AUGUSTA – “A lot of what we do is related to breaking down barriers, and generating good will to people who are new to Maine,” explains Mark DesMeules, executive director of the Viles Arboretum.

Today offers a perfect example. On a warm and sunny mid-October Friday morning at the arboretum, the weekly Beyond Borders Farmers Market is underway in the parking lot. Half a dozen women, Somali immigrants, are at their stalls selling kale, carrots, zucchini, hot peppers and other produce that they grew as farmers-in-training at a Lisbon facility operated by Cultivating Community.

Across the lot, in the basement of the arboretum building, four other Somali women – also farmers – are cooking traditional dishes for the weekly luncheon. The specialty is the sambusa, an aromatic, fried, veggie-filled pastry made from scratch and available in meat, fish or all-veggie versions.

The sambusas are available “to go” as well as to enjoy here in the small, welcoming cafeteria. In August, a few weeks after the market/lunch program began, an order for 350 sambusas came in, needed for a local wedding. On this day, an order for 100 sambusas has just been received.

Meanwhile, diners from within a fairly wide radius, from Fairfield and Canaan to southern Maine, kept arriving. Several said that it was their first time here, and that they had heard about the luncheon from a friend, or on Facebook. Among them was a vacationing couple from Pennsylvania.

Looking back on the season (Oct. 20 was the finale for the luncheon, but the market continues for now, inside the building) DesMeules judged it “a solid success.

“I don’t think (the new farmers) ever expected that the food they produce would be as well received as it has been,” he said. “For us, as we also try to bring people in people to discover what we have to offer” (the admission-free, nonprofit arboretum’s attractions include five miles of trails and the state’s largest outdoor permanent art display) “it’s been a perfect tie-in.”

In late September, the arboretum hosted the Great Pollination Celebration, a two-day educational event that on Friday brought in 300 kids from five schools from Yarmouth to Bangor, and on Saturday was open to the public. Market and luncheon operated both days.

“Most of the produce raised by the Somalis is pollinated by honey bees, after all,” DesMeules said. “People who might otherwise not have made a connection came and interacted with the Somalis, saw their amazing vegetables for sale, and found out how delicious their food (which sold out) is.

“Everyone was very outgoing, and there were lots of conversations. I remember one older man asking a farmer, ‘how do you grow onions that look so good?’”

The luncheon has already seen some cross-“pollinating.” Winthrop author and ELL teacher Margy Burns Knight works with Afghani and Iraqi immigrants through the Kennebec County Cooperative Extension. Last Sunday at the arboretum, she and KCCE nutritionist Debbie Barnett hosted a fully-booked Learning English Through Cooking afternoon. Afghani and Iraqi women provided instruction in preparing their ethnic foods, and a sit-down meal for conversations followed.

“Really joyful,” Knight called the day. “Cooking and eating and sharing. It just works.”

The New Mainer cooks have been asked to cater the Cooperative’s annual meeting in December. And DesMeules and the arboretum board are planning an early Thanksgiving dinner in a week or two, “for all the Somali people who have been involved.

“It will be a turkey dinner with all the fixins, as a way of closing out the summer season, and saying ‘thanks.’”

 

For more information on the Beyond Borders market and other events, please visit the Viles Arboretum profile on Facebook or call 626-7989. Margy Burns Knight may be contacted at [email protected].

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