who cooks your food?

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Food softens the edges.
It gives us the space to enter into hard things, gently.

That, is what I love.

Food is political, emotional, spiritual, sexual, agricultural, among so many other things.
food is important.

I’ve been attending some talks at my local university, which just so happens to be my Alma Mater.
Last night I had the pleasure of listening to John T. Edge, among others, speak on the title: “Race at the Southern Table – The Debts of Our Pleasure”

First and foremost, I have to recognize my place of privilege. As a white American male, my backpack is very light. Meaning, historically, I have a lot going for me based on my appearance. It is important to say this, because a lot of people are lucky and work hard, but also we live in a world where those things aren’t written in stone.

I am a cook.

I work in a stuffy, windowless kitchen and get paid slightly above Mississippi’s minimum wage. Which is probably one of the lowest in the nation. I live simply. I pay my bills. I have a few beers. I work hard, for little money. I don’t do it for the money.

I do the work because my heart is bound together with yours.

Maybe I am, as they say, an “agri-poser” — or hipster cook with tattoos wishing I had a Pok Pok to frequent on a daily basis. But I don’t. I learned how to eat and cook well in Portland, Oregon. I learned what farm to table actually looks like. I worked under some shitty owners, and I’ve worked under some really great chefs whose kindness, sternness and freedom let me have a voice in a kitchen without much experience.

That is my place. I give a shit about what I do. I work hard. I can’t fall asleep at night because I’m thinking about what it is I’ll be cooking the next day. I get angry at lazy cooks and business owners. When I am in a kitchen, it is my responsibility to own it. Even when my name isn’t on a lease, I own that shit.

That, is what I do.

Tessa_Traeger_The_Quince_1997

But this is the story of the southern table. No doubt one that has seen so many changes in the history of my state. The conversation continues to roll on today as a person who works in the back of restaurants. Southern cuisine owes its allegiance to the African American communities, First Nation tribes and all others who have had to serve privileged class citizens. This, either due to socio-economic class, but also by the color of their skin.

There is a great injustice. Restaurants have a long way to go. It’s a hard business, and Americans are lazy and consume much more than we require. Most restaurants depend on the backs of the poor and minorities and I’ve worked beside people who have really hard stories. I’ve worked with really great, dependable people, and others who can never show up on time. And trust me, laziness comes in all colors and sizes.

It is, though, important to know the stories of the people cooking your food. People are becoming more involved with wanting to know where there food comes from. This is great. I think the next step is wanting to know WHO is cooking their food. Yes, sometimes the Chef will be in. And my biggest mentor worked her ass off in the kitchen.

These conversations are important because as I said earlier, food is important. The future of food is important. The agriculture of our state is so, so important.

I offer this as a conversation.

I am not claiming to be a professional academic or researcher on the matter, but I do have some experience working in the trenches and know that eating food is something people enjoy.

For my people especially, our table is complicated and large and colorful.

We are moving forward, with the ability to look back and to process and to recognize our place in the midst of it all.

That is all I’m asking.

Who cooks your food?

 

small moves.

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It’s all kind of fragile.

I keep thinking that, as I work and come home and think about the balance created by the stars and star stuff we are made of.

I don’t know what’s holding it (and us) all together. Food systems and water and pollution. It seems like the load is too much.

I mean, yes, it is too much.

There was a time in my life when I thought I could change the world. Everything is so radical and exciting when you feel fire running through your veins. You think if all you had to do was convince enough people, everything would change.

I suppose my passions have shifted a bit over the years. I am still convicted about the lack of justice and equality, and mourn heavily with our friends who live in poverty. That will never change in my heart.
As a cook, I’ve become friends with people who have been homeless, addicts, in jail and are still currently dealing with some if not all of the above.

The kitchen has always been a place for these people. It’s no wonder that I’ve ended up there, to be honest. Yeah, the sudden rise of “how cool would it be to be a chef” has a lot of folks flocking to the nitty gritty, but I will say, things are different here.

I’m struggling a bit.
I grew to love and cook food on a deeper level in Portland. It’s a foodie city. Its economy works (decently well) around restaurants and farms and purveyors. Its markets are set up to inspire people to learn and cook with such wonderful, fresh ingredients.

This is not about me calling out a place. This is only me, moving back to a place with massive potential, and a lack of systems. These things take time, I do realize.

I also want to recognize the folks that are already here doing the hard work. And for the people who have come and gone. For the workers in the fields, under the hot sun not making much of wage either. I write this, in the same spirit as to why you do what you do. I realize I am sort of new again to this whole thing. So I am always humbled, and realize there is a lot I need to learn.

On a daily basis these days, I contemplate what it would be like to own my own spot.
Somedays I get to talk to people about it. I find it encouraging.
Other days people are less so. Saying that this place isn’t ready yet. That it will fail.

I’m getting sort of..antsy.

In the sense that I can’t afford life here, as cheap as it may be at times, on a cook’s wage. I see other friends of mine in the same position. It’s really pitiful, this whole minimum wage thing. And honestly, I’m not learning a ton, and realize that unless I am being challenged, the wage doesn’t compensate for knowledge.
I go back and forth in my head, that if I’m going to change my occupation, this will be the place, because I surely can’t support myself here for too long. It would break my heart to have to move out of the kitchen. It has been part of home the past five years.

In my head, I am constantly hearing myself say, “Well, if there’s nothing left to burn, you have to catch yourself on fire..” And while that is the intro to one of my favorite songs, it resonates deeply.

gas-stove-burning-web

I am not in this industry to make it rich.
I do want to help change it, though.

I want it to be cool.
I want workers to be respected. I want them to feel pride in what they do.
I want people to open their minds and hearts to different food cultures, and dining experiences.
I want people to support more local establishments.
I want local restaurants to challenge, but also support each other.

Otherwise, it becomes stale and stagnant.

If you’re not going to make it better, then I will.

Somehow, I will.

I am the biggest proponent of time. I’ve only been back living in the south for almost four months. This is tiny. But I am seeing potential, even among the naysayers and those who tell me this place isn’t ready. Or that I will fail. And that it is hard and expensive.

I know, I know, I know.

A place, just like a person, must keep challenging itself if it wants to grow.

I want to grow.
I want to grow here, truly. I don’t want to leave again because I can’t find what I need. The systems are not yet here, in many ways. But they are certainly on their way. You can hear it, sometimes. I see it, in little ways. People wanting more.

The South ain’t in no hurry to change, and I am not here for those reasons.
But it will start small, as it always does. With a few friends around a table with some ideas.

And who knows what it will turn into.

I just know I am ready. I’m ready for people here to live better, stronger lives. I want this for myself. I want this for my neighbor.

I feel the heat rising from my feet, and it’s a nice thing to feel. I know this sensation. Of being a little antsy, waiting for the right time to move. I love it. I love how it scares me but how it feels when you start to move.

Small moves, dude.

small moves.