Working Lunch

A Georgia farm encourages a midday meal together.

by André Gallant

It’s lunchtime on a hot September day at 3 Porch Farm, a cut flower grower near Comer, Georgia. The broad canopy of a golden rain tree offers relative cool to workers who slump onto folding chairs set around a weathered wooden table. Others remain standing, eager to return to the gomphrena harvest. Plastic container tops pop open, and the questions begin.

Edwin Cabrera, a thirty-five-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, tucks into steak and string bean leftovers. He asks what’s in a tin that his coworker, Marry, a resettled refugee from Burma, just slid to the middle of the table. It’s a pepper paste, she responds, a spongy, fermented mix of dried birdseye chiles and freshwater minnows. Edwin showers his dish with the mixture.

“No pupusas?” asks Naw Dee Poe, who, like Marry Yin, her sister, is a resettled Burmese refugee in her forties. She identifies as Karen, one of the many ethnic groups long persecuted by a Buddhist military regime in her home country. She moved to Comer in 2012, after a year in Atlanta. Before that, she spent nearly two decades in a refugee camp, where the Karen survived on rations provided by the United Nations and whatever greens they could sneak past guards after clandestine foraging missions.

Naw Dee Poe examines Edwin’s grilled food and recalls the time he made his homeland’s specialty for their crew. Those pupusas, cornmeal pockets stuffed with chicharrón and made at home by Edwin, marked her first encounter with Latin American food. She liked them, and came to understand something about Edwin, who grew up selling the portable meal with his aunts at the Guatemalan border.

Still, Naw Dee Poe prefers food like what Marry brought: Chinese eggplant in a rich curry, which Edwin forks a sample of and adds to his meal.

Today, Naw Dee Poe isn’t very hungry. She accepts a piece of bread slathered with peanut butter and topped with bananas and blueberries offered by US-born Mandy and Steve O’Shea, who started the farm in 2012. She nibbles at the crust. She’s tried bread before—found it gross initially—but it’s grown on her, a little. Her kids like it. Public school lunches acquainted Karen youth with US staples like pizza and hamburgers. But Karen parents, like Naw Dee Poe, rarely eat beyond their cultural standards.

“This is white people food,” she laughs, and leaves half the slice uneaten.

Mandy worried her crew didn’t consider themselves a team. She hoped eating together might change that.

Lunches at 3 Porch Farm are a fairly recent addition to the workday. The O’Sheas once pressured themselves to work to the point of exhaustion (they live on the property, so this happens with ease) and therefore skipped meals. Some of their crew followed suit. The Karen women knew little about wage labor or lunch breaks, having been prohibited from working while living in refugee camps. They toiled without interruption, unaware of the customary midday break in the United States. Two years ago, doctors advised the O’Sheas and their crew to take it easy. Lunch breaks became mandatory for everyone—a paid hour to rest.

Mandy hoped to address another matter with lunch: Her employees knew little about each other. Divisions of the farm crew—three weeders and harvesters, a wholesale manager, and Edwin, a field manager—each work on opposite corners of the nine-acre farm. Days can pass without coworkers crossing paths between zinnia rows and clover patches.

Mandy worried her crew didn’t consider themselves a team. She hoped eating together might change that. She also recognized an opportunity for cultural exchange. Comer (population 1,170) is an overwhelmingly white town. Black and Latinx people make up a minority. But in the past decade, hundreds of Karen have moved to Comer, lured from bigger cities by a slow pace of life, agricultural jobs, and a verdant landscape that more closely resembles the forests of home. Their presence has reshaped life in Comer, from public schools to workplaces like 3 Porch Farm, where Naw Dee Poe has farmed part-time for nearly four years.

The more Edwin and Naw Dee Poe knew about each other, Mandy thought, the more they’d feel part of something bigger.

Maybe they’d connect as farmers and also people far from home. Maybe work would feel like more than chores.

By sharing pupusas and pepper paste, the crew begins to bridge differences. Mandy hopes these bonds can stick. Perhaps a sense of family will blossom, because that’s how she and Steve have come to think of them. “We’re lucky to have this diversity,” Mandy says. “If we didn’t have the community we have, I don’t think I’d enjoy the farm as much, living in the country as much.”

Social scientists use the term “commensality” to describe the goodwill created when people share food and conversation. When we eat together, the hope goes, we learn about each other. Small acts of hospitality, writes Australian sociologist Amanda Wise, contain “the possibility of incremental openings of identity, where the food, bodies, and narratives of the other seep across identity boundaries.” Much can be gleaned about our neighbors and coworkers by gathering around a table. Much can be revealed about ourselves, for better or worse.

Dining across differences of race, culture, and nationality is fraught with power dynamics invisible to the most well-meaning, welcoming hosts. Inviting someone who spent their formative years eating UN-rationed rice and protein drinks to Thanksgiving dinner, for example, seems kind. But a buffet laden with traditional dishes represents a dominant culture to which, no matter the good intentions, the immigrant or refugee remains an Other. There’s a pressure on the Other to appreciate what’s been offered. That tension can stop goodwill and cultural exchange before it starts.

Much can be gleaned about our neighbors and coworkers by gathering around a table. Much can be revealed about ourselves, for better or worse.

More equitable, Wise advises, is the potluck, a meal that’s a little bit us, a little bit them, maybe a little bit we. The gathering can acknowledge difference, even celebrate it. A guest can nibble at an odd ingredient, then retreat to the safety of the dish they made themselves, sated by the familiar while glimpsing the new.

Group lunches at 3 Porch Farm mimic a potluck, and the stakes are low. Eating together is never mandatory, nor is sharing. Most days, Edwin chooses the solitude of his truck, where air conditioning runs cold and the banda tunes resound. The Karen women worry that Western noses find their food—often seasoned by fish paste, a pungent condiment that provided needed calories in refugee camps—a bit stinky. Mandy and Steve assure them that’s not the case. Nevertheless, the women often find comfort in seclusion, and their bosses don’t argue.

“It’s about what they need,” Steve says. Forcing fellowship, they know, could ruin morale.

Wah Sha and Naw Dee Poe clip pokeweed for bouquets.

Another attempt at an international potluck turned out well the following Thursday. Mandy warmed leftover pulled pork barbecue and cracked open a jar of homemade pickles. She set out a plate of sliced white bread as well as a leftover bowl of Marry’s hot pepper paste, which she’d set aside for herself the previous week. Edwin forgot to make the pupusas he’d promised, much to everyone’s dismay. But Naw Dee Poe brought extra helpings of wheat noodles and stir-fried long beans, seasoned with soy sauce and garlic. In a bowl of dark broth that she fixed for everyone to share, reeds of lemongrass, pounded, salted, and fermented for seven days, floated alongside boiled radish tops.

Not everyone felt social and nobody blamed them. The September heat was punishing. Wah Sha, another resettled refugee who’d recently been out sick, wanted to rest. She laid down on the floor of the farm’s flower studio, a packing house with a wash station, walk-in cooler, and work tables. She propped her head on a foot stool, skipping lunch to stay prone for as long as possible.

Marry preferred her friends’ quiet company in the shed and tucked into leftovers: small portions of scrambled eggs and greens in a tin, noodles eaten straight out of a thermos by hand. Mandy still hoped that Marry, who had only worked on the farm for a few months, might try pulled pork for the first time—the Karen call it “sweet pig.” Mandy set out a bowl of it, a pickle balanced on the lip, with an encouragement for Marry to try it.

Naw Dee Poe collects gomphrena.

Lunchtime conversations about diet and plants have led to improvements around the farm. Carpetweed, a plant that thrusts past landscape fabric and crawls rapidly across flower beds, is now known at 3 Porch by its Karen name, ta kah doh. It’s good for digestion, Naw Dee Poe says. If the Karen women spy some, they snatch it up as a snack or for dinner that night. Once a plague, it’s now a rare find on the farm.

Mandy and Steve hope they’ve been supportive bosses. When Edwin left for El Salvador to apply for a green card after marrying his US-born wife, complications kept him there for nearly a year. His job awaited him when he got back. Applying for naturalization sent Naw Dee Poe on excursion after excursion to federal offices in Atlanta. The O’Sheas did everything they could to help shuttle her back and forth. They celebrated both paths to citizenship with farm parties.

In an era when xenophobes tar immigrants as job thieves and bar refugees, the intimacy between bosses and employees at 3 Porch Farm provides an example of how a better world can begin with everyday actions. If we stop to eat, talk, and learn with coworkers, we enmesh ourselves in their experiences. We share in struggles and success. It’s naive to believe communal meals can fix vast inequalities, but some solutions might start with a lunch box.

Naw Dee Poe and Mandy collected dirty dishes and headed into the flower studio. Marry and Wah Sha were already back to work, washing and drying plastic bouquet buckets. Song in the Sgaw Karen language and laughter set to the rhythm of sloshing water echoed around the room. Naw Dee Poe joined her friends as Mandy laid out the weeding plan for that afternoon. As she walked away, Mandy picked up the untouched bowl of sweet pig she’d left for Marry. Marry pursed her lips, shook her head, then laughed. No thanks, couldn’t do it.

Mandy shrugged. There’s no rush. She’d try again another day.

André Gallant is a journalist based in Athens, Georgia, and the author of A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster from the University of Georgia Press.

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