(Published by South Bay Accent in December, 2013.)
For most well-off South Bay residents, milestone birthdays are spent at a fancy spa, maybe indulging in an exciting sport and certainly consuming too much food and drink. And then there’s Lauri Pastrone. When the Los Gatos resident turned 50, she decided to launch an all-encompassing project to vastly improve the lives of thousands of women she would never meet.
Pastrone, a slim, articulate blonde, had long been making contributions to Women for Women International (WfWI), an organization that helps female war survivors rebuild their lives through small stipends and skills training aimed at earning needed resources — money, food — to assist themselves and their families. Launched in 1993, WfWI has distributed more than $108 million in aid, loans and other services to well over 370,000 women who live in the war-ravaged nations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan and Rwanda.
“My passion over the years had become women in war,” Pastrone explains, so she celebrated her half-century mark by stepping up, in spectacular fashion, her involvement with the organization. She fondly recalls the time while growing up in New Hampshire when her mother assembled a cookbook for the family’s church to aid missionaries. “It became our favorite family cookbook,” Pastrone says. So she decided to do one for WfWI.
However, what comes to mind when one imagines the words “charity cookbook” –pulling together a few favorite casserole recipes stapled together at the copy store — was definitely not her goal. “I wanted to do something that would have mass appeal. That would tell the stories of the women and reach out to people that I have no connection to,” Pastrone explains.
Four years in the making, Pastrone’s charity cookbook is, in a word, remarkable. In addition to gorgeous photography of both the food and many of the women and their children in their rustic — to say the least — environments, Share: The Cookbook that Celebrates Our Common Humanity is filled with heart-rending stories, hair-raising statistics and 100 recipes. Unlike many such projects, virtually all the money raised through sales of the cookbook goes directly to help the women.
About those recipes. There are 16 that came from sponsored women in the eight countries where the organization operates. They range from a softly spiced Iraqi rice dish with beef and chickpeas to tasty Congolese corn fritters with pineapple salsa. Twenty recipes were contributed by renowned chefs who focus on sustainability and organics like Alice Waters from Chez Panisse, recent “best restaurant in the world” proprietor René Redzepi from Noma in Copenhagen, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and British chef/tv personality Jamie Oliver.
The recipes from these famous food people are as enticing as one would expect. Waters offers a simple, irresistible lentil salad with prawns. Well-known New Orleans chef Susan Spicer passed along a spicy fish dish bursting with fresh herbs. Crumbled candy bars and raspberries amp up a lush baked Alaska ice cream recipe from the Ben & Jerry’s guys.
However, it’s the remaining 64 recipes that have the greatest wow factor. “We decided that who we wanted to invite to be in the book were not celebrities but people who inspired us,” explained Pastrone. “We set out with lots of Google searches but also years of Time’s ‘most influential people.’ We were really digging deep for people who were doing amazing work to make a difference in the world.”
The resulting international line up is beyond impressive, although many are, indeed, massive celebrities. The long list includes notables like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox, , Trudie Styler, Dame Judi Dench, Kate Spade, Ashley Judd, Robin Wright, Mia Farrow, Peter Gabriel, Emma Thompson and Christiane Amanpour. None other than Meryl Streep wrote the forward.
Their contributed recipes are quite wonderful, like a decadent dessert from Ashley Judd called chocolate layer slice, a fresh, colorful, tasty wheatberry salad from Streep, and Judi Dench’s lush bread and butter pudding featuring panettone. Many of these recipes would enhance a holiday table.
When Pastrone conceived the cookbook idea, she had been living in London with her family for several years; they moved back to the Bay Area in 2011. She roped in some collaborators who were also professionals residing in London and once the core team grew to five, they hammered out an ambitious concept involving worldwide notable contributors, fabulous photos, stories of some women helped by WfWI and moving data about life in these tumultuous countries.
It was a heck of a concept. Then they tried to execute it. Says Pastrone: “We thought, naively, that this was such an amazing cause and as long as we explain it well, who can say no to us? That didn’t end up being the case. As soon as you say, ‘charity cookbook,’ people go, oh, another one of those — no matter how hard we tried to demonstrate to people that this was not going to be another charity cookbook. We toiled and toiled for every single contributor to the book.
“You write to somebody like, say, Paul McCartney. But he must get thousands of requests every single day,” Pastrone explains. They hit up friends, friends of friends, and dialed every name they could get to move the project forward. “There were many times that we wanted to walk away because this project became so enormous. You have no idea of the number of hours that went into every single page of that book. But the five of us came to feel that we had a responsibility to finish what we were doing for these women.”
The turning point was when they landed Richard Branson, the billionaire British business magnate, who has various humanitarian endeavors aimed at solving difficult global conflicts. With Branson’s endorsement, Pastrone’s team then got the support of rocker Peter Gabriel and a golden list of world peacemakers like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others. The task still wasn’t easy but this crack in the dam finally brought in a trickle of notable contributors.
Pastrone remembers with awe some of the project’s major milestones. “Getting Aung San Suu Kyi was a big moment. There were moments when I sobbed and getting Meryl Streep was definitely one of them,” she recalls. Streep had been quietly contributing to WfWI for a few years but was ultimately convinced to provide a recipe and write the forward.
The connection between food and helping women deal with terrible situations stemming from war isn’t as ephemeral as it might seem. “We believed there is a unifying feeling of food and what it does and how it breaks down so many barriers,” explains Pastrone. “I felt it was a logical place to tell the story of these women.”
Food has played a big role in her own life, she relates. “In my 20s and 30s, food became a really important element in my life. As I became a wife and a parent and when I began to entertain, I just became more passionate about it. And it made me think, what if I didn’t have the access to food that I have?” This is certainly the plight of many women helped by WfWI.
For example, Elizabeth in the South Sudan was sold into marriage at a young age. When she had daughters of her own, she wanted them to avoid her fate by going to school to better themselves. So when her husband insisted their oldest daughter be given away in an arranged marriage, Elizabeth refused. She hid her daughter from the family so her daughter could continue school and was beaten for her defiance, than thrown into prison and shunned by her community. WfWI helped Elizabeth learn to read and write, also giving her job training. She now earns enough money to keep all her children in school without depending on her abusive husband.
Lucienne in the Congo is currently awaiting sponsorship through WfWI. Her husband was away when fighters entered her village, raping her and killing her brother when he hid his face in shame. She was dragged off and forced to be a sex slave for several months and became pregnant. When she was able to return to her village, her husband and neighbors ostracized her.
It’s impossible not to be affected by the horrific stories of such women. Share: The Cookbook includes a profile from each country where the organization operates as well as some statistics that quickly make it clear why it’s so easy for these women to be victimized and marginalized. Consider Afghanistan, where the average WfWI participant is age 32, with four children, likely married and unlikely able to read — the literacy rate is just 10 percent. It’s even worse in South Sudan, where women also have large families and rarely any formal education.
It’s easy to view the lives of these women as tragic but Pastrone now has a different opinion. She and Peninsula restaurateur/chef Jesse Cool — who became the sixth team member — traveled to Kosovo and Rwanda during the making of the book seeking more profiles of women previously helped by the charity. In Kosovo, a group of sponsored women were each telling their story to Pastrone, Cool and other volunteers.
“Some of the profound things that came out of their mouths of how far they’d come and what they’d been through — for us, it was hard to take,” Pastrone says. “Some of us couldn’t hold back our emotions and our tears. A group of women gathered around us and said, ‘Why are you crying?’ We tried to say that we were so moved by what they’d been through. But the women said, ‘Don’t cry for us. We’re here to make sure that never happens to our children. We’ll be okay.'”
Also quite okay is Pastrone’s cookbook, which came out in May in both British and American versions. It’s a best seller in London and the U.S. edition was one of the ten books on J.P. Morgan’s recommended summer reading list, along with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and a memoir by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. A German edition appeared recently and other language versions are expected.
While Pastrone freely admits she had no chops to write a cookbook — her experience is in market research for the technology industry — she was smart enough to round up some co-authors and other partners with helpful backgrounds. When the book came out this year, it marked the 14th year that Pastrone has been sponsoring women through WfWI, although she has never met any of them. She first heard about the organization in 2000 when she saw the founder being interviewed by Oprah. “It was then that I began sponsoring one woman at a time,” she says.
“I believed that what (the founder) was doing — pairing people with a woman in war somewhere in the world for a year — I was convinced this was a model that could actually work and was working,” recalls Pastrone. Sponsors don’t just send money, they exchange letters and photos with their “sisters” — the term WfWI uses — even though local writing and reading assistance is needed for the 60 percent of women in the program who are illiterate.
When she first began, “I wasn’t a very good sponsor,” admits Pastrone. “I wrote only a few letters because I was a new mom. I had all kinds of excuses why I didn’t stay in close touch with my sister. Over the first few years of doing this — even when I was terrible at communicating with them — I would always be so taken aback when they’d send me a picture or write to me and say, because of you, my life has been transformed. Because of you, I now feel I can face next month or next year. Or my kids are now in school. The kind of things that would pull the rug out from under me, thinking that with me doing so little, it was giving these women a better future. ”
The Western guilt that so often plagues those fortunate enough not to be born into the grinding poverty and oppression found in war-ravaged countries changed for Pastrone during her trip for the book. Instead, she felt hope and admiration when meeting some of WfWI’s many success stories face to face. Nevertheless, these seemingly fearless “sisters” are well aware of the huge need that remains.
Says Pastrone: “There’s a feeling among them — and I see this in Syria now — that the rest of the world is just forgetting about these people. In addition to being eye opening, it was profoundly life changing and it makes me think that every day I have to somehow make that connection with them. For me, the outlet is the book. I find it a real honor to have that kind of impact on someone else’s life.” “War is not a computer-generated missile striking a digital map. War is the color of earth as it explodes in our faces, the sound of a child pleading, the smell of smoke and fear. Women survivors of war are not the single image portrayed on the television screen, but the glue that holds families and countries together. Perhaps by understanding women, and the other side of war…we will have more humility in our discussions of wars…perhaps it is time to listen to women’s side of history.”
– Zainab Salbi, Founder of Women for Women International
Information on Women for Women International
When Zainab Salbi founded Women for Women International (WfWI) in 1993, she had already experienced turmoil in her own life. The Iraqi is the daughter of the late Saddam Hussein’s former pilot and the schizophrenic environment under the regime when Salbi was a girl caused her mother to send her to America for an arranged marriage, which turned out to be just more tyranny and abuse. Salbi not only saved herself, but she went on to earn a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and become an activist.
Later, Salbi and her second husband were on a humanitarian mission to the rape camps in Bosnia, where Serbs used rape as a weapon of war to terrorize the ethnic population. Seeing how alone and destitute the rape survivors were spurred Salbi to launch WfWI. The organization’s one-to-one approach involves sponsors making the commitment to send $30 per month for a year to a needy woman affected by war. One third goes to the woman to do things like buy seed to plant crops or tools for a business or to educate their children. The remaining money primarily covers training and on-site support for each woman. WfWI focuses on women from the same villages or towns so that they’ll have ongoing emotional support after they have reinvented their lives and completed the year-long program. For more information, go to www.womenforwomen.org.