I learned so much at a recent One Book, One Philadelphia panel about the relationship between food, memory, and economic justice. The conversation centered on what it means to "decolonize" our food systems— in other words, undo the deeply harmful impacts of colonialism and inequity. Those impacts could look like a lot of things, whether it’s a lack of access to healthy food (one panelist, Toyce Holmes, recalled her childhood of eating commodity foods that had "a shelf life of a thousand years"), aggressive farming that depletes the soil, or diminishing cultural food traditions. Cultural assimilation or collective trauma can be causes of this last example, making it difficult for families to pass down and preserve their food-ways of life. To this, panelist JA Harris said, "Gentrification and colonization, those things are about forgetting. Being able to prepare culturally relevant food is about pushing back against forgetting."
I love what she was saying about the ability to remember who we are by cooking food. And it isn’t just about cooking it, but sharing it—a meal is a respite, a dedicated common space where we nourish, listen, laugh, fill, and recharge. Dinner is a coming-together.
This is why I can’t wait for the family-style One Book dinner on March 11 at Cobbs Creek Library in West Philly. Organized by the awesome Suzanna Urminska at the Culinary Literacy Center, this meal brings together Philly-based chefs to prepare and talk about Indigenous dishes and traditions from across the Americas. And let me tell you, the menu is fire—Bibingka from Poi Dog Philly, chuchitos from El Merkury, and surprises from chefs Chris Paul at Everything We Eat and Cristina Martinez at South Philly Barbacoa.
There will be lots of good conversation about foodways, guided and emceed by Kae Lani Palmisano (host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly), but most importantly we’ll be eating delicious food. And it’s free. When was the last time you had a free meal this fancy?
I’m reminded of when one of Tommy Orange’s characters, Edwin Black, stumbles across the science of taste:
"I find out that the same neurotransmitter related to happiness and wellbeing supposedly has to do with your gastrointestinal system… I read that the brain stem is the basis of consciousness, and that the tongue correlates with the brain stem almost directly, and so eating is the most direct path to getting the feeling that you’re alive" (There There).
The connection he’s describing speaks to why we can have such strong memories related to food—surely we all have them from our childhoods, whether we truly want to remember them or not, whether the circumstances were loving or undesirable or even both.
Another of Orange’s characters, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, remembers a meal eaten as a kid while occupying Alcatraz with her family and community. It’s one of the only warm memories she has in the novel:
"We ate watery beef stew out of Styrofoam bowls around a bonfire some of the younger men kept pretty big and hot with chunks of wood pallets. Our mom smoked cigarettes farther out from the fire with two big old Indian women with loud laughs. There were stacks of Wonder Bread and butter on tables with pots of stew. When the fire got too hot, we moved back and sat down. “I don’t know about you," I said to Jacquie, my mouth full of bread and butter, "but I could live like this" (There There).
And the prologue to There There addresses one of the most famous meals in colonial America’s history. Orange writes,
"In 1621, colonists invited Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoags, to a feast after a recent land deal. Massasoit came with ninety of his men. That meal is why we still eat a meal together in November. Celebrate it as a nation. But that one wasn’t a thanksgiving meal. It was a land-deal meal" (There There).
The colonists’ intention that he describes for that first shared meal, and the violence that would come soon after it, makes readers challenge why and how the narrative of the thanksgiving meal got to be so one-sided in our national memory. In terms of that public story, which we enact each November when we sit down with family and friends, I think we have to, like JA Harris said, push back against forgetting. And we can do that any time of year, when we set intentions for the meals we share with others, whether they are deeply familiar or totally new to us.
Along with the delicious food that will be served and shared on March 11, I’m looking forward to learning more about how these excellent Philly chefs are pushing back against forgetting, how they’re preserving traditional food knowledge here in Lenapehoking. I’m also hoping to share and hear stories from folks at the table about their family’s food traditions, their memories of meals, who taught them to cook, and who they’ll share a meal with next.