to a recently deceased uncle. Her friend’s relatives viewed the film and gave her feedback, and before long, she was ready to go into business.
Today, her business primarily consists of a $100 package providing 30 to 45 minutes of video, including an interview with the subject about his or her ethnic food memories and footage showing how to prepare a dish or two, plus a printed version of the recipes. Wittman emphasizes that her professional background in videography gives it much more visual impact than a home movie or something you might see on YouTube.
Some of her clients use the service simply as a keepsake for their families; others give the finished product as a wedding or anniversary present. She has also worked with cultural clubs that use the videos as a fund-raiser.
Occasionally she’ll be contacted by a potential client who does not feel comfortable being filmed; in that case Wittman is happy to produce an audio tape or podcast instead. She offers a newsletter package as well, though she finds that most clients are perfectly happy with appearing on camera.
“People watch a lot of cooking shows now, so they have an image of how it will work,’’ she said.
Wittman, an avid cook, has discovered a few new recipes herself while filming other people cooking. Over the past couple of years, she has watched her clients make Sri Lankan curries and South African bobotie. One of her clients wanted to pass on to her family the legacy of how to make traditional popovers, something the client always did on Thanksgiving morning.
“She wanted to document this for her daughters, the technique and also the story behind it. She chose to have me film her baking popovers in her bathrobe, since that’s what she wears when she bakes on Thanksgiving morning,’’ Wittman said. Another client demonstrated how to make an English pudding.
The more Wittman reached out into the community to explore its many cuisines, the more she realized that it contained an amazing cultural diversity.
“Bedford is a typical new England town with a population around 13,000,’’ she said. “Demographically we seem pretty homogeneous, but I was thinking about all the people I know in town who have moved here from other countries. I started thinking about how to make a video specifically aimed at celebrating our community’s cultural and ethnic diversity.’’
To do that, Wittman obtained a grant from the town’s Cultural Council, which distributes funds from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She is developing a pool of seven to 10 households, each representing a different ethnic background. The subjects for her project are immigrants and first-generation Americans. Already on board to screen the video are the town library, the Council on Aging, and Bedford’s closed-circuit TV station; the public schools have expressed interest as well.
And when the project is done, Wittman is preparing a potluck dinner where each family in the video will bring the dish they made for the taping, and sample one another’s creations. “It’s so much fun to learn about people and their culture through their food,’’ she said.
“My goal is to connect people to the comfort food that they eat when they want to have the feeling that they are back home,’’ she said, whether that means an everyday dinner or a special holiday delicacy.
“People everywhere rely on food not only as nourishment but as a source of joy, and that is what I am attempting to show and to preserve for the future.’’