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  • Vimala Cooks, Everybody Eats
  • Shannon Harvey (bio)

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Almost every week for thirteen years, Vimala Rajendran opened her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to friends and strangers alike to enjoy Indian fare in the heart of the Carolina Piedmont. Supported by donations of time and money, Rajendran and her crew of volunteers fed as many as 200 people at each community dinner. Dinner was served between 5:30 and 10:00 in the evening, and volunteers would arrive early in the day to prep and cook while others stayed late to clean. Food storage and cooking consumed much of the basement and kitchen, as well as the front porch where her husband Rush had set up propane-fueled cooking equipment. Dinner goers found seats in the living room, basement, or yard to eat and mingle, while other folks took containers of food home to their families.

The dinners started as a way for Rajendran to support her family after leaving an abusive relationship. In turn, the community that formed around her dinners allowed her to support local farmers, showcase local musicians, and provide made-from-scratch, home-cooked meals for those who might not otherwise be able to afford them. Though she sourced most ingredients locally, Rajendran has also been known to haul suitcases of spices from India.

She often used the dinners as fundraisers to support such diverse projects as purchasing fruit trees for the Carrboro Community Garden and providing relief funds for the victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In these and a myriad of other ways, Rajendran's dinners created a space for people to meet over a common table (or couch, or picnic blanket), make friends, support the livelihoods of others in their region, and imagine how, on any given Wednesday morning while peeling garlic, they could also positively impact global communities.

Encouraged by people's enthusiasm for her cooking, Rajendran started a catering business and in summer 2010 opened a restaurant, Vimala's Curry-blossom Cafe. She strives to maintain her sustainable and community-friendly practices through these newer ventures.

These photos were taken over the course of several weeks between January 2010 and March 17, 2010, the date of her final community dinner. She hopes to continue the dinners in some form now that her restaurant has opened. If you get a chance to eat at either, make sure to snag a cardamom brownie. [End Page 97]


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Vimala Rajendran (here) has fed as many as 200 people at her dinners.

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With the help of local food activists, friends, and family—including daughter Manju (right, top photo, opposite page),


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Most mornings before her community dinners begin with garlic peeling (bottom, right).

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Pots and space are scarce for preparations, including peeling cardamom (above, right). The seeds are ground for brownies, and the husks are used in chai.

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After a day's preparations and the finishing touches, the guests arrive. Cooking and mingling keep Vimala on her feet the entire evening.

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Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research interests include food, agrarianism, and religion in the American South. She has a BA in Studio Art with a concentration in photography from the University of Texas at Austin.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 96-103
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-29
Open Access
No
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