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Slow Food Leaders: Jin-Ya Huang

by Julie Kunen, Slow Food USA

Jin-Ya Huang pays it forward. An immigrant from Taiwan and the daughter of immigrants, Jin-Ya founded Break Bread Break Borders to break down the walls that often separate newly arrived immigrants from the communities in which they settle. And she did so in Dallas, her adopted hometown and a city at the epicenter of immigration today.

Break Bread, Break Borders

BBBB is not just a catering company, although it has cooked for a prominent roster of clients over the two years since its founding. Its chefs don’t just drop off the food. As Jin-Ya explains, “They cook with us, not for us.” Whether from Jordan or Burma, storytelling is an essential ingredient in the meal. And the stories travel in both directions. Jin-Ya recalls many a diner who has approached her after a meal to confess that they would never have been brave enough to try foods from unfamiliar places such as Syria or Afghanistan if the dishes hadn’t come seasoned with familiar stories. And what’s more, diners end up making connections between the immigrant foods they are tasting and their own familiar food traditions. Connections “that remind me of my grandma’s dirty rice in New Orleans” or that “taste just like my sister’s cooking.”

An advocate for immigrants

Jin-Ya gets emotional when speaking of her mother’s death. She quotes a Mexican saying about death: you die twice, once when the spirit leaves the body, and once again when people stop talking about you. As a mother herself with an 11-year old son, Jin-Ya has ensured that her mother’s memory as a cook, an entrepreneur, and an advocate for immigrants lives on in the work of BBBB. When one of the BBBB community cooks said to her, “Oh Jin-Ya, you are so adorable. Community dinners are beautiful, but what we really need are jobs,” she thought, “How hard can it be to run a business? My mom did it. It is hard and it still is hard, but the joy comes from impacting the lives of these women.”

“It’s not just cooking.  We are starting a revolution, and the ladies [from Break Bread Break Borders] who cook are my chosen sisters. In creating job opportunities, we are amplifying voices that don’t usually get heard and celebrating women. They practice English and talk to people from all spaces in life.  Their community is not just their physical neighbors.  We are building community and celebrating differences too.”

We are the leaders we’ve been looking for

While BBBB has trained about 20 immigrant women, they have reached thousands of diners with stories, food, culture and understanding. Jin-Ya did not at first associate her efforts with the mission of Slow Food. She initially viewed the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter as a group of women swapping recipes and exchanging pies, not working to impact marginalized and food insecure communities. But then she attended Slow Food Nations in Denver. Together with BBBB’s Arabic interpreter, originally from Yemen, she went thinking, “We are two brown people. We’ll just go and see what happens.” And what happened was that Jin-Ya found an organization talking about social justice — not just what’s on the table, but who is at the table. She heard Denisa Livingston talk about Indigenous food. And she thought, “This is the Slow Food we are looking for. It’s happening at the national level but not at the local level. Why not? Maybe we are the leaders we’ve been looking for.”

Jin-Ya Huang with the women of Break Bread Break Borders