Mera Kitchen Collective
Mera Kitchen Collective has been around only a couple of years, and already it's hard to imagine Baltimore without this intrepid group of women, their incredible food and their message of belonging.
The talented chefs of Mera are all refugees. They come from Ethiopia, Cameroon, Syria, Sudan and other parts of Africa and the Middle East. Many worked as professional chefs in their home countries.
In 2017, a group of recent arrivals met at the Highlandtown Library. They knew they wanted to do something to earn money, raise awareness and become part of the fabric of Baltimore, but they weren't sure what. By the end of the meeting, they had decided food would be their bond to their new city.
"Since that day, my life has changed 180 degrees," says Chef Iman, who settled in Baltimore in 2016 after fleeing Syria. "Now I'm cooking full-time. It's my way of expression. It's my art."
Within a year, the group had formed a worker-owned collective, and began serving their delicious food from a stall at the farmers' market under the Jones Falls Expressway. Every Sunday from April to November, hungry customers line up to buy delicacies like savory stuffed grape leaves and doro wat, the richly flavorful Ethiopian chicken stew.
The group also caters events large and small, and holds cooking classes in homes and restaurants. These classes are much more than step-by-step guides to making hummus or baklava. Each chef infuses the experience with stories about her food and her life, and how the two are irrevocably entwined.
It's never been easy to leave home and move to a new country, and it's even harder these days, when our government's policies make people feel unwelcome. But these women know that food is a connector. The people they fed became their friends, and now they're sewn tight to the crazy quilt that is Baltimore.