Have You Been Here Before?

By Dr. Tracey Deutsch

That was the question asked during an orientation at Simpson Overnight Shelter a local homeless shelter that also offers breakfasts and dinners.  I was there with my son’s religious school class on a service project. It was 5:30 am on a cold October Sunday morning—just before daylight savings kicked in. So it was dark and it was going to stay that way for quite some time.

The question was enlightening though.  I had thought of it in only one way: do you know how to run the kitchen here?  Do you know where the dishes are and how to set up a station in the dining room?

And a few families in the group answered, quickly, that yes, they’d been here before and could help set us up.

But two families said something that made me step back.  Yes, they’d been here before. They had traveled there to eat with their families.   

As I went about the work of the morning, nothing felt the same.   At once, an event that I had thought of as routine–at most an occasion to think about middle and upper class religious life– took on new significance.  

The honesty of the other parents was a good reminder that many people experience poverty and food insecurity.  We just don’t talk about it.  

What would it mean if we told our full food stories? What would it mean if we were honest about poverty that we have all experienced?  What if we told stories that took place in moments of poverty, but that were not defined by poverty?  What if we told stories that took place in seemingly wealthy spaces, but that were not defined by wealth?  

 

This post plays out some of those possibilities.

 

Food stories, in my experience, often follow scripts.  We remember exuberant meals with families, or the burn of hunger and fear and isolation.  But this meal had both; there was an impromptu dance-off between Vikings and Packers fans and a constant bubbling of conversation and even what seemed like camaraderie.  But it was not among blood kin (in fact, this shelter is difficult for families because men and women sleep separately and there are no accommodations for children.) And the people dancing were also facing eviscerating insecurity and poverty.  This moment of shared eating, this hopefulness and release, is difficult to integrate into the way we talk about food.  It is usually all or nothing—joy or pain.   

This can be reinforced by efforts to undo social barriers. Many wonderful ethnographies of food insecurity and the people who try to address it address the tremendous barriers in the way of food security.  Books by Janet Poppendieck lay out the ways that hunger emerged as a discursive problem, separate from the problem of poverty.  Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shafer’s $2 a day is a powerful indictment of that system, in which the poorest families craft households that deploy every money saving strategy they can find (e.g. going without any public utilities) and find a way to make do.  These are searing indictments of inequality.  But they also reinforce the distinctiveness of this way of living, the “difference” of hunger.

Researchers rarely do ethnographies on the ways that food insecurity touches so many of us.  We don’t expect food insecurity to touch the institutions we inhabit.  Indeed, I’d venture that we don’t stop to ask whether it does.  It doesn’t seem like a question.


For instance, student hunger is often invisible. I taught a whole class on food history and discovered at the end of the term, via a student’s final paper, that they had sat through the class hungry. Dealing with a medical condition meant they saved their energy for class and not for traveling to the store (far from their student neighborhood) to get themselves the few items that they could eat. It turns out that nearly 10% of students on my campus run out of food with no funds to buy more before the end of each month and almost twice that number worry about this.  These numbers are typical of many four year colleges—they are far worse at community colleges.  What if those students’ stories were parts of campus life? What if they felt they could tell their stories?

And what about the rest of us?  What if we could talk openly about our experiences of poverty and precarity—not as something we had “gotten past” but as something that required help? As a series of challenges overcome not only by individual effort but also by collective endeavors and systems?  What if we expected, not only hunger and toughness and bootstraps, but also experiences of shared meals and safety nets?

What if we talked about how grateful we had been for shelters, or unemployment checks, or free lunches and breakfasts at school?

What if we talked about the shame and bureaucratic hurdles of using these?

What if we talked about how we needed it anyway?

******************

The summer before I started my faculty position, I set my alarm for 7 am for several mornings in a row.  I dialed the same numbers over and over, trying to get through to the caseworker who would approve or refuse my application for Minnesota Care.  I was four months pregnant and with neither health insurance nor income until 30 days after my official start-date later that fall. I had moved across the country to a city where I had no family except my equally unpaid spouse and certainly had no friends. I dialed numbers over and over, sometimes getting through and leaving a message and sometimes just a busy signal.  The outgoing message reminded all of us that a job was better than a handout.  I felt like no one would believe me when I said that I had the first, but still needed the second.  I left a message anyway.  I left a lot of messages.

Eventually my application was approved.  I was, and am, extraordinarily grateful in spite of the demeaning process of getting the aid.  I was able to get excellent prenatal care at the clinic where I have stayed ever since. The MN Care caseworkers eventually explained that my child would be eligible for medical care with no questions asked, regardless of what happened to my income or whether or not they were covered on my insurance.  I was able to focus on starting my new job, on finding my way around the city, on establishing a household.  

I was able to buy food for the refrigerator.  

I felt lucky.  I am lucky. And I also felt like this was going to be in my past.

What would it mean if we lived in a world in which we fully expected that anyone we met might have eaten in a shelter? What would it mean if we recognized the moments of rupture—the moments when boundaries of class are crossed?  What if we took our stories with us when we crossed?  What if we recognized that many professional people also are underpaid, inhabit precarious economic positions, and experience impoverishment?

Some of the changes would occur in public discussions of budgets and welfare programs. We would know that those public services were truly public—that they helped and touched far more people than we might think. Even poverty that was in our past might inform our narratives about the present.  We would know that even people facing enormous insecurity experience joy and dignity. The absence of these programs, the cut-backs, might seem more urgent—might seem like everyone’s problem.  We would know that poverty lives in our midst.

But other changes would occur in what we think we know about food, and what we have to learn. Anyone we met might have a full, complex, surprising food story. Anyone could have been anywhere before.   

#ChangingtheNarrative of Indigenous Food

by Megan Red Shirt-Shaw and John Little

When envisioning “traditional Native American food,” the conclusion for many, who may not understand that different communities celebrate different traditional staples, is frybread and the “Indian Taco.” Whether it’s Thomas Builds the Fire describing his mother ceremoniously making and ripping it apart to feed over “100 hungry Indians” in the film Smoke Signals, or  the length of the lines at the Denver March Powwow, frybread has been seen as a common food source by Native people for community celebrations and gatherings. However, in more recent years, many Native entrepreneurs throughout the United States have worked to change the frybread narrative. These individuals have begun to develop their own food creations based on better understanding of traditional diets.  They integrate these into a panoply of dishes, from honey pear gorgonzola ice cream to buffalo super nachos. This blog highlights how these individuals are expanding and changing the narrative of Indigenous food resources.

One of the most well-known food creations has been the Pine Ridge Reservation based Tanka Bar. According to their website, “Tanka products are built on our ancestors’ knowledge of the Ideal Portable Energy for endurance, top performance and healthful life. Based on traditional wasna and pemmican, we combine high-protein, prairie-fed buffalo and tart-sweet cranberries.” More than just a healthy snack, the Tanka Bar company promotes healthy lifestyles, suicide prevention, and currently has more than thirty employees on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is typically noted for its lack of economic opportunities and low employment rates.

Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, is another well-known food advocate. His company and alias, The Sioux Chef, caters a variety of food resources and recently announced plans for a Minneapolis based restaurant. Their mission states, “We are committed to revitalizing Native American Cuisine and in the process we are re-identifying North American Cuisine and reclaiming an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible.” This collaborative consists of Dakota, Lakota, Anishinaabe, Navajo, and Northern Cheyenne and other tribal members that range from food fanatics and chefs to ethnobotanists and food preservationists. From appetizers of bison meatballs to full-on entrees of wild rice bowls, seed crusted walleye, and honey roasted sunchokes, the Sioux Chef can feed anywhere from 15 to over a 100 individuals (or those cousins who randomly show up at your door). The Sioux Chef only uses ingredients that have not been contaminated by pesticides or herbicides and are non-GMO.

 

One of the longer known Native eateries has been the Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery in Denver, Colorado. Tocabe was rebranded in 2008 from its previous life as Grayhorse: An American Indian Eatery, originally established in 1989. The Native owned restaurant is celebrated as, “a clean, warm, open space with connections to American Indian cultural elements, infused with a contemporary atmosphere.” Tocabe’s signature dish is an Indian Taco; however, the assembly line-style restaurant moves away from the normal ingredients of tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, and ground beef, and allows individuals to place more nutritious and fresh ingredients on their taco such as wild rice, corn, cucumbers, and various other vegetables. The restaurant also markets multiple kinds of bread, including a gluten free version. Similar to the Sioux Chef, it also only uses ingredients that do not contain pesticides or herbicides, and are non-GMO. In addition to Indian Tacos, Tocabe is known for its slow cooked bison ribs and rotating soup options.

Last but not least is the Native owned Central District Ice Cream in Seattle, Washington. Founded in 2017 by Darren and Kristine McGill, who continue their long line of food industry power (the two have also helped found Nate’s Chicken and Waffles and an award winning food truck in Portland) in the Northwest. Central District is known for its monthly rotating,unique list of ice cream, milkshakes, ice cream bars, and popsicles. Like many of these businesses, Central District works with Native American communities to raise awareness about local issues. Most recently, Central District partnered with Louie Gong’s Eighth Generation, a Native owned and operated store in Pike’s Place Market that promotes Indigenous artists, for his one year business celebration.

These four Native owned businesses have paved the way for future Indigenous food creators, chefs, and advocates. Three of these businesses began in cities and communities that were relocation centers for Native people during the 1950s and 1960s. As a result of relocation, Indian Centers and urban powwows have served as sites for Indigenous gatherings that often center around the Indian Taco and frybread. Thus, the Indian Taco has been promoted as the traditional food of Indigenous peoples throughout the United States.  It is particularly meaningful, then, that these cities now are sites for expanding notions of Indigenous food. These food advocates provide hope and while challenging the misconceptions about frybread by working to #ChangetheNarrative of Indigenous food creation, consumption, and revival under settler colonial systems.

Vulnerable in Public

Nicholas Williams

“My body is a record of the life I’ve lived, the relationships I’ve formed, the love I’ve been given, the lessons I’ve learned.”

I stood there, looking out onto the audience, not seeing a thing. The room was quiet except for my voice, rising and falling in excitement and fear, carrying me away at times to memories of days long past. I poured out my heart on that stage, telling the people I could not see a story of my life in an abusive relationship almost six years ago, a story about surviving, escaping, building, crying, and, eventually, healing. I told that story the only way I know how to talk about that part of my life—through food.

 

“Our first date had started with coffee in the early evening. At 3am, we were still together, sitting close to each other at a fountain, alone together in bliss… He was the first man I ever loved and that love left an indelible mark on my life.”

 

In the personal part of my too-compartmentalized life, I think a lot about food and storytelling. In the professional part of that compartmentalized life, I am a Ph.D. student who studies food history and how people have come to understand food by performing scientific experiments on human bodies. A series of events beginning last spring forced me to see these two parts as impossible to separate. The first occurred when stress from my professional life unearthed trauma from that past abusive relationship, trauma I had spent years healing, but that had been stored somewhere deep in my body.

 

I wrote previously on this blog about my belief that food is a peculiar vehicle for telling stories and confronting trauma, whether personal or collective. I wrote: “This is what I want to meditate on: the ability for food to provide a way to talk collectively about very difficult, very personal stories. What I mean is that food seems to offer a way to talk about the kinds of difficult things we can’t seem to have public conversations about: histories of trauma, both personal and cultural; social inequalities; dispossession; exploitation; and the list goes on.” This was what was on my mind at the beginning of last summer.

 

Well, at the end of the summer, I got a very different lesson on what it means to tell these “very difficult, very personal stories” through food. I performed in the Soul Food Monologues in August at The Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge in Minneapolis. This experience put my life in new perspective as I used food and storytelling to make sense of the trauma stored in my body, learning anew storytelling’s capacity to heal.

 

“I always loved baking for the people I loved. I had spent years working on my brownie recipe and wanted to share them with the man I loved. One of the greatest ironies of that relationship was that he did not like sweets. Eventually, he dumped me over text when I could no longer give him what he wanted.”

 

The Soul Food Monologues are performance events where performers write and deliver their own monologues, usually—but not always—using food to tell stories of their own life. They’re the brainchild of LaDonna Redmond, a food justice activist and diversity and community engagement manager for the Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis. Redmond has devoted her life to solving issues of food justice and, among her many activities, has given two TEDx Talks on food justice: one in the Twin Cities and another in Manhattan.

 

Redmond is also a wise and insightful storyteller. She understands the power of stories to captivate audiences and convey deeper truths about who we are. Understanding this was what, in part, led to her launching the Soul Food Monologues. Redmond works with performers for several days leading up to each performance, coaching and guiding them as they write, revise, rehearse, and deliver their finished monologues. Over the course of three or four days, each performer will go from not knowing what they want to say to standing in front of an audience, captivating them with their story.

 

“We made brownies that day… We made brownies because I believed I couldn’t do anything. My friends knew better. They knew me well enough to know that I loved cooking more than almost anything else on the planet. If there was anything I could do, it was cook.”

 

I was one of four performers at this particular event. For three days, the four of us worked with LaDonna as she guided us with writing prompt after writing prompt. We wrote anecdotes and stories, anything that might eventually be woven together into a monologue, scraps of memories stitched together like torn cloth transformed into a beautiful quilt. LaDonna was the master weaver who helped us see the story between the memories.

 

None of our stories were easy to tell—we all struggled with memories and regrets, silences and unanswered questions. None of the stories were easy, but they were our stories to tell and we learned to own our stories—the good and the bad. These were deep dives into our pasts and we left exhausted at the end of each day. We talked about family memories and traditions, about difficult relationships and personal identity, about who we were and who we wanted to be. And, of course, we talked about the food at the heart of all these stories.

 

I wrote about the first man I had ever loved, about how quickly our relationship turned from dream to nightmare. I wrote about the psychological abuse he put me through, how I survived, escaped, and learned to heal—all with the help of brownies. The journey wasn’t easy. By the time of the break-up, I had been diagnosed with severe depression; after the break-up, I was barely functional, if that. After weeks went by like this, my friends intervened in a way that only my closest friends could—we cooked. That day was a pivot point in my life.

 

“When people find out I love to cook, they usually ask what my favorite recipe is. I tell them it’s my brownie recipe. I mean, it starts with a pound of butter and a pound of dark chocolate. Then you add two more kinds of chocolate. What’s not to love? But…if I’m honest, it’s really because those brownies saved my life that day—my birthday as it were.”

 

I learned a lot about public vulnerability by performing my monologue. I stood onstage in front of an audience and spoke from the heart. My defenses were down as I talked about one of the hardest experiences of my life, and even though I had spent years healing from that relationship, it was difficult to be that open in public.

 

Food has a way of allowing us to be vulnerable in public. If I had not been able to center my story on the brownies I made with my friends weeks after that relationship ended, I don’t know if I could have shared that story the way I did. True, those brownies were really at the heart of that whole experience—the turning point for that part of my life—and, true, my story is particular to me and does not represent anyone else but myself. But I think there’s something to the fact that all four of us performers were able to grapple with some of the most perplexing questions of our lives that day. And I think that something is that we were all able to talk about those questions and those memories by talking about food.

 

Being vulnerable in public is hard.  Especially in today’s world, when public screaming and defensiveness seem to be the preferred ways of moving through our lives. I think we could all use a little more vulnerability in public, the willingness to be seen for who we are while we sit with others, flaws and all. I believe we can’t move forward collectively unless we find a way to learn to be uncomfortable and grapple with some of the most perplexing questions we all face. I’m not saying talking about food will solve all our problems, but it might help start some conversations about who we are and what we’ve been through. Who knows where that might lead.

 

“My body’s wisdom guides me where it knows I should go. If I had known that making those brownies, that day, in that kitchen with those friends would lead to such a long road, I probably would have given up, gone home, and curled up in bed. I think my body knew what lie ahead because it led the way into that kitchen.”

 

As I write this, several months after my performance, I have a better understanding of the healing power of owning your story and of being able to tell that story. I can also see where my scholarly interest in food, bodies, and knowledge comes from. It turns out my body has been guiding me all along, in more ways than I could’ve imagined.

 

(Quotations in italics are from the monologue I performed as part of the Soul Food Monologues on August 21, 2017.)

“Do You Have to Work Later?”

by James Mcelroy

A family, a table, warm food – these seem to be the basics of Thanksgiving.  That Thursday, and the string of days imbued with sentiment in the weeks that follow, can occasion the extension of familial ties to friends, acquaintances, and, for the most generous, to strangers.  Around a table large or small, people gather to share a course or several.  The exchanges that mark the occasion often involve more than the food: conversations that may veer into the contentious, but also kinder sentiments realized, perhaps, by a day away from work. For some, the performativity may straddle the thin line between ritualistic comfort and the rote. (Photo: pennlive.com via the AP)

For many, the spirit of the holiday overshadows the politics of that week.  The other side of the wholesome celebration is, after all, a deliberate nationalist project the purposes of which are much less often interrogated. On the occasion of its 2017 iteration, let’s ask a question or two before indulging in the gravy, stuffing, and pie.

It’s been my recent experience that a popular topic of conversation around that Thursday table, as well as in the media this time of the year, surrounds the hours of operation of certain brick-and-mortar retail spaces – apparel, appliance, and electronic and electronic stores – on Thursday evening and Friday morning.  Intertwined with Thanksgiving is Black Friday, a nationalist project of its own sort, and one that used to enjoy several whole hours of removal from Thanksgiving.  Once there existed a peaceful pause in the November predawn chill, goes a common lament, before wholesome family sacrament transformed into absolute consumerist frenzy.

The first to breach this barrier between hallowed holiday and capitalist chaos was Sears in 2010, when the department store opened its doors to customers on Thursday evening.  Since then, the creep, or more accurately the steady recession of Black Friday hours into Thursday, has been a source of anxiety for some and produced a backlash among others.  That’s just a shame, maybe an aunt or uncle opines over the turkey and cranberry sauce.  Don’t they care about their workers?  “Do you have to work later?” was, for a number Thanksgivings in a row, a question of concern posed to my cousin who worked part-time at an electronics store, the answer to which was always an affirmation marked by casual acceptance.  Yes, retail workers work holidays, and yes, if you’re employed by a store chances are your Thanksgiving experiences are necessarily inflected with that embodied knowledge – the soreness in the legs of a supermarket worker following the five busiest days of the year, or perhaps the early, unelaborate meal eaten away from the family to allow for the rest necessary to be back at the shop by 9pm.  And, certainly, retail workers are far, far from the only people laboring away from loved ones that Thursday: soldiers, nurses, drivers; police and firefighters; restaurant and theater employees; so many others.

Why, then, do the working conditions of retail clerks occasion attention and apparent concern regarding the Black Thursday trend – working conditions generally unthought of by many for the rest of the year?  Several stores in the last few holiday cycles have eschewed the obscenely early opening time, and they would like you to know that they really do care to have their employees spend Thanksgiving with their family.  An alternative reality might be that, operationally, opening stores for Black Friday at midnight or earlier on Thursday has not proven cost effective for many stores.

The answer may lie in the discomfort with, or the latent anxiety exposed by, the news reports of the first Black Thursday contraventions, stories that (as good news stories do) put faces and names to events. Those faces and names were the workers seemingly most affected by the stores’ adjusted scheduling.  Scenes of Black Friday mobs had for many years provoked a mix of bemusement and consternation, but represented an accepted anomalous moment for the outrageous acting out of commercial impulses.  But, what if that madness could no longer be contained and channeled through the authorized period of the weeks leading up to the Big December Shopping Event?  Worse, what if that pathos pierced our secular version of “Holy Thursday”?  Might such a transgression threaten to portend a psychic confrontation with the question, what exactly are the limits of American capitalism? And, when should we start to talk about this?

Anyone who has worked for a grocery store during the Thanksgiving holiday can laugh at the absurdity of the notion that commercial hysteria was ever in any real way deferred until after Thursday.  And, if there was a cause for concern that retail workers would like more people to give a shit about, it would be their wages, their job security, and their health insurance, not whether they have to work at 4am on Black Friday.  Contrary to the discourse that normalizes certain kinds of work as “unskilled” (which not only creates condescension but more importantly an outright delusion about the nature of work, and therefore militates against  solidarity, a unity needed now more than ever), the cause for alarm is not the character of the clerk’s workday.  Rather, it’s the routine by which those at the margins of employment, and those who live in precarity, are ignored in all other instances; those who are the least supported by the nation-state and American capitalism on Thursday and Friday are the people without whom a “holiday experience” would be impossible.  In the presence of family and over some warm food on a table, these questions and conversations – though less comfortable – are worth exploring and could shake up the rote this year.

Soul Food Dialogue

by Sharon Perrone

The Soul Food Monologues are a collection of performance narratives written and performed by University of Minnesota students over the course of a weekend workshop with Twin Cities food activist LaDonna Redmond.  The workshop encourages students to dig deeply into their own food histories and connect it to their own identities as memory and experience.  In March, I hitched a ride with two U of M history students out to Morris, MN to see the most recent cohort perform.

As a bit of history, the Soul Food Monologues were an idea inspired by the interaction of food and justice, and the powerfully healing experience of storytelling to transform grief, trauma, and oppression in food systems to insight, courage, dignity, and perseverance.  The workshop is a process of guided soul-searching and creative expression.  In this context, I was curious to learn more about the challenges faced by such a unique demographic – late teens and early twentysomethings typically originating from rural Minnesota – that is so removed from my own food experience as a late twentysomething East Coast urbanite.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  What would I write about, if I had the chance?  What stories of grief and struggle have been transformed in my life by or through food?  As I settled into the black box theater, I ruminated on my first farm experience at nineteen years old.  Working on my college’s student organic farm for four years rid me of insecurity and body dysmorphia and instilled a love of – no, a need for – regular outdoor exploration.  How would their stories compare to my own?

And as I listened to the students, I thought my story would have fit in quite well.  In one instance, food and meals were shared through a study abroad cultural exchange that was unfamiliar and confusing, but led to a better cross-cultural relationship.  In another, a student fished with her father and gardened with her mother, reaping the bounty of water and land well stewarded.  In yet another, an indigenous student raised on a reservation found meaning, direction, and healing from historical trauma through her decision to raise baby goats.  Several themes echoed from story to story, including childhood and nostalgia; femininity; challenge and newness; self-discovery; joy; healing; human connection; love for land.

Yet, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat unfulfilled by the end of the performance; I was still hungry, if you will.  These common themes, to me, framed an often misguided romanticization of agriculture – a farce in which we yearn for a return to rose-colored simpler times, a distraction from industrialized food production and other environmental and social ills, and a realization of idyllic pastoralism (Hajdik 2011).  (Indeed, my own food story fell neatly into this narrative.)  Food isn’t exempt from romanticization, either.  We photograph our home-cooked meals, fancy restaurant dishes, and artisanal cocktails.  People attend farmers markets like they would the theater.  Cooking blogs are works of art.  What is a food experience when these bells and whistles are stripped away?

Types of stories that I heard.

Specifically, I couldn’t shake thoughts of food stories that didn’t end in such uplifting ways; food stories that are still gaping wounds; food stories that sit heavy on backs and shoulders.  This is all to say that what spoke to me most about the SFM was that which I did not hear – both the natural and social or constructed forms of ingloriousness in the food system, ranging from death and decay to apathy to exploitation and oppression.  (To be fair, this is perhaps beyond the scope of the SFM.)  What food stories are we not hearing when we focus on the need to make sense of grief and trauma to find healing?  What if, sometimes, there is no meaning to be derived?  What happens when stories are unresolved?Types of stories I didn’t hear.  This friend of mine broke his back as a logger when he was 19 and built a house and a farm through chronic and debilitating pain.

I recently visited a friend’s farm for a nature walk to clear my head.  The wood lot on her property is rolling and wild, visited by a cheerful and meandering stream if you go deep enough into it.  We dug ramps and found a few baby morels that we allowed the forest to keep tending.  Her dog, had wandered off on some doggy adventure and returned to her with a wide grin and a treat: the lower hind leg of a deer that had died in the forest some time ago.  The leg had bits of matted hide clinging to it, some crusted blood, and wriggling maggots.  A part of a second bone hung loosely by some shredded tendons and swung from his mouth, the sinew dripping fetidly by his feet, as he trotted towards us, the flies close in tow.

One of the farms I used to work for raised lambs for meat.  I had little responsibilities with livestock, but was present the day that the farm owners were traveling and the apprentices were put in charge.  One of the little lambs had escaped our fencing and gotten into the neighbor’s alfalfa pasture, which poisoned it.  The lamb started crying, then shaking and foaming.  We called the vet, but it was too late.  Within a half hour, the lamb was dead in Maggie’s arms.

My mother thinks food is tedious.  She finds no joy in cooking, only relief to have pulled something out of the oven and provided for her family.  This was partly due to her demanding job, which left little time for creativity in the kitchen, and partly due to her innate personality.  Growing up, she told us if she didn’t have to eat to survive, she wouldn’t.  When she was a child, she’d bring a book to the table to make meals bearable and interesting.  Yet, she always insists on cooking when her children come home (despite my eager assurances that I’d be happy to take over), because isn’t it the most natural thing in the world for a mother to prepare meals for her children?

Not every mom.

I could go on.  I know a farmer and forester that was crippled at the age of nineteen by a falling tree.  I know a student who got her arm caught in the potato harvester during harvest season in Maine.  I know an urban farmer who drowned stray cats when animal control refused to help.  I know an orchardist who lost his entire apple crop to hail for a season.  I work for a butcher, and when I asked their 17-year-old son how he butchers a cow, he made a hand gesture of a gun and clicked it right between my eyes.

The realities of food and farming are often violent, in the sense that they may be powerful and destructive inasmuch as they can be generative and healing.  Some of these realities are natural and unavoidable; some of them stem from the inherent tension between land use needs and the danger involved in food production to scale; some of them are a result of systemic injustices and oppression that modern food systems are often built on.

Even in my own privileged, Western, food- and farming-devoted person, these inglorious, indifferent, and painful experiences with food occupy a heavy mental space alongside the joyous ones—the ones in which I built, brick by brick, a dome of self-confidence through farming; the ones in which I cultivated an active and healthy lifestyle through better diet and outdoorsmanship; the ones in which the dirt squeaked through my teeth as I pulled a fresh carrot out of the ground and ate it, because I was hungry and because it was there.

The Soul Food Monologues in Morris were beautiful, creative, and thoughtfully orchestrated, and there was great resonance in their stories with my own personal food experiences.  Yet, the absence of these less romanticized themes left me wanting more from a set of performances.  To participate in food and farming is to insert oneself into a constant web of life and death that is natural, beautiful, violent, tragic, artistic, difficult, and perpetual.  To neglect this dichotomous identity in telling a food story may yield a touching, yet incomplete narrative.  I am reminded of the closing stanza in Wendell Berry’s poem, “Sabbaths – 1979, IV,” in which he muses:

Ruin is in place here:
The dead leaves rotting on the ground,
The live leaves in the air
Are gathered in a single dance
That turns them round and round.
The fox cub trots his almost pathless path
As silent as his absence.
These passings resurrect
A joy without defect,
The life that steps and sings in ways of death.

Reference: 

Hajdik, A.T. (2011). Agricultural romance: constructing and consuming rural life in modern America. PhD Dissertation. University of Texas.

Telling Stories Through Food

By Nicholas Williams

Food is a powerful vehicle for storytelling. This is true both for individuals and at the collective level. Food is who we are, where we come from, how we live, what we believe, and who we will become. Our biographies are condensed into dishes and bites, like memories garnishing our stories. Through the foods we consume and the foods we make–and don’t–we stake claims in our identities and stories, as if announcing to the world, “this is me and this is what I eat.”

I don’t want to reduce people to their food choices or act as though I could possibly know someone based on one food they eat; that’s silly. No, I believe our food choices say much more about who we are when looked at over longer terms. Do you eat minimally? Like a glutton? Do you only eat organic and local, or does the prepared foods section of the supermarket beckon to you? Do you like elaborate, multi-course dinners, or do you prefer take-out? Does your food vary from day to day or even year to year? Do you stick to the foods you grew up with, or do you branch out and try to explore other cultures through their foods?

What I like about these questions is they demonstrate what is so basic about food: food is complicated. It’s something frequently overlooked as we go about our lives, and especially (unfortunately) when prescribing food values to others, telling others what foods they should eat, or judging people–or cultures–based on their foods. It’s easy to think about our own food choices as complex, multi-faceted, and as having many dimensions, but do not extend this same belief to others. Social discourse likes to paint the urban poor as subsisting on fast food and sugary sodas, but that reduction can obscure the real efforts made by people who face real structural inequalities. These caricatures hide the complexity of problems and peoples’ efforts to solve or deal with those problems. They also hide the variation between individuals of the same groups, treating these groups instead as monolithic entities that make the same decision every single time with regards to food.

Photo courtesy of Anna Min of Min Enterprises, LLC

Instead of this, I want more robust and more nuanced discussions of real food. (Real food not as some judgment of value, but as the food people actually eat rather than the imagined or exaggerated foods of these social discourses.) We can ask, “Is that really the truth?” or “Is that the whole story or just one part of it?” Then we can open a conversation about what is really going on and what we are trying to do and say and what other people are trying to make happen.

I got a great glimpse of what this could look like at an event at The Loft Literary Center in March. It was called “Reclaiming Our Food” and it was part of a series of events, “More Than a Single Story,” that centered on women of color, writing, and social justice, drawing inspiration from Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s famous TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” This event, organized by Carolyn Holbrook, featured four women who worked with and wrote about food in their communities. Each woman spoke of how they found themselves working with food and community and each shared written work—short stories, poems, excerpts from longer works—in which they thought about food, the relationship between food and community, and how individuals and communities can reclaim food that is meaningful to them. In opening remarks, each speaker described the specific life circumstances—full of tragedy and longing—that forced them to think about food’s place in their own lives and in our collective lives.

Photo courtesy of Anna Min of Min Enterprises, LLC

The four speakers—Pakou Hang, LaDonna Redmond, Princess Titus, and Diane Wilson—came from an array of backgrounds, but collectively represent decades of work with food, communities, and storytelling. Diane Wilson brought a jar of generations-old seed corn and spoke of learning the importance of indigenous knowledge and the ways in which indigenous food practices were vital to healing historical trauma, reading excerpts from her autobiographical writing. Pakou Hang told of how she became involved in organizing and advocating for Hmong farmers in Minnesota, drawing on her childhood experiences as a farm worker and reading a poem written by a friend about the cruelty of how immigrants are treated in America. LaDonna Redmond described the jarring experience of realizing how bad food access was while living in Chicago when she had to grapple with her young child’s severe food allergies. She shared a short story she was currently working on about taboo conversations broached at a Thanksgiving dinner. Finally, Princess Titus shared the heart wrenching story of losing a child to violence, forcing her to question what she could do with food to combat urban violence, using food and gardening as tools for social change.

Their collective experience spans the urban-rural divide as well as the many points of engagement with food between production and consumption, from farm to table. Each is deeply immersed in community-based organizations: Pakou Hang is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Hmong American Farmers Association; LaDonna Redmond is the diversity and community engagement manager for the Seward Community Co-op; Princess Titus co-founded Appetite for Change and is its Director of Education and Training; Diane Wilson is Executive Co-Director of Dream of Wild Health.

Photo courtesy of Anna Min of Min Enterprises, LLC

But while each of these individuals have impressive résumés with lists of accomplishments that attest to lifetimes spent working with food and community organizing, what struck me most about this event was the deeply personal work of food and storytelling. Really, what occurred that afternoon was public engagement with food, autobiography, and vulnerability, a revealing of personal truths in public dialogue. And these truths were hard-won by each speaker, wrested from lived experience with all its hardship and unexpected twists and turns. Some of these stories involved personal trauma and some involved generations of trauma and cultural genocide; some had eventual resolution, while others defy closure completely.

 

This is what I want to meditate on: the ability for food to provide a way to talk collectively about very difficult, very personal stories. What I mean is that food seems to offer a way to talk about the kinds of difficult things we can’t seem to have public conversations about: histories of trauma, both personal and cultural; social inequalities; dispossession; exploitation; and the list goes on. We have conversations about these issues, but we have totally different conversations about them when we talk about food—we’re able to speak differently with one another and have an entirely different discourse about these pressing issues when we ground the dialogue in food.

Here’s an example. When Diane Wilson brings Native youth from urban Minneapolis to the Dream of Wild Health Farm in Hugo, MN, she teaches these children and teenagers about indigenous ways of planting, cultivating, and preparing food and about the rituals, ceremonies, and prayers that generations of Natives have participated in around food. Through this work, Wilson and the rest of Dream of Wild Health can talk about the centuries of trauma inflicted on Native communities by white settlers. Anyone who’s spoken with Wilson knows she is not one to shy away from discussing the horrible things that have been done to Natives, but she is also equally likely to talk about those histories—and current practices—by talking about food: foods that were prohibited by the government, ceremonies and rituals for planting and harvesting made illegal to practice, indigenous knowledges about uses of plants and food effectively erased by forcing Native children to attend Indian boarding schools, where Native languages, customs, and practices were forbidden in order to assimilate these children into white culture. By grounding these difficult conversations in food, Wilson makes real for her audiences the impact of historical trauma on everyday life.

Maybe it’s because food makes the conversation personal. Maybe it’s because talking about food easily brings us into the realm of personal story and individual experience, and maybe this helps us put faces and lives to the all-too-often faceless oppression and inequality. Maybe we struggle to articulate these systems of inequalities when they’re abstract and faceless and what food helps us do is localize the experiences and talk about something we can put words and stories to.

Food isn’t the only way we can bring weighty, but abstract conversations down to a level we can talk generatively about, though. Really, if the point is to put names and faces—and individual stories—on abstract systems of oppression, we could do that without any reference to food. Grounding these conversations in personal story should do the same work, right?

I don’t think so. At least, I think food does something different. Food can make the conversation not only personal, but intimate. Food is about vulnerability; eating involves ingesting something that could harm us. I think the stories we tell about food work in a similar way—we connect around these stories because some visceral part of us recognizes the vulnerable place we all inhabit. Perhaps even without explicitly recognizing that shared vulnerability, I think something changes when we tell our stories through food.

Photo courtesy of Anna Min of Min Enterprises, LLC

Something changes, too, when conversations and storytelling take place around food. When we share in communal eating and tell our stories with one another, a different space opens up for collective vulnerability and mutual understanding. There’s a wonderful story about this, which Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, told Krista Tippet when she interviewed him for On Being. I’ll let him have the last words:

“One interfaith occasion we did years and years and years ago with African bishops, Orthodox rabbis and African bishops — and we did a lot of interfaith theology and we talked about all this stuff we had in common, and it was wonderful and very boring. And I was thinking, let’s break through. So in the end, at the last night, I said let’s just sit ‘round the table and have some food and drink, and we are going to teach you our songs and our stories, and you are going to teach us your songs and your stories. And we went on until three or four in the morning, and I think we could have made world peace then and there.”

More Than a Single Story is an ongoing series at The Loft Literary Center and other venues, founded and curated by Carolyn Holbrook, Ph.D.

“Food Stamps & Food Rights”

“Our modern system of food benefits emerged from public activism.  It required acceptance of women’s rights, and a move away from blaming women for their families’ hunger.”

Dr. Tracey Deutsch discusses with The Gender Policy Report the history of food rights and the longstanding attempts to dismantle those rights. Check out the full blog post here.

A Visit to Mary Arden’s Farm

Experience the sights, sounds and smells of a working Tudor farm on a fantastic family day out at Mary Arden’s Farm. Meet the Tudors who run the farm just as Shakespeare’s mother would have done, watch craft and falconry demonstrations and explore the farmyard, playground and historic buildings.

 —Mary Arden’s Farm Promotional Material

Before us were roughly a dozen heritage piglets. All tumbling over one another as they attempted to touch their snouts to my hand, which I placed before them. Perhaps they thought I had food. I didn’t. After petting the piglet, I walked back towards Mary Arden’s farmhouse. In the distance I could see a woman in Tudor style clothing on what looked to be a mound of wet hay. I approached the fence, leaned on it, and observed her. She was holding her dress up with both hands, all the while rhythmically stomping her feet on the mound. I asked, “What are you doing?” She responded, “I have to pack the compost down, master.”

Image of pigs at the farm

The scene that I described was an ethnographic moment on a visit that I made to Mary Arden’s Farm on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon during the summer of 2016. A heritage site that is owned and operated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the farm is a reenactment site framed by the promotional statement to offer visitors an opportunity to “meet the Tudors who run the farm just as Shakespeare’s mother would have done.” However, upon meeting with the managing director and farm manager, the farm as a reenactment of the past becomes much more complicated by, and entangled within, present day determinations that establish what can be reasonably seen, said, and grown within this space. From a pedagogical perspective, the site aims to engage present-day students through reconstructed past in order to address the quandary of sustainable living in the future. And from the production perspective, the farm must negotiate the tensions that emerge when reenacting past ways of farming while still adhering to present day health and safety regulations.

Since its nascent years in the 1980s, performance studies included a wide array of embodied acts under its purview; including ritual, sports, politics, play, communication, festivals, and behavior (both human and animal). Included in this has been the performance of everyday life, emphasizing collective gatherings as sites for identity formation and making meaning. Following suit, performance historiographic methods have also taken to the town and city streets, to the reenactment fields and living history museums to address how the past is transmitted into the present. What this adds up to is a moment in which how the past is reenacted in the present, and by whom, carries a great deal of social, cultural, and political import. The act of reconstructing the past through embodied performance is not an innocent act, but one that has the potential to circulate an ideology about how collectives of people remember their past in the present to activate possible futures.

It is with this in mind that I consider Mary Arden’s Farm as a cultural site that not only intends to transmit a past to the present, but one that also wants to transmit knowledge of sustainable agriculture in order to consider future potentials. When thinking about Mary Arden’s Farm as a site that generates a collective memory, tensions and discontinuities emerge in the present day reenactment of Tudor life on the farm. For example, the farm manager is a present day anachronism.. Dressed in blue coveralls and work boots, the farm manager weaves in and out of the reenactment site to maintain the day-to-day operations at Mary Arden’s. While in the foreground one is witnessing the Tudor reenactment of managing the compost pile, in the background the farm manager is tending to the heritage pigs. The entrance of the farm manager into the field of vision disrupts the reconstructed past. In this anachronism, the circulation of present day regulations and consumer markets becomes visible.

Women prepping food

In her book Performing Remains, Rebecca Schneider makes the claim that history, much like performance, should not seek to recover a pure past. Instead, Schneider argues that the (historical or performance ) event should be understood as a continuous re-enactment that negotiates mistakes and misfires. It is through this engagement that Schneider blurs a distinction between liveness and archive, past and present, performer and spectator. For Schneider, the past seeps into the present via a continuous critical renegotiation of events through an embodied liveness, which allows space for the collective (rather than the individuated) generation of memory.

Along with the farm manager, another anachronism that emerges at the reenactment of the past at Mary Arden’s Farm are the present day regulations administered by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United Kingdom. This poses an interesting conundrum: since what is produced at Mary Arden’s Farm enters the consumer market, what is seeable and sayable at Mary Arden’s Farm reenactments are regulated and restricted by a governmental agency. Pushing this anachronism through Schneider’s theorizing of reenactments raises interesting questions about relationship between past, present, and future at these sites. Schneider, on anachronism, states,

“anachronism is at least a two-way street, with possibly more counter-directions than two. Because the manipulation of anachronism is the very stuff of the art or act of reenactment, it can never be entirely banished from the project at hand – a fact that reenactors know intimately” (53-4).

What needs to be considered further with reenactments are those moments when heritage sites spill into the present of everyday life, and, conversely, those moments when present day regulations spill into the heritage site. For example, in the case of Mary Arden’s Farm, the ideology of a more authentic and sustainable Tudor way of producing and consuming food actually materializes in the form of pork and dairy products that are produced and sold, spilling the past out into the present-day consumer market. This raises an intriguing question: how do we account for the added value of reenactment, anachronisms and all, on the food that we eat? It is through an engagement with performance studies that allows for such a question to emerge, indeed, even to be thought. To put it another way, it is performance studies that allows for a connection to be seen between reenactments and the production of food for paying consumers.

Since its nascent years in the 1980s, performance studies included a wide array of embodied acts under its purview; including ritual, sports, politics, play, communication, festivals, and behavior (both human and animal). Included in this has been the performance of everyday life, emphasizing collective gatherings as sites for identity formation and making meaning. Following suit, performance studies methods have also taken to the town and city streets, to the reenactment fields and living history museums to address how the past is transmitted into the present. What this adds up to is a moment in which how the past is reenacted in the present, and by whom, carries a great deal of social, cultural, and political import. The act of reconstructing the past through embodied performance is not an innocent act, but one that has the potential to circulate an ideology about how collectives of people remember their past in the present to activate possible futures.

My work at Mary Arden’s Farm shows how the move to examine historical reenactment through a performance historiographic lens provokes us to think through how the embodied performance of the past is embedded within a present day economic language of added-value. This requires scholars to consider how reenactment circulates beyond the confines of the heritage site and into a broader consumer market, enabling us to consider a very material by-product of reenactments. The question that emerges, and that I invite the reader to respond to, is: how do we account for the added value of reenactment, misfires and all, on the food that we eat?

WORKS CITED

Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011. Print.

ADT’s Performance of Feminist Food Politics

Carolyn Sachs and Anouk Patel-Campillo’s expansive and encompassing essay “Feminist Food Justice: Crafting a New Vision” suggests that there are three major approaches to food politics: food security, food sovereignty, and food justice (396). The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identifies food security through four priorities and needs: availability (addressing the issue of hunger through assessing the availability of food); access (ensuring that there are sufficient resources to produce food through aid, financing, etc.); stability (emphasizing that food supplies meet food demands through markets); and utilization (weighing the nutritional and dietary needs of populations) (Food and Agriculture Organization). For Sachs and Patel-Campillo, the food-security model is a top-down global approach to food and hunger vis a vis questions of population, economy, and policy. Food sovereignty, by contrast, is “the right of peoples and governments to choose the way food is produced and consumed in order to respect our livelihoods, as well as the policies that support this choice” (La Via Campesina 57). Food sovereignty emphasizes local control of food systems as the mechanism for forging sustainability and equity. Similarly, for Valentine Cadieux and Rachel Slocum, food justice advocacy varies in its commitment to addressing structural inequities that cause and impact hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity. They broaden the meaning of food justice to consider transformative change at four key points of intervention: trauma/inequity, exchange, land, and labor.

Ananya Dance Theater’s interdisciplinary artistic inquiry fuses food sovereignty and food justice politics in its performance of Roktim. Furthermore, the performance stages border-crossing choreographies that reimagine geopolitical terrains. Simply put, ADT breaks rigid boundaries between global north and south as well as borders between food justice and food sovereignty. Crossing global north and south, Roktim provides a border-crossing understanding of feminist food politics through the practices and struggles of transnational women of color. Providing a resounding critique of the concept of food security and reality of structural inequalities, and locating race, class, gender, sexuality, migration, nation, caste, and indigeneity squarely in food, Roktim forwards and imagines the need for seed sovereignty (related to, but distinct from food sovereignty) and food justice. To understand local struggles for the production of food and meaning means to locate them within transnational struggles of memory, history, and practices.

Roktim opens with a critique of food security vis a vis the production of food and seeds (including genetically modified organisms) within industrial production by transnational corporations. The performance begins by luring the audience in through an active participation in a staged tour of an imaginary multinational corporation. Concurrent tours of the facilities of Pronto FeedzAll Corporation make the audience actively participate in the production of their own subjectification as consumers. The tours themselves provide a dominant narrative while the performance undermines and contradicts the narrative that is provided as bodies vomit, crack, and break down. Critical of techno-food science that offers bigger, brighter, more, Roktim satirizes the promises of these techno-corporate futurities, demonstrating their potential impact on racialized, colonized, and gendered bodies. Transnational capital’s research across the global south and north through its promise to feed the world better as an achievement of food securitization is exposed as locating control within corporate and capital institutions. Moreover, Roktim demonstrates the neoliberalism of food security grounded in notions of individuality, consumption, and choice that guide much of liberal food politics within the US. Food security, Roktim suggests, sees food only as an object to be consumed, and thereby produces subjects only as consumers.

But the damage of food securitization in the form of technocapitalist production is not simply to produce subjects as consumers, but to worsen the structural violence enacted in the dispossession necessary for this form of production to occur. “The work done under the auspices of food security has often reproduced the socially inequitable conditions and relations it nominally seeks to address” (Cadieux and Slocum 4). Food as a global commodity (its position within food security) relies on the exploited labor of vulnerable workers and subjects, centralization of resources, and the separation of land, knowledge, and people. Roktim questions not only the biopolitical imperative, but also deadly forces within issues of seeds and food; as the program notes comment Roktim is “about the farmer suicide epidemic in India ultimately traced back to the introduction of GMO seeds, about the death of workers from a late-detected gas leak in Texas, the harvesting of wombs from the global south, murders masquerading as suicides.” Roktim emphasizes the impact on the global south and north especially the laboring subjects of peasants, subsistence farmers, women of color, children, indigenous, and the landless whose increasing alienation, despondency, and death is felt in the field and the factory. Roktim imaginatively links these various spaces – home, lab, factory, and field – as interrelated sites of contestation, trauma and dispossession. In particular, Roktim raises the question for us of when and where life and being are located.

 To choreograph feminist food justice, Roktim physically displaces performances from the venerated performance auditorium and opens outside in a grassy plaza through which guides lead audience members in small groups. First feeling open and expansive, it quickly becomes clear that the paths appear as choice, but are carefully managed, encouraging the participant to reflect on their own experience of food consumption as choice. The first act increasingly perturbs audience participants who move from section to section and are exposed to the violent, sickening, and alienating impacts of Pronto FeedzAll Corporation food. Forced to move, gaze upon, and confront increasingly suffering people and bodies, this first act, while disturbing, is also pedagogical in that participants learn to read for the unruliness and discomfort of their own and others bodies. Unsettled and ready to probe dominant narratives of food production and consumption, the audience is settled into their seats as the second act unfolds in a Fordist-like repetitive and mechanical food production site.

Expectations of group performance within mainstream dance are frequently the synchronized indistinguishable movements of line dancers such as the Rockettes. With incredibly precise, linear, and machine-like motions, the synchronized movements of the performers appear rigid, mechanical, and as if emerging from the lines of long straight limbs. Audiences are again confronted by their expectations for ensemble dance as dancer Magnolia Yang Sao Yia starts to break down, and diverges from the linear and mechanistic choreography. Her asynchronicity and lack of synergy mean that she is out of alignment with the group.

As Magnolia Yang Sao Yia’s character unravels, so does the angular, tracked, and mechanical ensemble. Forced to recognize each other rather than operate next to each other, the next two acts slowly shift from the long lines of Fordist production to the curved and rounded movements of a moving breathing collective. Slowly, the ensemble builds an intersubjective and collective interdependence as they synchronize their breaths and find a shared rhythm grounded in their integrated differences. They move as individuals, dyads, and small groups across the stage, recreating new geopolitical and spatial possibilities spatially and corporeally. The juxtaposed narratives of the different scenes create paths of movement that trace topographies across the stage linking new spaces, stories, and subjects. These arise from diligent and exhaustive rehearsing and from what is perhaps most required for collective performance– shared rhythm and breath. A breath is collectively vocalized, heard, resonant, and repeating, like echolocation guiding each dancer to position herself within tightly coordinated and close spaces and movement. Put simply, the choreography of feminist food politics is a border-crossing feminist practice linking bodies in synchronized breathing.

As the group comes to consciousness and transforms from mechanistic ensemble to intersubjective collective, Roktim cracks open and nurtures the seeds of food sovereignty and food justice. In Roktim, food sovereignty is about self and collective determination, but then integrally tied to broader questions of knowledge, subjectivity, and sovereignty. From their connection to Dream the Wild Farm, ADT understands indigenous rights advocates’ argument that food sovereignty is inextricably interwoven with community healing and care. The farm not only grows food and collects seeds, but also provides space for Native peoples to come, stay, heal, and connect with the earth and ancestors (Peta Wakan Tipi).

Roktim imagines decolonizing food practices through seed sovereignty as that which is connected to land sovereignty, to corporeal sovereignty, and to political sovereignty. For many, in the U.S. and around the world, food sovereignty has resonated closely with their claims to land and with their struggles for self-determination through the fundamental components of land and seed. But in imagining food sovereignty specifically as a feminine form of seed sovereignty Roktim reclaims seeds and biodiversity as common and public forms. In doing so it undoes the category of food as that which already has become, into the seed that which is becoming.

Self and collective determination is choreographed through curvature and roundedness. As the relationships between the dancers intensify, they interact with each through arcs of movement and intertwinings. Individually, the body shape shifts from the straight limb movements of the factory to taller, feet to spine-based movements that open up the rib cage, gather energy and height from the power of jumps, and feature sweeping and bending arcs. The dancing bodies become en-fleshed.

“Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystalize our actualities […] And the maps of spring always have to be redrawn again, in undared forms” (Wynter 35).

For ADT, research, participation, collaboration, and performance are worked through particular cultural formations that translate materialities, intimacies, and violences of everyday and social movements into narrated and performed abstracted choreographies. Indeed their abstractions create, to use Audre Lorde’s terms, “biomythography”, where the story of the self intersects with myth. These stories of women’s lives and work are refracted and interwoven through embodied practices, where the body becomes the site of weaving together research, memory, and imagination to invoke and create new collective memories and stories. If the biomythographies are the life of stories written and performed, where bios, myth, and logos come together, they evoke a bios that intentionally moves against the biopolitics of Pronto FeedzAll. ADT identifies indigenous and transnational feminist struggles of collective resistance as a form of mythmaking: stories of the Hawaiian queen Lili’uokalani, who called to her people to plant the garden as resistance; of Palestinian women claiming the land and its vegetation as their resistance; of the gifting and stewardship of seeds and leaves. Roktim literally and figuratively jumps scale in its feminist geographies.

It is in this section that Roktim breaks from its previous style and mode, shifting from realism, angularity, and rhythm. Gone are the factory floor and its unbending inflexible strength. Instead, Roktim offers arcs and bends, curving spines distributed in semi-circles across the stage. The aesthetics and poetics of choreography merge poetry, soft flows, shadows, and collectivity in which the line is broken and the body reaches towards sky and earth becoming more fluid, elongated, and grounded. The body and word bridge air and earth as the groundedness arches into the back and the torso reaches up and over. Each component of the spine’s articulation is explored in the bending in different directions. The dancers anchored by their heels reach and extend through their spines to their wrist-palms and eyes.

Roktim offers not nostalgia, but a vision and biomthyography as Heidi Erdrich narrates Sky Woman giving seeds, not within economies of agricultural corporate capitalism, but within ecologies of giving. This gift is not transactional, but mythical, beyond transactions of compensation and exchange. The biomythography conjures a prophecy for all – both performers and audience. This bios is one in which the human and the seed, the subject and object, myth and biography, become blurred in their making and unmaking. In the conjuring of stories of seed and struggle, ADT enfleshes, reddens, kills, and makes meat of, and returns to seed. The seed is, in the words of Kim Q. Hall “the transformative potential of openness to the not yet” (188).

Jigna Desai is Professor in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies and the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota.  She has written extensively on issues of race, gender, and sexuality in media as well as issues of racial and gender disparities and social justice. Desai’s current research is on the social meaning of autism and the impact of neuroscience on our society. She has long been an advocate for underrepresented students and students of color within higher education.

Works Cited

Cadieux, Kirsten Valentine, and Rachel Slocum. “What Does It Mean to Do Food Justice?” Journal of Political Ecology 22 (2015): 1-26. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Chatterjea, Ananya. “Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine.” Ananya Dance Theatre. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016. <http://www.ananyadancetheatre.org/dance/roktim-nurture-incarnadine/>.

—.       “Creating a New, Contemporary American Dance.” Web. 10, Oct. 2015. http://www.ananyadancetheatre.org/2015/10/creating-a-new-contemporary-american-dance/

Dream of Wild Health. “Peta Wakan Tipi.” Dream of Wild Health | Peta Wakan Tipi. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. <http://dreamofwildhealth.org/peta_wakan_tipi.html>.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, -. An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security. Rep. N.p., 2008. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. <http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/al936e/al936e00.pdf>.

Hall, Kim Q. “Toward a Queer Crip Feminist Politics of Food.” PhiloSOPHIA: A Journal in Continental Feminism 14.2 (2014): 203-25. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

La Via Campesina. Food Sovereignty For Africa: A Challenge At Fingertips. Publication. Declaration of Nyeleni, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Lorde, Audre. Zami, a New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography. Freedom, CA: Crossing, 1996. Print.

Sachs, Carolyn, and Anouk Campillo-Patel. “Feminist Food Justice: Crafting a New Vision Source.” Feminist Studies 40.2 (2014): 396-410. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.15767/feministstudies.40.2.396>.

Wynter, Sylvia. “The Pope Must Have Been Drunk, the King of Castile a Madman: Culture as Actuality and the Caribbean Rethinking of Modernity.” Reordering of Culture: Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada in the ’Hood. Ed. Alvina Ruprecht and Cecilia Taiana. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1995. 17-41. Print.

Beginnings: Why Food . . .

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for “Thinking Food.” We are very excited to create this space for creative and rigorous thinking around food. We hope this space becomes a community of interlocutors—people who can turn to each other to better understand the significance, and the meaning, of food in new ways. The goal is for everyone to leave having learned something they can use in their thinking, teaching, and their movements through the world.

I come to food studies out of my interest in power relations—structural and also ideological, in the past as well as the present. And so I thought I’d get us going here by sharing how teaching and research has persuaded me that food is a good vehicle for addressing power. “Why food?” I find myself asking? Is it just a vehicle for studying larger questions of authority? Is it an object worth attending to in and of itself?

Teaching, and my students, helped me think about these questions.

As I do every year, I asked students in my food history class to post observations from their Thanksgiving celebrations (or lack thereof). Their thoughts ran the gamut, as they do every year. Some talked about the food, others about cooking, and still others about the company in which they’d eaten.

But this year, perhaps because of the election, they worried particularly about what it meant to have a “traditional” Thanksgiving. Many used the language of tradition to describe the menu of turkey, stuffing, and potatoes (and some dishes that are untraditional outside of Minnesota, like lefse). Others explained their meal was “non-traditional” (pho? pumpkin soup?) and wondered if others had done likewise. Some asked if eating non-traditional foods threatened the “value” of Thanksgiving, and others wondered why their families worked so hard for traditions that, in many cases, were not their own. Several noted the particular responsibilities borne by their mothers and aunts for Thanksgiving dinner. And still others asked if new traditions would ever outpace current ones (eg, fried turkey? Men and women cooking together?)

The most moving post came from an older student who is also a new American, spending her first Thanksgiving in this country. She shared rich descriptions of her family’s (purchased) Thanksgiving foods (flaky pie crusts, the wonderful discovery of mashed potatoes, and the distinctive tastes–“sweet and salty together,” she said). She also included an addendum that explained everything she had learned about gratitude, and her plan to have these foods every year, together with her children, as they began their “fight for our American dream.”

There was a lot to digest. Their comments pointed to the tensions between the promise of immigration and the white supremacist understanding of “American” that is increasingly powerful in this country. They also confronted the gender and racial systems on which nations and nationalism are built. Many noted the centrality of gendered labor to the experience of daily life and the seeming intransigence of inequality.

Strikingly, all expressed anxiety about the future, and yet many also shared the persistence of hope. They imagined that they would celebrate other Thanksgivings and that they could find ways to make the holiday their own. They realized the ways that holidays are both prescribed but also sites of excess that cannot be fully controlled or governed—places where resistance can happen.

Together we spent the next few weeks working on these themes in discussions of the twentieth- and twenty-first century politics of hunger, the topic I’d planned to cover.

But thinking about their posts also addressed a topic that I hadn’t planned to cover: Is food important in and of itself?

In a material way, the answer is clearly “yes.” Food continues to loom large in people’s lives. There are painful material reasons for this. New threats emerge every day to already-precarious food security. My own campus is piloting a food shelf; many others have already opened these. I discovered at the end of the semester that some of my students were among those who struggled to get enough to eat every day. To be blunt, food matters because so many people in so many spaces struggle to get it.

But I also think that food matters also because so many people have thought and acted as if it mattered. Very few material objects have been the focus of so much political energy throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Debates about interior decorating, or clothing, or cars or housing certainly occurred. But these objects and the debates simply didn’t range across institutions in the way that food did.

Food figured heavily in the regulatory state that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but also in foreign policy—in terms of the direct aid the US supplied as well as the advice that surrounded that aid—cohering under the “green revolution.” Food was a prominent feature of the racially charged confrontations: it was the object used violently at lunch-counter sit-ins, and the object seized during urban insurrections of the 1960s and 1970s. And of course food emerged as a compelling hobby: it was something object that people could learn to make endlessly and laboriously in their own homes. Julia Child’s recipes were not designed simply to help her readers cook better. They were designed to help open up the world to them. Food appeared in more and more places, the more I looked and the more I taught.

In the mid and late twentieth centuries, food suddenly seemed the answer to a range of questions. People working in very different venues and often not even in conversation with each other turned to food as the key tool. Many had capacious visions of change; They often didn’t think of themselves as working primarily on food. But I am struck by how they are.

These raise the same question with which I begin. How could such hard work be worth it? Why do we keep thinking food will fix so much? Why is it worth all this effort? Why do my students generate such prose about it? It is because, I want to say, of the particular historical moment in which we find ourselves. Food, in modern US history, emerged as a charged object. It became a particularly important vehicle for power.

This remains true in the present. In a world in which large systems seem increasingly to guide everyday events, food seems still under people’s control. And in important ways, it remains under their control. However broad or narrow the choices, however dire or hopeful the circumstances, food draws out the skills and emotions of its eaters and those who would control those eaters. Food festivals as a site to craft “tolerance, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, efforts to restrict school lunches or their standards—it’s no accident that these fights over racial power, economies, and health often focus on food. In talking about food in the past and in the present, we reveal the ways these systems gained power.

Movements around food often overpromise what food can accomplish. (For instance, eating another’s food clearly doesn’t make for better immigration policy.) But they also make clear that food has a lot of work to do in the world. So do we.

Tracey Deutsch is Associate Professor of History and Imagine Chair in Art, Design and Humanities at the University of Minnesota. This post draws loosely from an earlier entry on food and teaching done for the Organization of American Historians and visible here:  http://www.processhistory.org/deutsch-taking-stock/