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Vittles 6.19 - Solidarity
Sources of Support: women-led networks that nourish, support, bolster and fuel, by Dr. Anna Sulan Masing
When we in Britain talk about the food media, it’s become increasingly clear we’re not talking about a global food media or even an Anglophone food media, but the twin poles of British and American food writing and almost nothing else. Translation, as Alicia Kennedy recently pointed out in her own newsletter, is a big issue, yet it’s not the whole issue. There are plenty of other Anglophone countries, there are countries such as India where a lot of the prestige food writing is done in English (often inculcating a very privileged idea of what Indian food should be, but it’s available nonetheless). Yet there has long been a mutual, almost exclusive obsession between American and British writing, a kind of collective looking over the shoulder at what the other is doing.
Sometimes this relationship is antagonistic: for some British writers, American food writing is too earnest, too sincere, obsessed with its own importance. It’s just food after all. Sometimes, working outside of each other’s systems, our views can be rose-tinted: American food writing may be more politically engaged, sharper about race and class, but the events of the past few months have exposed deep seated flaws that many of us in Britain did not know about (flaws that explain why the best American food writing is more politically engaged in the first place). And sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees. In her brilliant anthology ‘Women on Food’, Charlotte Druckman tells Diana Henry that “British food writing is better than American food writing”, a line which raised my eyebrow when I first read it. Later on it’s clarified that she means recipe writing, and she explains how the demarcation between the headnote and the recipe is much less clear in British recipe writing, freeing the writer. And it’s true, for all the structural faults in our mainstream food media we still have world class recipe writers ─ what a coup for the Guardian/Observer to have Nigel Slater, Meera Sodha, Rachel Roddy, Yotam Ottolenghi and Dan Lepard all writing regularly for them. But outside of this, I would take issue with Druckman’s praise, just as American editors have done with me in the tracked edits column whenever I’ve said the opposite (I usually send them Giles Coren’s Wikipedia page in response).
But over the last few months I’ve sensed a new relationship, something more conspiratorial. Today’s newsletter by Dr. Anna Sulan Masing is about the importance of women-led support networks, but it is also partly about the importance of international solidarity and learning from each other. Black Book, the initiative Masing has been working on with Zoe Adjonyoh, Frankie Reddin and Fozia Ismail, has its third outing today and has brought together conversations being had separately in America, Britain and other countries, and threaded them together, exposing both their similarities and necessary differences. Meanwhile the interview series in both James Hansen’s and Alicia Kennedy’s newsletters have also fostered fascinating dialogues, both transatlantic and beyond. None of this is a coincidence. There is a common feeling that if the spaces we have already aren’t fit for purpose and if we have to create our own, that we cannot make those spaces silos; that if these spaces are no more international, inclusive and collaborative than the ones they seek to replace, then they too are destined to fail.
Sources of Support: women-led networks that nourish, support, bolster and fuel, by Dr. Anna Sulan Masing
London has a rhythm that everyone in the city slips in and out of, rotates around or vehemently avoids; the tightness of the rush hours, the tender dusk that gives office blocks a softness. But when the city collectively held its breath – stifled by a virus and an incompetent government - individuals were left to find their own pace, either pushed forward to the frontline, closeted in flats or juggling children and workloads. The safety net of a big city constantly moving, then taken away can be disconcerting.
For me, the immediate loss of most of my work and the contact of friends left me desolate. But, in those first few weeks of lockdown I slowly noticed webs had been woven around me and out into the world, binding me to a system of support that in the rush of a capital city where are almost invisible but I could now see clearly. Friends around the world PayPal’d me the equivalent of article commissions, and friends and colleagues in London dropped freshly made sourdough to my door, whisky was couriered over, and a subscription to Headspace sent and, when my card declined on a weekly shopping trip, a twitter friend commissioned me to write for her blog. I was being fuelled by a network of people, almost all of them women and most of them women of colour.
Kada ka beri nyarih bejelili munui api kunchi,
Enggi Dayan Demi masang di ekmudi kapal perang. //
Would that my voice were like the roar of the cooking stove,
Of Dayang Demi in her man-o’-war.
Women-led networks have driven and sustained political and social movements throughout history. These networks and organisations have acted in solidarity or as the key voices, but have often done so without much acknowledgement. During the pandemic I have seen and marvelled at women who have swiftly changed direction to fill growing fissures in our society and many with a focus on food and nourishment, building spaces of their own outside of the current failing structures.
It is apt that these support networks revolve around food. Food is gendered and it has often been through the fight against food insecurity, that women have entered into public and political spaces to address and make changes on wider political issues. In May 1793 in France the Société des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires was formed, a women-led organisation that focused on access to bread – the right for food - during the revolution, whilst also campaigning for wider freedoms, including the political recognition of women. In 1939 women in Manipur, India led protests for several months against the export of rice, which was in itself a protest against the British Empire, even forcing the (male) millers to shut down production.
As well as active protests, cafes and restaurants have played their part in creating safe space of resilience and solidarity. In the 70s in North America a feminist restaurant movement began; these spaces were also about redefining the professional cooking space and the idea of a kitchen being a ‘traditional’ place for women. Academic Alexandra Ketchum has explored these spaces in relation to capitalist structures and how these spaces both undermined and broke away from them.
In London, Asma Khan has used her profile to provide free space at her restaurant Darjeeling Express for women of colour to hold supper clubs, also covering the cost of front of house staff. This was because these women sit outside of the white (predominantly male) space of the food and restaurant world in London, a space that prioritises Eurocentric cooking and permanent restaurant spaces. Darjeeling Express gave these women a place to experiment and trial their food, their business idea, and to share their knowledge and skill – this act was a working against the current structures that the industry sits in. These events have also been spaces for storytelling, building belonging, addressing politics, and cooking food from their heritage, food that is often marginalised. For example, last year at Darjeeling Express saw Fozia Ismail’s Somali supper club, Arawelo Eats, which discussed race and identity, as well as colonial trade routes and belonging in a post Brexit world; while Wild Serai hosted a Gawai event, which is a harvest festival for indigenous people of Borneo, a community the Wild Serai belong to.
Gender is not binary and many of these women-led spaces across history have been queer-safe spaces too; and as intersectional feminism has become more centred in the conversation, these community-focused inclusive spaces of resistance and solidarity through food, have grown and broadened. This spaces are radical spaces, as Emma Underwood GM of Darby’s, whose PhD focused on feminist history, explains “although maybe not Radical Feminism, they are radical spaces because the whole structure is re-valuated to support women at every level, which is extremely radical in comparison to normal - patriarchal, capitalist - structures”.
In recent years I have been looking a lot to the US as inspiration as they approach feminist spaces in bolder, more robust and intersectional ways than I have found in the UK. A number of initiatives did start after the 2016 election as acts of resistance and I wonder if this Conservative government, coupled with its disastrous handling of COVID-19 will have the same effect. In particular I have been an admirer of what Portland based Tender Table has been doing. Although considered a progressive state, Oregon has a violent history towards non-white people and Portland is still the whitest city in the US. Tender Table has been working to reclaim space and create safe spaces for women, trans and non-binary BIPOC through storytelling and food. During the global pandemic they have continued to support and nurture their community through livestreaming storytelling events, platforming people and businesses, and holding organisations accountable. Other spaces include Interlocking Roots a QT*BIPoC network of food people (from farmers to chefs) who “center food and earthwork as decolonization tools to combat isolation, trauma, and accountability within our movement, community, and work spaces.”
I dreamt of running, of walking, of softly dancing,
Across roads not yet build, but built to carry me on,
Through grasses not yet sown, but waiting to be grown.
Community initiatives often step in where the government is absent. This government’s daily decisions mean that we are a long way off from not needing these services from so many individuals and charities. I think of chef Zoe Adjonyoh, who lost her entire source of income with the onset of COVID-19. With a lack of guidance from the government that could have put chefs to work in other areas of the food system, her response was to look around her to cater for vulnerable members of her community with her skill set that could provide culturally appropriate meals to her East London community. Working with local agencies she has now been doing this for three months; her crowdfunder is still open and donations will allow her and her team to continue this work.
Elsewhere in London so much of the community food-based work during the crisis has been led by women operating outside of the political and social structure available, such as Louise Nicols, the executive head of three east London primary schools who set up Hackney School of Food, or Sarah Bently and Joshana Lovage founders of food charity Made in Hackney. Or Munira Muhamd, a Grenfell survivor who in the absence of a coherent government response, has been cooking for her community since the fire. In the last few months she has shifted her work – which had been focused on new mothers through her initiative Kina Mama – to incorporate feeding those at hospitals and vulnerable people in her community. She is currently cooking up to 200 meals a week from her home kitchen and is hoping to expand to delivery and take out, so that she can fund the work she is doing.
At the moment these all read like an unconnected list of ideas, of people, of organisations, but the pandemic has given us the opportunity to re-think, re-read, re-explore how we operate and how we connect with people, so I am looking at all these spaces as inspiration. I am also looking at the networks I am part of – as demonstrated by the personal support I received - as spaces of solidarity, of strength, radicalism and change. I want the world post-COVID to be different, to be inclusive, to not be capitalist and I think that the only way to do that is to build it ourselves.
One idea I’ve been working on is a project initiated by Adjonyoh, and with Frankie Reddin, is to strengthen, build and develop the BIPOC food network in the UK via an initiative called Black Book. What Black Book will look like is currently being moulded and focused, but as part of that process, cook and academic Fozia Ismail, Adjonyoh and I have developed a set of eight questions around the subject of ‘how to decolonise the food world’ which will be discussed online, with a panel from both the UK and the US, for eight weeks every Sunday from 28 June. Another is an academic-minded research project, in collaboration with academic and chef Chloe-Rose Crabtree, which will investigate ways to decolonise food and drink pathways and be a public access resource.
Although these initiatives have been in the works since the beginning of the year, the last few weeks has instilled in me the need to build our own houses, to create structures away from those that already exist; find our own rhythm in this city and bolster ourselves for a new world . There’s a growing realisation that those prestige spaces are not for us and perhaps never can be; we are simply not here to wait to be allowed in.
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” – Audre Lorde
Dr. Anna Sulan Masing is a writer, academic and poet. You can find her self-published writing and research on her blog and to support her work you can donate via PayPal here. Anna was paid for her work. Because Anna believes that feminism must be inclusive, non-binary and intersectional, her fee was matched by Vittles and split between two charities that primarily support Black trans people: African Rainbow Family and The Okra Project.
The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/ . Ada was also paid for her work.
You can sign up for today’s Black Book event here, but in the event of spaces selling out, the recordings will be available if you sign up to Black Book’s mailing list. Previous talks can be seen on Zoe Adjonyoh’s and Black Book’s Instagram pages.