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Bringing people together for good food, new flavors and shared stories

As a little girl in Taipei, Stella Austin’s grandfather fed her the same breakfast day after day—rice soup, which amounted to rice in water with a little drizzle of soy sauce. But on weekends, he’d take her out to eat at a fabulous variety of places.

As a result, she developed a rich appreciation for food from all over the world. But food’s power, for Austin, has more to do with how it brings people together and nourishes souls.

Stella Austin prepares green bean and lotus tea in her kitchen at her home in Saco. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“I’ve cooked with people my whole life, and I know how much you show caring through food, how you can teach through food,” says Austin. “In my culture, instead of asking ‘How are you?’ when you see someone, we ask, ‘Have you eaten?’ I really like the concept of mingling all cultures together, and I love getting together to cook and do that.”

Austin aims to unite people through food—not just her native Taiwanese cuisine, but food from around the globe. In the short term, she’s doing that via her new position on the Chinese American Friendship Association of Maine board of directors.

Sally Ng, who cofounded CAFAM 30 years ago, says she is “thrilled” to have Stella on board and so willing to continue her work to bring cultures together in Maine.

“My goal is working with the community to bring awareness of the great variety of food cultures that exist and expand peoples awareness and exposure to them,” says Austin, 45, who moved to the United States at 17 when a brother who grew up in America asked if she wanted to study here.

She jumped at the chance and went to school in Fremont, California, then San Francisco, where she worked for two European bakeries. She briefly returned to Taiwan and laughs when recalling the food-obsessed office job she had there during her 20s.

“We’d start at 8 a.m., and at 10:30, there was a break for a snack and people would talk about what they were doing for lunch, which was at noon. At 4 p.m. there was another food break, and at 6, everyone would say, let’s go to that new restaurant…Food built friendships.”

She returned to America after a couple of years when her brother asked for help at his restaurant in Amherst, Massachusetts.

While there, helping with all facets, including website and menu design, she lived with several housemates, including a poet from Chile, an African American studies professor and a woman who grew up in the American South.

“My family really loves food and, for us, there’s a philosophy that life is just like tasting food—it has its sourness, its bitterness, its sweetness. We’re taking in the flavors of everything in life.”

“We often had international houseguests, and all cooked together. All the housemates were busy, but we tried to take Sunday mornings or Sunday evenings to be together and cook. And we’d just talk and talk over those meals, dumping out what had happened over the week and being very open—especially after a glass of wine or two. Laboring together to make a meal and then celebrating the end result was wonderful.”

Similarly, she has fond childhood memories of many a Chinese New Year’s celebration in Taiwan, during which her family from America would visit and relatives would all cook together.

“We’d spend the whole day cooking, and at midnight, we’d have a taste of the dumplings. I just remember all of the excitement of staying up the night before and then eating the next day.”

It was through her brother’s restaurant that she met her future husband, Rick, who today she fondly calls her willing sous chef. (The two were set up by a restaurant patron who spotted a potential match. Despite the fact that he lived in California and she in Massachusetts, the two hit it off and Austin moved west.)

Living in Arcadia, California, with a host of cuisines, “really opened up my palette to all the possibilities,” says Austin, who was a manager at two branches of Din Tai Fung, known worldwide for its steamed dumplings, noodles and international cuisine.

Austin says she enjoyed it there, but that all of her moving and distance from family made her yearn for home. “I’m always searching for home in a way. The more it fades away, the more I want to grab onto it.”

“In my culture, instead of asking ‘How are you?’ when you see someone, we ask, ‘Have you eaten?’ says Stella Austin of Saco. Cooking is more than making food, it’s making connections. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Such yearning also led her and her husband to Maine. He had grown up in Rhode Island and summered in Saco at his grandmother’s. He had just retired from Boeing, and they were mapping out their future.

“He talked about Maine with such warmth and happiness that I said why don’t we just look into that area?” Austin recalls.

They landed in Saco two years ago. Since then, she’s worked at a nursing home and enrolled in photography classes while she and her husband investigate adopting a child. She’s also looking into volunteering for a food pantry or soup kitchen and teaching cooking classes to children.

She’s been slowly but surely making new friends and easing her yearning for home in her familiar way—by sharing meals.

“If I meet a new friend and make a connection, I love to have someone come to the house and cook together,” Austin says. “My family really loves food and, for us, there’s a philosophy that life is just like tasting food—it has its sourness, its bitterness, its sweetness. We’re taking in the flavors of everything in life.”

Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

MORE IMAGES OF STELLA AUSTIN

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