#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.

What’s in a Weed

By Sharon Perrone


Last semester, I had the fortune of attending part of a two-day symposium entitled “Exploring African Agriculture Futures” co-sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, and the UMN Extension Global Initiatives here at the University of Minnesota.  Such sponsorship meant that I was exposed to a different conversation than I am usually privy to within the natural sciences; these are always opportunities I look forward to, as I find the difference in framing, context, and premise of inquiry a necessary but often neglected component of my graduate education.  The keynote, to which much of this blog is devoted, was Elizabeth Mpofu, General Coordinator of the international peasant movement La Via Campesina and founder and Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF).  She also holds another title that I revere her for most: organic farmer.


Mpofu made a distinction early on that set the tone for the rest of the symposium, and the theme was reiterated throughout: In the smallholder and peasant farmer movements, people fight for food sovereignty, not food security.  This was nothing new to me – I have heard these semantics before.  Food security refers to sustained access to food and daily caloric needs while food sovereignty refers to an individual, community, or nation’s ability to self-determine food production and consumption systems.  For example, accepting food aid might increase a community’s food security, but accepting investments in local markets and supporting participatory research on local and culturally appropriate foods might increase food sovereignty.


Not all parts of the lecture were so digestible, however. Where Mpofu’s lecture sparked critique and debate was in her rejection of technologies such as high-throughput techniques for plant breeding, tractors and other implements for the mechanization of field work, and synthetic fertilizer, as well as her insistence on quality over quantity in food production.  She argued that local varieties are better adapted to a range of conditions experienced over hundreds if not thousands of years and maintain stronger genetic diversity than corporate or academic varieties; mechanized tools are expensive, cannot be shared via a cooperative structure due to lack of trust amongst members, and degrade the soil more than draft animals; and synthetic fertilizer is cost-prohibitive and causes long-term disruption to nutrient cycling processes that are required for stable soils.


I imagine the agronomic researchers in the room may have felt threatened by this, or perhaps indignant about the rejection of their work.  An American agronomist who has spent his life’s research in Somalia finally asked, “I don’t quite get it.  African smallholder farmers are counted among the poorest people in the world.  Are you saying that you want to keep them in this state?”  Mpofu replied, “Who says we are poor?”


The causes of poverty are many.  Perhaps so, too, are its definitions.  If a community can feed itself comfortably on little income, does it consider itself poor or wanting?  Should we, as outsiders, call them poor or wanting, according to our own standards?  If a community lacks technology that increases efficiency of production or processing, does it consider its work a tedious means to an end, or a way of life?  Who suffers most in rural Africa?  Is it smallholder farmers, and if so, is it for want of technology or from outside exploitation?  Are farmers starving?


When asked about policies that can help farmers overcome poverty, Mpofu said protection policies, not assistance policies. She touched on the exploitation of natural resources where power is concentrated in the hands of a few and disadvantages are spread among the many, reiterating the need for agroecology as a framework for natural resource stewardship.  She argued that farmers prefer to grow small grains over maize, which is pushed by global agribusiness and commodity markets, because small grains are quick-growing and put food on the table at more regular intervals than maize.  Farmers don’t need or want access to international markets – their interest is in feeding their community, not in capital gains through global business ventures.


These examples highlight the conflicting definitions of poverty and success.  I would argue that both the “Luddite” and the “technocrat” are voicing accurate and relevant concerns informed by their own experiences, deeply rooted in capitalist vs. non-capitalist worldviews and conflicting definitions of poverty.  To further add to the complexity of trying to measure progress, concepts of poverty seem to be changing within smallholder farming communities as younger generations gain increasing internet access and a narrower dichotomy of “haves” and “have-nots,” for example, that farmers should have tractors, or ultimately, that money brings ease and happiness.  How can we possibly say what, then, constitutes progress, and to whom?


Hence the conflict.  These many voices make us ask if Mpofu accurately represents the vast majority of peasant and smallholder farmers.  What are some of the larger internal conflicts among peasant farmers and their visions for self-governance?  Is providing farmers with efficient cultivators going to harm them, their culture, or their land in irreparable ways?  Are there technologies that don’t have addictive and destructive properties such that they capture farmers in a form of path-dependency where their autonomy is compromised? (Full disclosure: I presume there are.)  What do those technologies look like?  Is the “choice” of using technology a farce if it creates dependency?  And is dependency such a bad thing if it helps farmers prosper, by whatever definition of prosperity they prefer to adopt?  


I imagine these questions have plagued many who are deeply invested in the questions of hunger and the suffering of humankind.  And while I certainly can’t offer any answers, I do think this line of questioning is critical. It helps us see problems more clearly, and that leads us to more just and relevant solutions.


I will close this blog with another anecdote from the symposium that illustrates this point.  A Somali agricultural researcher gave a talk in which he suggested that farmers don’t know what they’re doing because many of them failed to cultivate weeds at the proper intervals, lowering cash crop yields.  Dr. Batamaka Somé, expert anthropologist based in Burkina Faso, pushed back, asking, “Have you asked these farmers why they do not cultivate their weeds?  They are surely not cultivating them for lack of knowledge.”  The presenter responded that he had not.  Dr. Paul Richards, accomplished anthropologist and geographer, contributed: “I have asked them, and here was their answer: they were attending funerals.”


My point being, solutions can fail if the premise is not examined. Solution-building is multifaceted.  Perhaps investing in healthcare could increase farmers’ success more than investing in agriculture itself.  Or, in Dr. Richards’s case, if Ebola cannot be contained at the same time people are growing food, perhaps developing plant varieties that have larger windows of opportunity for management is more critical than crops that respond best to higher planting densities.  Examining your premise should be an iterative process.

I’m not arguing one way or another – these examples are hypothetical.  Either way, I think it is time we stop addressing questions of development as if all of Africa were an aspiring America and take time to re-imagine (and, importantly, must ask) what prosperity looks like for African farmers.  

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.   

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.


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.