Serving up stories of hope

Two new memoirs offer recipes for inspiration

Books reviewed June 2020 image

Other people's stories bring outside perspectives in. At the time I write this, two months into Chicago's community-wide shelter-in-place efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, that broader vista is a gift.

Two memoirs, by Josh Ruxin and Alon Shaya, speak of the hard work of restarting, of re-emerging after tragedies both personal and communal. What's more, they touch on the restorative magic of coming together around the table, nourishing others, and ourselves. They recognize that hardships change us, that our path forward will require building something new. As we face a world profoundly impacted by the coronavirus, they provide messages of hope.

Ruxin's book, A Thousand Hills of Heaven, was written some years ago, half a world away. When it was first published, I read it in one swoop and have since been recommending it to anyone who will listen to me.

The book follows Ruxin, an expert on public health and international development, as he accepts a challenge presented to him and his wife Alissa at a Manhattan party: could their work make a difference in Rwanda, a country with rampant poverty and the scars of genocide?

The young couple move to Kigali, Rwanda's capital. With incredible honesty, A Thousand Hills to Heaven tells the story of their work to build opportunity-in ways expected and unexpected-in the country that becomes their home.

In a HuffPost piece marking the anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, Ruxin explains why this is a story of renewal. He says, "Every first-time visitor is shocked on arrival in Rwanda. The shock doesn't come from what you'd expect-remnants of the horrific genocide…[it] comes from the pristine litter-free streets, the electrification, the construction works, the orderliness of transport and activity. Rwanda is booming these days-from gleaming new malls and businesses to fiberoptic networks that would be the envy of any country-and has come further than anyone ever would have expected."

The Ruxins have now lived in Rwanda for 15 years. They raised a family (three biological children and three Rwandan kids). Josh is involved with a number of impressive public health projects, including Goodlife Pharmacy, which provides pharmaceutical access to more than 1.2 million people. Alissa, aiming to offer vocational skills and employment for Rwandan youth, opened Heaven, a restaurant overlooking Kigali's famous hills. Today, it is an award-winning destination that has trained thousands of Rwandans for new careers. The Ruxins' story provides a front-row seat to a community-based renaissance of healthcare, government, tech innovation, and tourism.

Shaya addresses a different kind of adversity. Although appropriately lauded as a cookbook, at its core it is a memoir-interwoven with recipes. In it, Alon Shaya describes how he conquers his demons through cooking (not unlike fellow champion of Israeli food Steve Solomonov). Shaya moves from Israel to Philadelphia at age four. He teaches himself English by watching television while his mother works two jobs to make ends meet.

Chafed by the inequity around him, he grows into a troubled teen. Yet-rooted in the comfort he finds cooking with his grandmother-he forges a new path. At first, his journey takes him far from the Jewish and Israeli food of his youth (he calls one chapter "Trayf and Tribulation"). He cooks for high rollers in a Vegas casino and sojourns in Italy, learning about charcuterie from a master salumist. Putting down roots in New Orleans, he rediscovers the power of simple food in the gallons of red beans and rice he serves to Hurricane Katrina victims and first responders. Ultimately, he reclaims the food of his birthplace and reinvents it in the American South.

Today, Shaya is a James Beard Award-winning chef and founder of Pomegranate Hospitality. His new restaurants, Saba in New Orleans and Safta in Denver, are named for his grandparents. They honor his roots and a new future.

Betsy Gomberg reads (and sometimes writes about) Jewish books. She is Spertus Institute's Director of Marketing and Communicatons


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