What does diversity look like in Fort Wayne? It depends on how you define it, of course.
According to the most recent census data available, 12 percent of Fort Wayne residents speak a language other than English at home. Between 2011 and 2016, the city's immigrant population grew by more than 13 percent, according to data from the New American Economy. And with greater diversity in culture and language also comes rich cultural traditions pertaining to food and drink.
Now, an organization called Welcoming Fort Wayne
is celebrating the city's cultural heritage by way of food with the release of its official Dining Guide
, an online directory of ethnic restaurants in Fort Wayne.
NOLA on 13 offers authentic French Acadian food like soft shell crab.
The project is the brainchild of Melissa Rinehart
, Lead Organizer at Welcoming Fort Wayne and a cultural anthropologist by education. Rinehart says Welcoming Fort Wayne
is an advocate for immigrants, so the initiative fit well with its goals. It's is a volunteer ministry that’s part of a national inclusivity campaign known as Welcoming America
“Basically, Welcoming initiatives around the country look different,” Rinehart says. “They're very much tailored to the needs of the community. So what I've done over the last over two years in being the lead organizer is work behind the scenes with various partners in the community to make our community more welcoming to immigrants and refugees.”
Welcoming Fort Wayne advocates for immigrants and multicultural residents in the Fort Wayne area.
The Dining Guide, she says, is a way to champion the cause of immigrant-owned restaurants while educating the community about the wealth of food options available to them here. While consumers might assume the Midwest is home to sports bars or farm-to-fork American cuisine, the range of food available in Fort Wayne hails from at least 18 cultural ethnicities.
In Rinehart's words, Welcoming Fort Wayne is the “nexus” for people wanting to branch out and try new cuisines with some guidance.
’”(I thought) I'll create this, and let people decide what (places) they want to patronize,” she says.
Wu's is a popular Chinese restaurant in Fort Wayne, offering specialties like Red Shrimp.
In this way, the Guide benefits both the community and its restaurateurs. For instance, she says some of these restaurants are very small and the owners necessarily don’t have the time, information, or money to advertise. Others don’t need to do any marketing because they have significant patronage from word-of-mouth recommendations alone.
Rinehart hopes the guide will expose community members to culinary diamonds in the rough, like Nine House
in Huntertown, which serves Burmese and Thai cuisine.
“There were 13 Burmese families that were resettled out in Huntertown, and one of them decided to open up a restaurant on a very part-time basis (there),” she says. “There is diversity in the food palette in places you wouldn’t expect."
The Welcoming Fort Wayne Dining Guide
is a work in progress that will be updated as needed, Rinehart explains. In the meantime, she thinks it will encourage people to go outside of their comfort zones and seek to understand other cultures. After all, "breaking bread" can be a powerful force in fostering peace in our community and beyond, she notes.
"Divisions break down when you're sitting around the table and eating," she says.