It’s not unusual to see the audience clapping along to a Mummers string band. Especially one pumping out all-time favorite “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It’s a catchy tune, and the Mummers play it often.
But it’s unlikely they’ve ever played it for an audience as diverse and varied as the crowd assembled outside Reading Terminal Market Monday night.
As the troupe of sequin-bedazzled, slightly-grizzled white dudes strummed their instruments and tooted their horns in the middle of Filbert Street, I looked across the 150 seats of people enjoying a buffet dinner lined up in front of them, and this is what I saw:
- A young Syrian mom grinning as she brought her son’s hands together to the beat
- An elderly Cambodian woman nodding as she tapped her silver-ringed fingers in 4/4 time
- A middle-aged African American man leaning back in his chair and smacking his palms together as if this rendition of “The Saints” was the most inspirational tune he’d heard all week
- A blond woman rocking her cell phone side to side as she held it up to snap pics of the performance
People everywhere were swaying to the rhythm. Everyone looked like they were having a good time. The glowing togetherness felt kind of like the victory celebration at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” only it wasn’t some sci-fi fantasy — it was actually happening.
The occasion was the grand finale of the Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers dinner series, a project launched by RTM general manager Anuj Gupta at the start of the year, and funded by the Knight Foundation.
Subtitled “Food as a Bridge to Cultural Understanding,” the project was composed of a series of intimate dinners pairing different races, cultures and ethnicities with one another. Its overall goal was to bring together the various communities who call Philadelphia home and get them to connect over something everyone has in common: cooking and eating delicious food.
And although there were tons of press standing on the sidelines at Monday’s culmination event, cameras clicking away, the multicultural pastiche was more than just a feel-good photo op — according to everyone I asked.
“These are leaders in their communities,” said Naroen Chhin, a Cambodian-American who runs the anti-deportation nonprofit 1Love Movement. “They will take back the lessons they’ve learned and spread them.”
What lessons? Sometimes they were as simple as introducing a nationality to a group that was previously unfamiliar with it.
“We were paired with folks from the African American community,” Chhin continued, describing the event he’d attended last spring. “A lot of them were super interested to get to know about our background. They told us, ‘We thought you were all Chinese!’”
Other times, it was recognizing previously unknown connections between cultures. Youma Ba, the Senegalese native who owns West Philly BYOB Kilimandjaro, had been assigned to do dinner with Valerie Erwin, a Philadelphia chef who specializes in lowcountry “Gullah” cuisine.
“Valerie uses okra too!” said Ba, describing the thrill she got from realizing an ingredient common to West African cooking was also a staple of the American South. “The food, it is not so different.”
Or getting to know the mores and dining etiquette of people of different backgrounds — and learning to respect them.
“We were asked to make something ‘Mummery,’” said Rocco Gallelli of Innovative Catering Concepts. “So for our first dinner we made lucky New Year’s pork. But then we realized it was not Halal — many Muslim people couldn’t eat it.” For the next dinner Innovative participated in, they instead turned to stromboli, and made several different kinds — some with meat, some with just veggies.
“These dinners,” Gallelli said, “have been very useful.”
Even when it’s not for a special dinner, the food sold at Reading Terminal Market’s stalls make it common ground for a huge cross-section of the city, which is what inspired GM Gupta to get a Knight Foundation grant for the project in the first place.
He read a book by longtime Philly resident Elijah Anderson, a Yale sociologist, called The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. In it, Anderson refers to RTM as “an island of civility in a sea of segregation.” So Gupta set out on a mission to spread that civility beyond the market’s doors.
“Every day the news tells us new Americans and old Americans can’t come together,” Gupta said. “We have proven through this project that it can happen.”