At a South Philadelphia restaurant owned by the grandchild of Italian immigrants and the child of Chinese immigrants, enters a girl of 16, the child of Jamaican immigrants.
In her hands, Christine Thompson holds her cherished family recipe for bread pudding — instructions and ingredients passed down to her mother, Oneita, from a great-grandmother the teen never met but whom her mother says she favors in both character and characteristics.
Oneita Thompson learned the recipe over a charcoal fire in an island nation she and her husband, Clive, fled in 2004 after gangs burned their farm and threatened their lives. Now facing a deportation order, they have found refuge at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where 16-year-old Christine, who was born in the U.S., each day fears that her parents will be sent back to a country she has never known.
The co-owners of East Passyunk Avenue’s Le Virtù, Francis Cratil-Cretarola and Catherine Lee, have long advocated for immigrants’ rights and immigration reform, a mission borne as much out of their own family history as their relationships with their mostly Mexican staff, who are more family than employees. What little free time the couple have, they give to causes and fund-raisers — including a couple of upcoming fund-raising dinners for the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia — in hopes that the contributions they deem vital to their success will one day translate into legislation that treats immigrants more as the backbone of the country than its enemy.
They’ve lost some diners over their vocal support, gained others. But their commitment hasn’t swayed.
It was at the church, which is also offering sanctuary to a Honduran family, where Cretarola first tasted Oneita’s bread pudding and got the idea to sell the dessert at his restaurant to help the family, which includes Christine’s 12-year-old brother, Timothy.
Overnight, the raisins and cherries were soaked in white rum and red wine in the church’s industrial kitchen. They printed up the recipe and titled it “Christine’s Jamaican-style Bread Pudding for Immigrant Children.”
The next day, Cretarola and Lee picked Christine up and brought her to the restaurant. The girl was quiet, part youthful cautiousness around adults, part learned guarded silence.
She brought some supplies, the fruit, wheat bread. Timid at first, soon she was playfully bossing chef Damon Menapace around the back kitchen, instructing him to be sure to keep the ends of the bread for texture. Though he later recalled, with a laugh, she did allow him to add his own flourish, a rum-caramel sauce.
On the way back to the church that night, she opened up more, asking about the streets and buildings they passed that were new to her. Before they sought sanctuary in a pair of spare rooms at the church, the family lived in a rural New Jersey town with fewer than 800 people.
She smiles at the idea of something that means so much to her mother reaching beyond the church threshold neither of her parents can pass for fear of being deported.
The owners had planned to sell the dessert through March, but they are going to keep the $8 “Sanctuary Bread Pudding” on the menu for a while longer.
The other day a diner wrote the owners to say he wouldn’t be returning to the restaurant, offended by whatever goodwill came to the immigrant family from the sale of the bread pudding.
But sometimes, diners too full from a hearty pasta dinner to fit dessert, have purchased some of the bread pudding in support anyway.
The restaurant is giving all proceeds to the Thompsons, but the family has decided half should go to help families separated at the border.
As hard as it’s been to be confined to the church for seven months, to live in limbo, Oneita says, they have been luckier than those who have been separated from their children.
In a Germantown church, an immigrant from Jamaica who desperately seeks asylum wants all immigrants who desperately seek entry to a better life to know that they are not alone.