I spoke with Alden Towler who helps run the kitchen at Win Win Coffee Bar. As a Fulbright scholar he lived in Nepal and conducted research on food systems there, in addition to promoting healthy foods and whole grains, while helping with food distribution. He currently supports the Nepali refugee community in South Philly through his work with the Migrant Education Program, which also does work with Bhutanese, Burmese, Congolese, and Eritrean refugees.
Brion Shreffler: Why are you doing what you’re doing with the fundraiser?
Alden Towler: It’s directly for survivors of the earthquake that was on April 25th. What puts us in a unique position to be able to support the people that are making efforts there is that I’ve teamed up with a lot of Americans and Nepalese either live there or have lived there for some time. Since the earthquake happened, I’ve been talking to people on the phone. Some in Kathmandu, some in villages and just gotten daily updates on the situation. I was looking for the most effective way to get funds there and one of my friends started a campaign online that really quickly raised a lot of money but she didn’t have a 5013c nonprofit to channel the money through. So one of my friends, Margaret Ferrigno, runs The Pureland Project—
It’s a nonprofit based in Philly. In Philly, there’s this place called The Ahimsa House. It’s a nonviolence center that has yoga, meditation. It’s in West Philly. The Ahimsa House is part of The Pureland Project. Because The Pureland Project does work in Tibet and Nepal, they are in a position to help us coordinate with all the different people that we’re already in contact with. From when I lived there, I’ve been in contact with a lot of people. One of my friends just helped bring rice and clean water tablets, plastic tarps, medicine to a village of forty people where everyone lost their homes and have been sleeping in fields for the last ten days without any support from the government or international aid. They’ve been really isolated. So, we’re reaching out to people like that. I have another friend who is a doctor. He’s putting together a team to go to one of the most remote and most affected regions.
Because of the situation of the country being underdeveloped to begin with, it’s really hard to mobilize relief efforts, even in areas that aren’t that far from the capital. The second place is a little bit further away, closer to the epicenter. We’re also going to be providing support to a Sherpa and Tamang village that’s closer to Tibet and even more isolated. I know people, again through my different experiences. Two Americans who led one of the programs that I was on, have been involved with one particular village. So they’ve been providing relief and then also rebuilding efforts.
You’re utilizing contacts you made during your Fulbright work.
Through my Fulbright work and then also the Pitzer in Nepal study abroad program. And also people that Meg knows through The Pureland Project. She knows people that run an orphanage.
Besides the obvious human level, how deeply personal is this for you?
Well, you know, a lot of the people that I reached out to and have been in contact with, they feel like almost direct family to me. They’re people that I refer to as sister, mom. And then there’s also just friends, dear friends. People that were my teachers. Taught me Nepali. Friends, musicians, ordinary people. There’s definitely those personal relationships. For example, my Nepali sister is someone who—her family was unable to support her to go to college. I put together a small online fundraiser. We raised four, five thousand dollars and that was the tuition for four years of college. So I’ve been supporting her that way for the last few years. I’m sure her college is almost flattened and she’s since fled back to her village because of disease and looting, and access to resources are all major issues in Kathmandu. So she went back to her village where her house was destroyed. These are the people I’m talking to in the wee hours of the morning and they’re telling me they’re still feeling the tremors and that they have no shelter.
I was reading that people are incredibly fearful of going back into their homes to get food or belongings for more than a few seconds since many homes have cracks everywhere along the walls and ceilings.
The earthquakes are still happening. The structures are damaged so with repeated quakes they could fall. They have been. They’re continuing to fall. Having lived there, I feel a certain connection with the people, the country. It’s a certain sympathy I’ve never felt before in the face of large-scale human catastrophe.
When you mention your teachers, the people who taught you Nepali, you’re speaking of connections you made well before you went to Nepal. When did that start?
I guess that started in 2006. I went over to Nepal in 2007 for the first time. That was for six months. The second time was for 13 months starting in 2008.
In a way, you’re providing support to the Nepali community here in Philly—they’re seeing somebody who cares in their new community. Somebody who’s actively doing something.
That’s definitely one thing I noticed with Nepalis in general. They have a really strong appreciation for people that have learned about their culture and that understand their language, know their songs. So whether I’m in Nepal or here in the states with the Nepali community, I think they take more pride in their own culture by seeing someone else who is inspired by their culture. In terms of local communities, over 7,000 schools were destroyed. The monsoon season is just beginning there. In terms of landslides, just the things the country is already used to—it’s just going to be amplified. In terms of rebuilding community, it’s a really long-term project but in the immediate sense it’s also really amazing to see the resilience and strength of the Nepali people as they helps themselves and help each other, even in this really difficult time. There’s issues of government corruption and there’s limited border crossings. And the Indian military has been involved with transferring supplies and everything is getting bottle necked. Everything is getting into the country much slower than it should. There’s no large-scale coordinated efforts. All of that combined makes access to these basic things a lot more expensive. All the prices for food, supplies, temporary shelter, plastic tarps is grossly inflated. It makes it so ordinary lay people can’t afford it. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world to begin with. You wouldn’t expect people to have extra income.
What’s the plan for the dinner on Friday?
On Friday, we’re going to have five young women from the South Philly refugee community come in and cook. They’re doing momos, which are a Tibetan, Nepali style dumpling. And then there’s going be a dinner of rice and lentil soup. It’s called dal bhat. It’s one of the traditional Nepali meals. It’s rice, curry lentil soup and an assortment of little side dishes. There’s going to be chicken curry. Vegetables. Sautéed bok choy. Usually, it’s mustard greens. Different condiments. Chutneys. Salad.
Is there a lot of pickling going on there?
There’s one that they have–it’s a lime pickle. Usually, when we think of pickles, it’s more vinegar and salt based. They do an oil based chutney, similar to a mango chutney. Very sour but a little bit sweet. Definitely some flavors we’re not really used to or accustomed to. Overall, that’s just one little side dish. Dhal bat is amazing. It’s so tasty.
What kind of flavors are you getting in such a wide array of dishes?
The chicken curry is really rich, spicy. They do a good job of using coriander with the broth. Very flavorful. But it’s not overpowering like the sort of Indian food we’re used to in the states. North Indian style food where everything is heavy, rich, creamy. In Nepali cuisine, it’s always balanced with lighter dishes, like sautéed greens [read how this sense of balance and an emphasis on whole grains informs the cooking at Win Win Coffee Bar]. Jwaano is a specific spice. Almost like cumin but not quite. It’s so tasty. It’s actually used in some traditional medicine. When a woman has a baby, they’ll make a jwaano tea because it’s very rich in iron. So, it’s good for a breastfeeding woman. With the spices and condiments, they do a really nice roasted pepper, roasted tomato, either pumpkin or sesame seed sauce. So spicy, sour, salty. They always do a really good job of having each of those flavors very strong but none of them are overpowering.
Is there a lot of herbality there as well?
Not so much herbaceous in terms of thyme, rosemary, organo, that sort of thing. Definitely, garlic, ginger, chili and then a lot of cumin, coriander, turmeric, chili powder sort of creations. We’re not gonna try to do anything too fancy. At the end of the day, it’s a peasant’s meal. All you really need is a grain, beans, vegetables, a little bit of meat and you have a really balanced meal that’s also very tasty. They use jasmine or basmati rice. In Nepal, it depends on where you are. Higher up, you’ll have really nice short grain. They pound the rice, so it comes out not as heavy as brown rice. Not as light as white rice—it’s a cross between. You have some of the bran left.
We’ll have kir for dessert, which is rice pudding dish. Traditionally, it’s made without any additional sweetness. These days, people make it with condensed milk and sugar to sweeten it up. Traditionally, you get a ton of milk and you reduce it for so long that it creates a natural sweetness with the rice and you can add coconuts and raisins, cardamom, cinnamon.
And then there’s gonna be music and different cultural performances. There’s gonna be somebody playing Indian style tabla drum. Somebody playing Spanish classical guitar. I’m gonna be singing some Nepali songs. There’s probably gonna be some young people from the South Philly Napali community, the Bhutanese refuge community doing some dances.
Dinner is going to be a sliding scale, $20-$60, with all the money going to the relief effort that The Pureland Project is coordinating.
What time is everything starting?
It’s starting at 7. We made the event public on Monday and there’s already 100 people that say they’re coming on Facebook. We have to do a little bit more coordinating to figure out exactly how many people are coming. The idea is to do some sort of seating around 7, 8, and 9 o’clock. We’re going to be serving dinner and there’s going to be a rotation of different types of entertainment. People are also invited to come anytime. And if there’s not a place to sit down, the bar will be open.
Besides making the donations go the distance, you’re showing an appreciation for the immigrant community here.
I’ve been talking for awhile with Nepalese in the South Philly community about doing some kind of collaboration. I always think that no matter who it is that you’re inviting to your space that they get compensated for that. So when we started this fundraiser benefit, I was really direct about saying this is something we’re doing as a social service, something none of us are getting paid for. We’re doing it out of the kindness of our hearts to support people who are in need and the Nepali youth were like, yeah, we’re totally down, whatever you need. That’s part of their culture as Buddhists and as Hindus, to be of service to the greater good. It’s really cool to see the youth embodying that ethos.
One thing that does feel a little awkward when you’re hosting a benefit is entertainment—because it’s such a tragic, heartbreaking thing that it almost feels inappropriate. Having good food, enjoying yourself… But when I think of all my experiences there…the way the people are so generous in giving food and tea and hospitality to people they don’t know—strangers. In Nepal, one of the cultural beliefs is that guests should be treated as gods. So, whenever you’re a guest somewhere, you have this enormous amount of respect and I feel like it’s better to celebrate the richness of their culture than to dwell on the misery of the situation because I think a lot of positive things can come out of it.
How does the event fit with the mentality and mission of Win Win?
Part of Win Win’s mission is alignment with the broader community but also being a democratic space. I think that the main thing is that as a co-op, you have a democratized space that is open to anything that we want to do. That makes this a business, a venue that is open and receptive. We want to be a place that’s about the greater good, that’s about more than ourselves, and open to the community, whether that’s the refugee Nepali community in South Philadelphia that we help, or a global movement where we can actually create a positive impact in an individual’s life and create a direct connection that way. Our main priority is the Philadelphia community, but with the internet and the internet age, there’s no boundaries to your community and I’m glad the democratic space can support that.
Nepal Earthquake Relief Fundraiser Dinner
931 Spring Garden St, Philadelphia, PA 19123
Friday, May 8th.
Seatings throughout the night starting at 7pm
Donations are on a sliding scale of $20-$60