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.)