Thinking About Food

A 1950s aqua and cream teacup and saucer set with tea next to a tiny book titled “Tea Leaf Reading” on a scarf of blue, aqua, red, white, and grey floral and arabesque patterns

Recently I watched the film Gather (available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video, or stream on-demand on Vimeo or iTunes), tasked with considering it for a series of film screenings and associated panel discussions I am involved with organizing. It is a lovely film that looks at food sovereignty, reclamation, associated environmental efforts, and cultural revitalization practices within North American Indigenous communities — specifically White Mountain Apache, Cheyenne River Sioux, and Yurok.

When discussing with my co-organizer, we opted for a different film for our series (we selected a more art-specific film because Indigenous arts have been erased and ignored from the curriculums of the school and we wanted to address that head-on). But in our conversation, we certainly named names for who we could have asked to participate in a panel talk, who might facilitate such a discussion, and how we might frame the film relevant to work being done by local Native American chefs, environmentalists, herbalists, etc.

Because planning processes are often slow, at the time Gather was proposed as a possibility and I watched it and emailed my original thoughts, High on the Hog (available to stream on Netflix) wasn’t yet released and a prime discussion point across social media. By the time my co-organizer and I sat down to have a coffee to talk more in-depth after she had also watched the two proposed films, I had just watched High on the Hog and was excited to talk about these issues with her as a friend and co-conspirator.

One of the discussion points we had about Gather was our feeling that it was made by and for Native Americans and requires a good deal of unpacking for non-Natives to properly contextualize it. This is not to say that non-Natives cannot or should not watch it, but that there was a responsibility with the related panel to be thoughtful and allow panelists and the facilitator to control the conversation and free rein to pushback at inevitably racist questions. For example, the way that diabetes and substance abuse are discussed in the film felt very necessary, but very much like an intracommunity conversation. When non-Natives discuss those issues in regards to Native Americans they become stigmas, stereotypes, and white savior solutions — as if the problems aren’t rooted in white supremacy and colonialism, and as if those problems don’t cross all cultures as well and are not uniquely Native issues. We were concerned that our panel might feel or actually be constrained or censored by the powers at our university despite our best efforts, and that harm would not be properly challenged and addressed.

In the same sense, High on the Hog was made by and for Black people. Everyone is able to — and should! — watch it and experience it. There is so much to learn from it. But really, it is a celebration of Blackness — of Black history, resilience, brilliance, culture, and more. From the reframing of enslavement as only being about bodies to actually being about the Black mind and skills in cultivating rice that only they knew how to do, to effectively decolonizing the history of Texas barbecue and Black cowboy culture, the series is a love letter to Black Americans, by Black Americans.

Imagine my horror, then, to see so many liberal/progressive NON-BLACK people singing the praises of High on the Hog as “telling the history of our food” or “the stories about our food that we never knew” etc. Now yes, in a sense, learning about foodways and food cultures and history is telling us all about ourselves, and learning about food sourcing, cultivation, etc. impacts us all. We all benefit from the labor and we have all engaged with this food. We are all touched by Black culinary traditions and take it for granted (if not outright erasing/forgetting their Blackness). So in that sense, it is “our” food in that we all are eating it. But then again, it is not and we know that, and it is the whole point of watching the series to really reckon with that if you haven’t yet. It is this strange ownership language from non-Black people when they are posting about High on the Hog that so disturbs me. I am being euphemistic… I should be honest that it enrages me. It. Is. Not. YOUR. Food.

Just because we all have access to witness and access a thing does not mean that it is for us or that everyone needs to hear our thoughts about it. There are times to allow intracommunity conversations to happen and just be a witness, without contributing because it’s not our lane. And there are ways to support, uplift, and encourage others to listen and support without claiming ownership or centering ourselves. There are ample opportunities to have private conversations with like-minded people where we can say all the things and “talk through” our thoughts and excitement, considering all the connections our brains are excitedly making as we watch these things and think about them. We can do that without claiming ownership.

We can make more responsible choices in our own lives — what we cultivate, what we buy, what restaurants we support, etc. We can choose to get closer to the earth — and of course, that looks different for each of us. Not all of us can cultivate plants or grow our own food, as much as we may wish to. We can be inspired though and seek out the ways that work for us. We can be profoundly changed. And we don’t have to do it loudly. Quiet work is also the work. Internal work is also the work. Small work is also the work. Humble work is also the work.

I have a complicated relationship with food and culinary efforts. Perhaps I will come back to write more about that at another time because watching these things has made me reflective of my own history and my family's pain and loss around our shared love of cooking. I am now watching Chef’s Table, skipping around to episodes that appeal to me and reading other things about new ideas for how we can feed people in sustainable and environmentally responsible ways. It’s bringing up a lot of joy, nostalgia, and hope — and also a lot of longing and grief. But that’s for another essay I guess.

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Aaminah Shakur

Aaminah Shakur

artist/historian/poet/culture critic — http://aaminahshakur.com — Gratuity: CashApp $aaminahshakur or http://paypal.me/shakurarts