Bringing Social Justice to the Plate
Photography by Samantha Parquette
I think about food a lot.
I used to think about it in an obsessive way: what were the ingredients? Are they clean enough? How many calories? The questions in my head ricocheted off the walls of my brain endlessly until the task of deciding what to eat for my next meal became the fundamental stressor of my everyday life. Food was not joyful. Food was stress.
Today I still think about food, but I have made leaps and bounds of progress (albeit do take note that this forward motion towards true mental and physical health around food did not come with time alone. It required countless moments of distress, midnight sobbing sessions, and many many many cognitive therapy bouts. It’s a process, but a process for which I could not be more grateful). Food in my eyes no longer appears as a mental nutrition label or a list of “toxic” ingredients but instead as art, and recently I have begun to see it in an even more profound way.
Last weekend I boarded the Amtrak with a duffel bag slung across my chest and a heart full of anticipation. I was headed to my instagram-turned-real-life friend, Lauren Goldstein’s Sugar and Spice summit, a food convention celebrating women in the food industry in arguably one of the finest food cities of the United States. When I arrived in Chicago, I was nervous. Lauren had asked me to moderate the panel entitled, “The Politics of the Kitchen” and I had never felt so unprepared. First off, for someone who grew up in a house where the T.V. was always channeled in to CNN nearly 24 hours a day, I knew an embarrassingly minimal amount about politics. Secondly, I had only ever seen food as either a mechanism of control in the guise of an eating disorder, or more recently as a cathartic activity to engage in after a long shift at work. I knew that I would have felt more comfortable moderating the panel about social media and Instagram, but the genius goddess who is Lauren Goldstein had other plans in store, plans that would not only alter my perspective but also give new meaning to my relationship with food.
When the moment came for me to shuffle on up to the stage, my stomach was racked with nervous energy. However, as I was introduced in person for the first time to the three women on my panel, these nerves quickly dissipated and started to morph into intense motivation. These women were not only chefs. They were artists, and more prominently, they were social activists. Now social justice and food seem to be about as far apart on the spectrum as two concepts can be, but in hearing these women describe their roles in the food industry, I quickly learned that there are an astounding amount of parallels between the two. Christine Cikowski, in her acclaimed restaurant Honey Butter Fried Chicken, uses only sustainable ingredients in her dishes and pays her workers living wages, including paid sick days. Nicole Pederson left her prominent position in the restaurant in which she was working to pursue a career in a local LGBTQ community center to help those who would otherwise not have the resources to participate in the art and joy of cooking. And Amanda Saab, who was sick and tired of the endless stigmas surrounding the Islamic faith, founded Dinner with your Muslim Neighbor in order to bring people of her community together to learn about the religion and enjoy her culture’s food, all at the same time.
Even though I already knew each of their backgrounds coming into the interview, my mouth was left agape after hearing each of these women share their purpose in using food as a mechanism for social change. Everyone has to eat, and because of its universality, these women are using food as a means to bring justice and equality into their community. I was awestruck.
So now I sit at my desk typing and reflecting away about my recent experiences within the world of food. Food was once an evil, something that sanctioned me off from the rest of the world for fear that I would lose control of my eating and consequently my body. But these three women, Christine, Amanda, Nicole, and Lauren, too, reminded me that food is more than fuel. It is what brings us together despite all of our differences. Food creates a universal community, and in sitting around the table sharing a good meal, maybe, just maybe, we can change the world.