Heritage: A Personal Story of Community, Equity and Food

Heritage: A Personal Story of Community, Equity and Food

I was recently listening to my favorite podcast, The Racist Sandwich, as the host, Soleil Ho interviewed cookbook writer, Julia Turshen. As a young queer (Black) woman of color, I felt a deep connection to Julia. The way she spoke about her recipes as love letters to her wife and what it meant to be challenging stigmas around sexuality through a cookbook moved me. What touched me at a deeper level was the secondary conversation about EATT, Equity At The Table, and how Julia sees community as a form of currency, the most valuable currency.

“…It always comes back to community … that feeling of connection is a really valuable form of currency. It’s my preferred unit of measurement when it comes to success.”

This casual, but profound affirmation has replayed in my mind since I heard it. I believe our most innate and genuine desire as human beings is to connect. Community is incredibly essential to all of us. As I pondered food and community, I also thought of equity and justice, how they impact communities in food, and my journey to being a chef and advocate.

I pondered the lack of access to food, healthy options, and food-lifestyle-induced diseases that plague the communities I belong to as a Black person in the diaspora. Food is vital for survival. Food should be accessible to all human beings, and as a global society, we should be driven to ensure this. Yet this is not the case. As an educator, I have often had conversations with other educators and active minds that start or end with “you can’t teach a child that’s hungry.” This statement indicates the gross negligence of our modern society. How does one connect when they have not eaten?

I spent my early formative years living with my great-grandmother, who I called Mama. The entryway of our home was separated from the street by a deep ditch, a yard with an aged cedar tree, and a red brick porch. Mama would stand or sit on the front porch and talk with folks as they passed by. Often, they would stand at the edge of the yard, in the gravel-paved driveway or on the street at the edge of the ditch. If anybody crossed this invisible barrier, walked onto the yard, or up to the porch, Mama would insist that they had something to eat.

I was only 8 when my great-grandmother moved from this realm but I have many distinct memories of her, most of which are related to food. She would rise with the sun and spend most of her day in the kitchen cooking pastries — specifically pies — that she would sell, trade, and or give away. In the community she aged in, food was currency.

She also prepared multiple meals every day for her family: her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that lived in her home; her children, grandchildren, and great-grands that lived outside her home but would come by, some regularly, some by surprise and others only for occasions; and the people who passed by. You did not need an intimate relationship with Mama for her to feed you, and if she didn’t invite a visitor for a meal, it was an indication she did not trust their spirit. She did not decide based on traditional lines of respectability, as Mama often fed those who were shunned by the society: those inflicted by various addictions, those described as “wayward women”, “men with a little sugar” and “folks missing a few screws”. Mama taught me the value of a meal. People knew if they stepped in her yard, they would be fed, loved, nurtured. See, Mama understood how essential food was, and maybe it was subconscious, but she also understood that it was those most deeply afflicted by an unjust and inequitable society who needed a meal. She prepared her food with love and all who consumed it knew this to be true.

Mama’s food was the food of Southern Black folks, Black folks that were the descendants of slaves, Mama herself had been a sharecropper. In our grand backyard, she still planted various greens to harvest and prepare. She could prepare various parts of the pig, cow, and chicken. Chitterlings were a delicacy of my childhood. Large pots of greens with ham hocks as an essential component often stewed on the stove, and I oozed with excitement when the aroma of chicken and rice filled our home.

In May 2015, my beloved grandfather, the third born child of my great-grandmother, needed emergency surgery to remove a cancerous mass from his spine. For the next 3 weeks, I stayed in Kansas City with my Papa (“Paw Paw”). He was also known for cooking and he often prepared meals for himself and his wife. During my stay, I cooked for him every day. I did my best to encourage him to eat “healthier”, more balanced meals. The man loved a piece of meat on bread and sweetened tea with added sugar. I knew “healthier” food would make a difference, but I still didn’t know what the “healthier” concept included. Nevertheless, each day, I prepared something with lots of colors for him. I also shared the sweet language of food with my baby cousin the way my Mama had done with me as a child. My Papa had lived a life! Calling him a “rolling stone” wouldn’t do his fast, wild, and true-to-self life any justice. He was a Black man, a school-child during integration, enlisting at 17 during the Vietnam War where his addictions were birthed and lived with him throughout his life and ultimately resulted in his death. These factors also meant that “healthy” food was not only unfamiliar, but inaccessible to him. He encouraged me in those moments, which would be some of the last ones I spent with him, to live my best life. For me, that meant learning to be free and true to myself as he had, but also transforming myself beyond the stigmas of being Black and poor in the U.S..

Community was such an essential factor of my childhood. My mom grew a rich network of fictive kin and looked to her community for support. My mother was just shy of seventeen when I was born, the first of her three children. As soon as she could escape both the poverty and “entrapment” of Marshall, Texas, she fled to the Northern Dallas area where I would join her a year before my great-grandmother passed. When I moved in with my mom, all three of her children had been born. I was 8 and my youngest brother a little over a year. Our lives were significantly shaped by my mom being single and underemployed. She was intelligent, apt and had a great personality, but she was also young, Black and a mother of three. Society thereby undervalued her existence, employers underpaid her labor, and it limited her resources because she always worked, and the working poor are often neglected. There were many decisions of “it’s the lights or groceries” made. There was no gentle language of food shared between my mother and me in the kitchen because my ability to prepare food for myself and my brothers was essential for our survival.

Today, I am plant-based, intentionally not identifying as a vegan, and it’s been years since I consumed many of the dishes Mama prepared. Community and equity were major factors in my decision to transition. When I started my plant-based transition in Washington, D.C., the thoughts of residents of Wards 7 and 8 plagued me. I knew they lacked access to the fruits and vegetables I was falling in love with. Fresh produce was often inaccessible as there are not enough grocery stores for the community’s residents. This lack of access had impacted at least the last two generations, one of which was a generation I grew up in, just in another location. I could not recall ever having zucchini or brussels sprouts as a child and thus perceived these vegetables as things I did not like. I thought of the adolescent, single mothers, mothers like my own, that were only afforded the opportunity to survive. Despite a growing movement to offer fresh produce in their community these young women may not be familiar with how to integrate this food into their diets or the diet of their children. I knew I had struck a significant privilege of retraining my palate.

I soon began to work with an adolescent mothers group home teaching a “food-love-life” class, with a phenomenal partner and intern. We’d bring groceries and extra cooking utensils and we would cook, laugh, talk about natural hair care, cooking with babies, and what it meant to be left out of the equity conversation. These young women were standing at the intersection of urban poverty, Blackness, womanhood, and mother-ship. Many of them had experienced domestic violence, sexual violence, or addictions. Society did not care about them and they knew it. Our cooking class turned into a bi-weekly sister-girl upliftment and these women became a part of my community, with food and a desire for equity as the ties that bound us.

Julia put into words what life’s experiences had already taught me: community is the most valuable form of currency. Even in a society as inequitable and blind to its own bullshit as the United States, community feeds us, fights for and with us, and is the main course of our lives.