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.