How Cooking Means Community for One Venezuelan Refugee

August 29, 2017
Magedda Arreaza. Photo by Julia Gartland

Twelve years ago, when she still lived in Caracas, Magedda Arreaza decided to change what she ate. She’d become obese, which made her feel as if she had lost control over her own body and what she put into it. So she began doing yoga at the suggestion of her grown daughter, Rabsaris, who lived far away in Los Angeles. Rabsaris had also encouraged her to give up meat and become vegetarian.

Arreaza had enjoyed cooking all her life, really, but this dietary shift made her start cooking more often, and with more intention. On some nights after work, she’d invite her friends over to her house for dinner. They found her kitchen an open, generous place, and devoured her cooking, especially her arepas saludables, cornmeal patties constructed of chia, flax, and sesame seeds.

They begged her to open a restaurant, but she found it impossible to step away from her cushy job in insurance. Besides, she figured: Caracas was no market for a vegan restaurant, especially because of what she perceived to be the inextricability of beef and chicken from dishes in most commercial Venezuelan eateries. Still, her house was better than any restaurant they’d ever eaten at, and her friends basically began to treat it as one, dubbing it Casa Magedda.

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“If I can see a smile when you try my food, for me, that's great,” she tells me. “That is what I want to happen.” For her philosophy, she tells me, has long been that when you return to the kitchen, you return to love.

Arreaza, 55, is a woman with large, welcoming eyes and a face that seems to default to a smile even when it’s in repose. I meet her one day early in July, just days before she’s set to host a dinner in the Food52 offices organized in concert with Purpose, an agency that works with UNICEF to build communities that support refugee resettlement through its Refugees Welcome dinner series. In person, Arreaza is loquacious and engaging; she has a relentlessly cheery demeanor that belies, or almost downplays, her past and what she still carries of it inside her.

She came to the States from Venezuela in May of last year. Here is what she left behind: a daughter, 34. Two granddaughters. A mother who is 86.

“I have to leave my country because, well, you know about the political problems there,” she tells me, uneasy and cagey about the details. “Now, I feel safe, but, it’s difficult, no? You leave your whole life in Venezuela? Your life, work, country, your house? You feel... displaced?”

When Arreaza speaks, she sounds inquisitive and searching, fretful that she doesn’t have the right words to communicate. She used to live in a house in Caracas, a city whose weather she describes as resembling New York’s calm, mild springs year-round. Now, she shares an apartment in Union City, New Jersey with Rabsaris, 30, and Rabsaris' husband. The apartment isn’t big, she tells me, but it’s comfortable.

Arreaza prefers not to linger on the details of her past life, simply because life’s been so good to her here, so far, at least. “New York is the best place to help people like me, immigrants, because there are free English classes and people who help me with political asylum,” Arreaza tells me. “Many angels have helped me.”

Arreaza takes the train into New York City every day. When she’s here, she attends English classes and spends hours idling in the library. She does karmic yoga, a regimen that she’s found has stabilized her in times of profound tumult. When she finds some free time, she wanders through grocery stores and farmers' markets, letting her mind meander where it wants and letting this curiosity inform what she cooks. Sometimes, when she’s roaming produce aisles of Whole Foods or the Union Square Greenmarket, she chances upon an ingredient that catches her eye and decides she’d like to cook with it.

Now that she’s in New York, Arreaza plans on taking the concept her friends begged her to develop in Venezuela and grafting it to her new home in the United States. It'll take the form of a vegan Venezuelan restaurant called Casa Magedda. With it, she plans to harness the passionate, bold flavors of her home country’s dishes and endow them with a simplicity for vegans and non-vegans alike.

“We need to change the habits in our lives with many things within our brains. It’s not only what you eat, it’s what you eat, what you eat, what you eat,” she instructs me, gesturing to her legs, stomach, and head, implying that eating mindfully is a full-body experience that demands every appendage of the body gets attention.

Back in Caracas, she found it difficult to maintain a vegan lifestyle, for she found vegan food carried a certain baggage it couldn't shake. Vegan food, back home, implied a certain deadening of key flavors, soaking the pleasure out of cooking and eating.

“People always said that, to eat healthy, you need to eat a lot of fruit, vegetables, spinach, carrots, blah blah blah, and put them in the bowl without flavor,” she says. She found the idea preposterous, vaguely insulting: There was no reason for vegan food to carry such associations of blandness or absence of character. So she set out to disprove this myth through her own cooking. She worked hard to perfect certain dishes like her perico vegano, a variation on the traditional Venezuelan dish of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, scallion, and cilantro, her riff subbing in tofu for the eggs.

Mounting this project in New York is a bit easier than it would've been in Caracas. Labeling a restaurant as vegan is, she tells me, a shrewd move for publicity. But it’s tough: She’s slowly working her way into a rhythm that feels structured enough for the demands of running a restaurant.

“I don’t have a preference. No favorite,” when I ask if she has a signature dish. “I don’t like to follow the rules. I don’t like to follow a menu.” She is too impulsive in the kitchen. The concept of working according to a menu feels foreign to her. She’s easing her way into a more disciplined routine by holding the occasional cooking class and taking catering gigs.

Two night after I meet her, Arreaza cooks for a crowd of 35, mostly an audience of recent refugees from all over the world. It’s a night when Arreaza’s charisma spreads like a contagion through the room; she smiles through sweat as she, Rabsaris, and their helpers craft a menu of arepas; medleys of cucumbers, radishes, beets; guasacaca, a pistachio-green sauce made from avocados; Mantequilla de Ajonjolí, a sesame butter made from miso, tahini, and sesame oil; Panna Cotta con Guayaba, a vegan panna cotta of guava and dates; and Papelon con Limon y Menta, a brew of panela, lime, and mint. Her food is hearty and gratifying. As the dinner proceeds, I observe her keeping watch over her guests, looking at how much they’re eating like a hostess would preside over guests in her own home, making sure there’s enough for everyone.

Follow Magedda Arreaza on Instagram. To learn more about Purpose and its work, head here.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.