letter to Mississippi

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I often have a hard time finding the words.

You see, so much of my earlier life was spent trying to lose a southern accent and fly away as soon as I had the right reasons. And I did, on several occasions.

One being the time I lived with my dad in Georgia when I was a little too young to understand what was happening. It was a very hard time for me. I learned a lot. I learned about the power of making my own decisions and owning up to that power.

I moved back to Mississippi after a year of living in Georgia.

Then there was a summer in Chicago where I became friends with a homeless man who gave me the “Fred Hampton Image Award” which was named after him for being a ‘positive image to the community’. I have it framed next to my degree from Southern Miss, which I only use in conversation with people. In reality I was struggling with all my worlds again, all the while eating a bunch of Chipotle and reading a ton of Donald Miller books. It’s what we did.

There are the four months in India where I learned how tiny I was, and how terrible I was at eating Bengali food, and learning the language. I regret not appreciating how important it was to travel and to explore at that moment. I’d never seen such poverty. I’d never walked into a red-light district with the sole purpose to play cards and eat spicy snacks on top of brothels. I learned about heavens and hells. And I saw the eyes of a man choosing the girl he would have sex with. I’d never see the world the same way again.

My quietness was a hindrance in some of these ways. I was not outgoing enough to want to learn a language, I don’t think. I was not good at it. I wish I would’ve worked harder. I wish I would have eaten more street food. I came back to Mississippi after that, as well.

I also met a girl from Oregon who I ended up being married to for a little while.

I moved to Portland for that, as well. Learning and growing and all those others words I’ve used here a billion times. And when that stopped working, I moved back to Mississippi.

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I recognize I’ve never been great at being a traditional southerner. I was never taught to hunt. I don’t have a background of traditional southern food ways. I love New Orleans, but in small bursts. I love the food, well, that has always been true.

Again I find myself reconciling with a place like Mississippi. A dumping pot for so many people’s ideas and misconceptions. When people ask me how it is in Mississippi, I can’t find the right words.
It is my home right now. A home that I’ve missed for a long time.

A familiar voice in my life came up saying, “It’s not going to happen for you in Mississippi..”

As a young cook, looking to grow and hone my skills, it doesn’t present me with the most options.

But that’s okay.

Because I’ve found myself really needing this place. In the way that home always feels. As much as I loved my most recent visit to Oregon, I was so giddy to get back to my old tiny apartment, among my cookbooks and familiar smells. I wanted to sit on my back steps and listen to the acorns fall from the trees.

Yesterday, as I was hobbling in on my booted foot, a man riding his bike loaded down with grocery bags yelled, “Hey! I’m sorry about your foot! – – – I know that hurts man, I hope you get better!” and kept on his way.

I shouted THANKS! As I walked into my room, I sat on my bed got a little teary. (As I do.)

I felt some really big love. Not just via random bike guy, but all around. And though I might not make much sense to my family and many of my friends, I am so glad to be home again, and I’m so glad I get to be close to those constants in my life. Yes, there are bigger places out there.

But right now,
I’m just happy to be here.

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.

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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?

 

how it could be

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I believe we are at the cusp of something big and powerful.

Usually when it gets late, the mystic in me comes out a bit, and I’m okay with that. Or maybe I’m just tired and loopy.

I recently read a quote by Thoreau that said,

The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.

I have grown to love and learn different things in different seasons. In college, I had a heart for justice. I was heavily convicted as a son to the very conflicted Deep South. Over the years, I have had to defend the place I love and call home. I’ve had to tiptoe around its delicate nature, and also brush off the accusations and the fact that no, I do not sound like a hick. Even if I did, how does that change your opinion?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. I work on the same streets where freedom riders and walkers, preachers and teachers and mechanics pushed forward, and where they were also met with opposition. I am always carrying around this history. There is so so much to all of this, and I always want to approach it with humility. I guess there are hundreds of books written on the subject, so I will spare you the essay, and will try to not make this about me. But it is a blog, so I guess that’s a little counter-productive.

There is a weight to changing anything, really. Apathy is debilitating. It knocks the wind out of me. Oh, it’s just so much easier to work for someone else and continue living your life in a relative amount of safety. Trust me, I love that life. And I’m not here writing to make you feel guilty about yours.

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This city, especially, gave me so much. It gave me room to explore and breathe fire. I feel like I owe something back.

Going back to the quote from earlier, I settle into myself for a bit. I like to close my eyes and remember the places I’ve been and how they’ve changed me.

I think about how marriage and being a husband made me soft and squishy. It made me love another fiercely and gave me something to devote my life to.
Before that, I was putting some time into various organizations that I thought were doing good. I traveled to India and Chicago and they both knocked me flat on my face.

Any effort I have had to change the world has resulted in me falling on my ass, and scratching my chin, and probably my ass, too. Most of the time saying, What do I really believe anymore?”

It’s really easy to get consumed with facts and failure rates. But lately, I can’t think of any life changing occurrence that didn’t leave me feeling stronger than before. When you’re met with resistance and pain and failure, the only real thing to learn is that you are still alive and able to move on!

Bigger and brighter and wiser and stronger.

So I have that hope, deep deep down.
That it is possible to change — I mean, thank God we change. Right?

And we just need you, okay?

We need you to be brave and hold loosely.

We need you, screw ups and wandering souls who from time to time smoke too many cigarettes.

We need food for the revolution.

I can at least do that much.

But this isn’t something you will see in the paper. It starts small, and to be honest, sort of stays that way. But when a lot of people do small things together, things happen, and are already happening. That is when it becomes part of our daily lives. How we treat our butcher. How we buy our food. What our kids get to learn, and that we shouldn’t have to be afraid of our bosses.

There is a part of me already doubting. I already recognize the voices that tell me, and my generation are a waste. But really, part of it comes from watching you.

And before we get too comfortable with the way things are,

just for a minute, we like to imagine how it could be.

Because the price of anything, is the life you exchange for it.

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.

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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.

the roads to home

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Reconciliation is the mending of bone and flesh and soul.

It is peace and understanding; Lord knows I am in great need of both.

I took a drive South over the weekend. Made dinner for some dear friends, and missed a wedding I was supposed to attend. That was a night where I felt I kept making the wrong turns. Both physically and with a heavy dose of life comparison. Luckily, I still have an Oregon tag on my car, in defense of my directionless brain.

I do, however, know how to go South.

That was my life, and it certainly is again.

God, there’s some beauty here. Even on those messy, warm nights I am filled up with the sounds of cicadas and frogs and perhaps the sounds of Kenny Chesney from a big truck.

I walked past a couple kissing in the parking lot of a Thai restaurant. This was after I listened to them singing “Afternoon Delight”, barely able to keep pitch, or their balance. I smiled big.

In my head, I am constantly mending my lives. In big chunks I smoosh them together. I lived here once, went away, and now I live here again. I am a bit different, and that’s okay.
I drive across the state line into Louisiana. The other place I spent a lot of life in, chasing cousins around furniture and finding easter eggs under the great Magnolia.

I pull over for supplies at Rouses. Mostly hot sauce. A shrink wrapped muffuletta and a bag of Zapps potato chips. That dill kind that rip up my tongue so good. I think about how my taste buds have changed over the years. Not enough apparently, that I buy some really dry eclairs for my mom. They looked good in the case, I thought.

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I drive to a place where me and my dad used to pull blue crabs from Lake Pontchartrain. All the spots are taken, so I pull over and walk to a wall and get to breathe in a bit more of my history. I think about the places I’ve lived, and what it took for me to get there. I kick around an old beer can someone had left and filled full of cigarette butts.

I make my way back North, before the storm. The same roads that brought me places when I was a kid. I go in and out of thoughts like I’m reading a book, distracted.

Next thing ya know, I’ve been driving an hour, then two.

I spot the gas station where I filled up before I left Mississippi five years ago.

I think about my life during those years, and I smoosh it all together. The roads to home are all over, I have figured out.

Intersecting, opposing, parallel.

and I cruise through them mile signs,

one memory at a time.