Food for Thought

Does food matter in a world gone mad?

Showing Up for Racial Justice hosts an informational rally during the Santa Cruz River Farmers Market

It's been a heavy month. From everything that's happened in Orlando and Baton Rouge and Dallas and Turkey and Brazil and France and Kabul to everything that continues to happen in the mess of an election cycle it has been and will likely continue to be until November, it's easy to fall into an emotional pit. When not specifically involved in day-to-day work life with the fight for justice and equality, it can feel like there's no reason to keep doing what you're doing.

I strongly believe in the opportunity that anyone has, regardless of their given profession, to inject a some critical thought about these issues into what they're doing. I think at this point we basically have to. The time for silence is over, and I'd rather have someone at the helm of literally any position being aware and educated than not.

But burnout is a very real thing. So I asked several folks in Tucson's food world, be they chefs, restaurateurs, purveyors, activists or bartenders, the same question this week.

Don't misunderstand—I'm not trying to say #foodstuffmatters. No, the message that black lives matter stands loudly and singularly. It's a simple message with bizarre opposition, to say the least. Instead, I'm wondering how you keep going when it seems like you should stop. I'm wondering where food justice, or simply coming together over at a dinner table (or breakfast or just drinks), fits into all of this. So I asked:

Given everything going on socially, politically and, especially, racially in this country right now, why does food matter?

Liane Hernandez, Community Life Director and Chef at YWCA Southern Arizona

In times of grief, pain, laughter and joy—to welcome new life and say goodbye to dear loved ones—there has always been our gift of making and serving food. I believe that in these ever-present times of crisis, we as a food community have always been the ones to respond by doing our jobs; keeping the plates and tables full and reminding everyone that at the end of the day, we all have to eat. That is a universal and it is a sacred space.

Sure, there are any number of issues, problems and systems of oppression that make the days and weeks difficult and at times life seems unbearable. These recent illuminations are just that, shining light on the violence, pain, suffering as well incredible resilience, compassion and care of community to keep on and to forge ahead.

Food and the community table we set is part of the story and it is critical that we do our jobs to make sure that there is always a place for people to rest, reassemble and be nourished whatever the world throws at us.

There are so many ways that we can do this work: I think of my inspired friends with their daily interventions at the Community Food Bank, the youth and families of Flowers and Bullets, the garden as Barrio Sustainability that Tierra y Libertad have been organizing around for 15 years, the youth like Haley and Nia Thomas and the families and neighbors that maintain our community gardens, the refugees who glean our neighborhoods that Barbara [Eiswerth] has brought together at Iskashitaa. I also think of Ken Harvey who spends his Sunday mornings feeding the homeless downtown. Janos, who has been singing the praises of local products since before many of us were out of diapers. I think of Susana Davila and her magnificent sisters and how they work to not just create delicious soul-filling food, but they help children and families in Mexico as well.

I think of chefs committed to the local not just because it is the in-thing, but rather because they understand that localism and sustainability are about the multifold ways and interventions we can all make by keeping our money in our own economy and thus community a bit safer and healthier. I think of men and women committed to outdoing their last dinner rush, learning their craft, committing to the work of feeding people and I am inspired and so proud of them.

So, in these times, like in all times prior of war, distrust, violence, and also hope, what choice is there except to sharpen your knives and put your head down and do your job? Then, laugh, play and raise a glass with these amazing humans as you prepare to do it all again tomorrow.

Maria Mazon, Chef and Owner at BOCA Tacos y Tequila

This is one the most important questions I have been asked. Besides bringing people together, food gives you a sense of normalcy. Everyone has to eat. ...Food is the glue, is the one subject that all people do.

I remember when I was in school in Mexico, we all ate together—no matter what, we eat as a family, including the most important person in my family that was my grandmother, even though she never cooked a thing in her life. And [I] know for me, as a chef, [it] is very important that people enjoy my food. That [they] get a break from their daily life and relax just being at my restaurant. [It's] that one thing I can do for society: cook a great meal for people to remember. Even with my employees, I always asked them, have you eat? I sometimes make them eat, sit and eat. It is like the saying in Spanish PANZA LLENA CORAZON CONTENTO.

Bryan Eichhorst, Bartender at Penca

If the world truly is burning, the only thing we have left is the act of dining. Sharing a communal moment with our loved ones, filling our guts with the best damned carne asada in town, drinking one too many glasses of our favorite wine and finding a way to order ice cream afterwards. The conversation may turn to the geopolitical crisis of the week or the spree shooting the next town over but those are just placeholders. The warmth and sense of camaraderie with your friends at the table or the unplanned interaction with the stranger next to you at the bar are the purpose of the night. Whether your family gathers at a Michelin-starred brasserie or around a well-worn grill at Reid Park we all end up less hungry and less lonely. If this is the end at least we won't die hungry.

Katrina Martinez, Community Gardener and Food Activist, Formerly at Las Milpitas.

Food matters because so many people are food insecure. I grew up in a Hispanic family that was centered around cooking and eating meals together, but was food insecure for years. My mom always provided us with housing, but it was for many years in low-income apartments, where there wasn't a place for a garden. My mom was on a major hustle to provide for us, so she wouldn't have had time to garden regardless if there was a space or not. Capitalism robs so many people with a passion, or even a minor interest, of the time to grow food. People that lack wealth have to work so hard just to stay afloat, and our 40-50 hour standard workweek sucks all the time and energy out of people with so little fiscal reward.

My grandparents were farmers, but we all strayed away from that lifestyle as we moved out of the deeply rural land of New Mexico and into the cities, and it wasn't until college that I connected back to those roots. Now I work in the nutrition department of a refugee resettlement organization, and every day I see similar stories of people that grew up farming, but now don't have access to land and resources to grow their own food like they used to. We work really hard to provide people with little plots of land, but again so many single moms and hustling parents don't have the time that it takes to invest in the land and grow vegetables, and they remain food insecure. I see a lot of the children disconnected from their agrarian roots just as I was.

There is a lot of great work in Tucson centered around food, and I hope it can all merge together in some form or another to help bring healthy food to the large food-insecure population here.

Erik Stanford, Founder at Pivot Produce

The line on our cultural seismometer is skipping erratically, like a toddler with an etch-a-sketch. More signs daily in our news feeds [show] that our societal magma is about to erupt. I can feel the tension, the immense hatred moving in the ground beneath me—I think we all do. When the Mediterranean Sea is full of refugee bodies, the streets of the United States with black bodies, starving children's bodies in Syria; Islamaphobia, Homophobia, Xenophobia, Transphobia. Read these headlines, know the boiling lava just below your feet, then try to justify the $35 sea bass dish in front of you.

On the brink of this cultural volcano many of us are, and all of us should be, checking our privilege. Acknowledge that, in dining at a restaurant, you are participating in experience that is not accessible to a large population of the world. Be present with the fact that the vegetables featured in your dish may have been picked by an immigrant labor force who often cannot afford to purchase the produce they harvest. Appreciate that the people cooking and serving you may work for wages below the poverty line.

This is not a call for people to stop eating out, I do not intend to. Though, I would suggest we all reflect on how we can use our food dollar as a political act. Is it important to you that farmers are paid fairly for their crops? Then make sure your favorite cafe serves fair trade coffee. Do you want to support Tucson's economy? Leave the mall, find the family owned restaurant down the street. Inspired by the #blacklivesmatter movement but don't know what to do as a white person? Eat at African American owned businesses. Wherever you stand politically, the money you spend on food can reflect and bolster your stance.

Renee Kraeger, Owner of Renee's Organic Oven

I just spoke of this very aspect and the heaviness of customer service at a time when people are so distracted, full of concern and some rage along with being so distracted with social media. Why does food matter now in such a heated and sometimes unrelenting political climate? We have to eat and we have to stop talking to do so would be one reason to count our blessings for a beautiful meal.

From a restaurant perspective there are many places that have created a vibe of dedication, love and service to make ones day better. I count Renee's Organic Oven as one these special places.

We like many others have opened our space up to be a place of joy. We are seeking appreciation and respect for that. Customer experience can rise when there is pride for the product and integrity in caring for others. When working together, these two aspects make for a beautiful meal. To gather and celebrate the work of others, that work is being done for one reason: your pleasure.

There is so much that goes into a meal in a restaurant that the guest never has to do or think about. It takes so much skill, labor and energy to create any and everything we consume. To prepare a nourishing or simply pleasurable meal from those ingredients unites us to process, to community and to individual talent.

What we ask for in return is displays of joy, patience, gratitude and respect. These expressions are fundamental in a loving society and gathering around a table is great place to practice.

There are many moments when enjoying a lovingly prepared meal where we all fall silent in appreciation for the all everything and everyone in our lives.

And that's usually followed by cake—not much better than that.

Michael Babcock, Chef and Owner at Welcome Diner (Opening in Tucson Fall 2016)

That's a big question that might take some time to explain my opinion on. But I would start by saying food matters certainly because it's the starting point for a lot of social, political and cultural ideologies. You can tell so much about a culture or society by how they eat and dine. For example, over the last few years America has been undergoing a transition in the dining scene that leans more towards dishes that you share with the group you're dining with. "Tapas" or "small plates" whatever you want to call them; it's a way of eating, in my opinion that's much more inclusive and participatory for the guests. It's riskier and challenges guests to try new things and get out of their comfort zone a little bit. It's also a way of eating many other parts of the world find common practice.

Before this trend America had a bigger focus on large plates of food and it was more about the individuals experience. Like you were ordering your own trophy or something. That experience to me feels very exclusive in a way that feels kind of selfish. I can't tell you how many times when I was younger working in kitchens a ticket would ring in for a two-top and they'd order the same two entrees. So sterile and habitual. So safe.

I think this idea transitions well into the political and social spheres of America. I think America wants to try new things. Seems much more excited about the unknown than the status quo. Now more than anytime I've ever felt in my 30 years of life, America feels like it's challenging itself more. It's looking at its cultural exclusiveness with many social and political movements advocating for unity and inclusion. It's also pulling itself into pretty hostile and divisive zones too. We still seem quite a divided nation.

Which brings me to my other point. As much as food brings people together, it also plays a role in dividing cultures. What you get to eat is a statement of your status in society. Affluent cultures get access to healthy and organic foods while poorer groups have their access restricted and reduced to processed cheap foods. And I think that's a problem that's gone on for far too long and has resulted in some real and negative consequences. I hope that's something as a society we can address.

And my final thought regarding the current state of food is that I worry how much worship we put into dining and chefs. The celebrity chef is said to be by many historians one of the final signs of a society in crisis of collapse. The Romans, for example, were worshiping the hell out of their chefs as their empire crumbled around them and all their food and agricultural supplies ran out. And I think the celebrity chef in modern times is skyrocketing. Now, I'm a chef and I love what I do and I love and appreciate all the accolades and praise I've received for my work. I enjoy making people in my restaurants happy. It literally makes my day. But I hope we as a society put some focus on mending our cultural and political issues, that we spend a little time focusing on where we want our nation and culture to head and that we not stay too distracted from making the right decisions about our future.

Kelzi Bartholomaei, Chef and Owner at Mother Hubbard's Cafe

If one eats to live, then food doesn't matter much, but I think that anyone who lives to eat has the heart, tongue and stomach to understand why food matters. There are many layers to why food matters to me, and the first is the home hearth. I was first taught to cook by my grandmother, and I have hopefully passed some of those skills on to my daughter just as my grandmother passed on skills from her grandmother. However, it's not just the skills; there are also the stories that are shared among the cooks: where this food came from, how it can be prepared, why its important to our family. Teachings that, when combined with food and cooking, make a very strong connection to not only who we are as families but also who we are as part of a community.
This social aspect of food is incredibly important as it help keep us connected with our peeps. Whether in the home, at a community event, or just out and about, eating together brings us together.

I try hard not to focus on the political pressures impacting food as it tends to upset me mostly. Yet here I am, trying to make food for others, and it seems so much of my time is focused on some aspect of the political system. There was a time when I never ever thought I would be contemplating supply line accountability, genetic purity, and humane practices while developing a recipe. The impact of codes and regulations on food production is staggering, and the financial implications are enough to make it extremely challenging to run a kitchen. So I worry for the health of smaller operations. I learned to cook in kitchens where The Professional Chef, Joy of Cooking, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking shared a shelf with Stalking the Wild Asparagus, The Whole Earth Catalogue, and The Anarchist Cookbook. The freedom we had in those kitchens would be hard to duplicate now. Yet what I find the younger chefs preparing keeps me hopeful that despite the political and financial pressures, the energy that introduced me to a new way of appreciating our food is alive and well here in Tucson.

Oy, 'why food matters' and 'what's going on racially', in the same sentence. Interesting. I don't see food as racial although growing up in Detroit I learned that racial cooking was code for soul food. However, food is cultural and for that reason food matters. I identify as Mexican American, Native American and the baker in me, German American, and I arrived in Tucson imported from Detroit. The influences each of these cultures gifted me shaped my vision on how I cook. Tucson and more broadly, Baja Arizona, has its own culture and as I learned to live here, I began to understand the culinary heritage of the region. I see similar cultural cross links in many of the cooks I know and respect, how their cultural background has worked to refine their culinary vision. It's one of the reasons Tucson has such a distinctive style.

There is another reason I prefer cultural to racial when talking food. Racial implies a sameness, a uniformity and homogeneity. Cultural is dynamic, living and changing. Applied to why food matters, I could classify corporate or manufactured food as racially inspired whereas street vendors are culturally inspired. That's a big mind shift. It will influence every thought on how one perceives their food. It influences how we cook our food and most importantly it influences how we enjoy our food.

Burn out. Flame out. After a time, its real. Working in any part of this food chain is hard, hard work: from the farmers and producers to the cooks and chefs. I know for myself there are days where I just want to turn the lights off and walk out the door. Yet with all of the reasons to quit, I still find a lot of personal satisfaction in what I do. For this reason alone, that I love to cook, food is important. Especially now. Tucson being named an UNESCO World City of Gastronomy is big. To all of us working in the food chain its a huge 'atta boy' and 'atta gir'l on a world basis. Its also why respecting food culture and food politics is important. This is why food matters. I think all of us—chefs, cooks, farmers and ranchers—need to start referring to ourselves as Culinary Diplomats. Then maybe we could get a raise and weekends off!