International students from more than 28 countries contribute to the diversity and global engagement fostered by Elon University. While they each bring different traditions and cultures to campus, they all have at least one interest in common: food.
But getting familiar food from home isn’t as easy as receiving a care package in the mail or taking the BioBus to the grocery store. If a student from Puerto Rico, such as Kevin Vergne, wants to get his hands on local Puerto Rican coffee, they have to travel almost 1,500 miles.
“Coffee, local coffee,” he said. “It’s much better, stronger. It’s just got a better taste. That’s something I always ask my mom to bring me.”
Sophomore Carmen Rivera, from Sevilla, Spain, craves a different ingredient traditional to her city: olive oil.
Finding a taste of home, miles away
Elon provides facilities where international students can cook food outside of the dorms. Both the Elon African Society and El Centro de Espanol offer events that cater to different international communities.
Freshman Maria Rivera says that El Centro does its share of events to bring in authentic cuisine: “They bring pupusas and we cook stuff. There’s an El Salvadorian restaurant really close to here, so we bring them in from there.”
But before international students get to the kitchen, they need to find the correct ingredients. Sophomore Naomy Thiombiano has trouble finding West African food in Alamance County.
“I think there’s African stores online, or in big cities you can get them. But in Burlington, there isn’t really a place where you can buy ingredients,” Thiombiano said.
Junior Alexandra Bolton from South Africa knows what that’s like.
“The both of us have complained a lot about the fact that for a lot of the dishes, and especially the desserts, it’s really hard to find the right ingredients,” she said. “Or you can get them, but they’re far away and expensive.”
Bolton admits she occasionally tries to hide food from South America in her suitcase; but often, these attempts are unsuccessful. Waiting until summertime, or even Christmas break, for an authentic home-cooked meal can seem like eternity.
Cooking for yourself
But once they’ve managed to secure a spot to cook and hunt down the proper ingredients, they need to get the recipe right.
“It’s not only getting the ingredients. It’s actually knowing how to cook it, and I unfortunately do not,” said freshman Mariana Guerena Gonzalez, of chile relleno, the traditional Mexican dish.
When cooking a traditional dish is too difficult, there’s the option to eat at Lakeside Dining Hall’s international buffet. International students have the chance of sampling not only dishes from their own homes but also those of other nations.
“The other day they had a Moroccan couscous, and I loved it,” Guerena Gonzalez said. “It was so good. I wish it was a bit more announced because it makes people more aware of where each food is from.”
While freshman Lucia Safie is from El Salvador, she particularly enjoys the Middle Eastern food because it reminds her of her grandma.
“My family comes from Palestine, so I actually identify a lot with Middle Eastern food,” Safie said.
Some walk into the dining hall warier than others when it comes to dishes from their own countries. Vergne doesn’t want to take the risk with Puerto Rican food offered from Lakeside.
“I think it would just not meet my standards. I don’t want to ruin it,” Vergne said. “They did Cuban, which is almost very similar to it, and it wasn’t very good. I tried it out.”
But Guerena Gonzalez disagrees.
“I think it would be great to have Mexican food,” she said. “There are so many foods from Mexico, even some that I haven’t tried, and I think a lot of Americans and people in general have misconceptions about what Mexican food is. So many people just automatically think that it’s just tacos.”
Some students believe the most enjoyable element of international food is sharing with others.
“Next year, I’m going to live with my friends, one of my Spanish friends and my other two friends,” Maria Rivera said. “I love cooking, so I’m probably going to cook a lot.”
Vergne looks forward to cooking with other Puerto Ricans and showing his suitemates new, authentic foods.
But Bolton will let the other South Africans take the lead in the kitchen because of her dubious cooking skills, and Maria Rivera prefers eating over cooking.
The two have different perspectives when it comes to food as part of their cultural identity, though.
“As a South African, I identify with South African cuisine, but as a white, English-speaking South African, there’s no food that I associate with my identity that’s specific to South Africans of English origin,” Bolton said.
In contrast, Maria Rivera strongly connects food to her Guatemalan heritage and believes bringing traditional dishes to Elon is important.
“It’s one of those small things that create our culture,” Rivera said. “I would love to show other people our food.”