“Is there a food or meal that transports you to a memory of organizing, resistance, or mutual aid?” I asked on social media a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure what sort of response I’d get--perhaps a trickle of answers, perhaps radio silence--so it was a nice surprise when the replies started pouring in.
Street medic and community historian Roger Benham recalled eating roadkill during Mountain Justice Summer 2005. “Our two main cooks were vegans and initially wrestled with the ethics of cooking even car-killed animals,” he wrote, “They finally decided they could do it since the beasts were slain entirely without our participation, and by accident. We had a fawn, raccoon stew, and rattlesnake (though I was elsewhere for that last one).” One friend told me about bringing a pot of green curry to Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street; two others remembered the MREs they ate--complete with tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce--while doing disaster relief in post-Katrina New Orleans. Several mentioned dishes they prepared--including ratatouille, garlic bread, and vegan stir fry--as part of Food Not Bombs in high school and college (cooking this weekly free meal, organized by chapters across the country, is a rite of passage for many young radicals and organizers). There were stories of potatoes and butter during strikes in Ecuador; and elotes and hot cocoa during a teachers union road blockade in Chiapas, Mexico. A handful of friends waxed nostalgic over the strong-as-shit cowboy coffee prepared by environmental-movement cook Grumble, and one even posted a link to a song about the legendary stuff, “Grumble’s Java,” by Phoenix-based performer and street journalist Che Christ. Zinester Cindy Crabb responded, “Food and resistance reminds me of when we used to give out pastries and coffee and cigarettes to people getting out of jail who were in for the weekend. It was something really simple we did that we didn't think was a big deal at all, just a way to make our community less shitty and more humane.”
A few folks wrote about having vastly different experiences with similar food. A jar of crunchy peanut butter transports potter and eco-chaplain Sarah Vekasi to Watch Mountain, Washington State, where she lived in an old-growth tree as part of a forest defense campaign in 1999. But for writer and prison justice activist Joe Watson, white bread and oily peanut butter are reminiscent of time spent in former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail in Phoenix, Arizona. He lived on the meal for three long years, fighting his case in the maw of the prison industrial complex.
“the first time i made this pie, i convinced the federal marshals who were detaining me to stop for a second so i could take this pot pie out of the oven.
Because EVERYONE loves chicken pot pie, especially federal marshals.”
I’ve long been obsessed with the intersections of food, communities of resistance, and radical history. Recently, I’ve traced these links in my own life through essays and poetry, writing about eating venison in a West Virginia anti-mountaintop removal campaign and peeling blood oranges while driving through the Arizona-Sonora borderlands on No More Deaths’ water drops. I’ve also admired friends’ cultural production around food and resistance. Jehat Birusk’s instagram (@omnomnomdeguerre) chronicles his tour in Rojava, where he fought against ISIS and for an autonomous northern Syria, through--among other things--cups of tea and a Green & Black organic chocolate bar carried in a soldier’s bag for five long months. These culinary snapshots offer digestible, everyday glimpses into a struggle that can sometimes feel far away, remote, and difficult to parse. A community cookbook co-written by adventurer and kitchen wizard Cheshire Tongkat includes recipes prepared for mass mobilizations, direct action campaigns, and disaster relief efforts, including “also known as Lemon Lightning Cake,” “Grrnola,” and “Sweet and Sour Curry Soup”--the last one made in a Baltimore artists’ collective while they waited for Hurricane Sandy to make landfall. Anecdotes brimming with humor and tenderness are tucked into the margins: “ps. the first time i made this pie, i convinced the federal marshals who were detaining me to stop for a second so i could take this pot pie out of the oven. because EVERYONE loves chicken pot pie, especially federal marshals.”
My reading stack is mostly comprised of food history books that touch on so much more than cuisine, including Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA, which traces the fraught relationship between Mexican food in the United States and racism against Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, and Mexican immigrants; and Michael Twitty’s strange and brilliant The Cooking Gene, a family-genealogy-slash-memoir-slash-culinary-tome that looks at the African-American roots of southern cooking. Twitty underscores how food has played a role in African and African-American resistance to colonization, slavery, and discrimination--he writes, at one point, of the Black Panthers: “the most dangerous thing they did, according to J. Edgar Hoover at least--was feed the next generation.” (The Panthers’ breakfast program catalyzed public school free breakfasts, as detailed here and here.) I admire the work these writers are doing to emphasize the importance of food in histories of resistance and I want to do this work, too, in some small way.
And so, inspired by friends, books, and my own obsessions, the idea for this interview column, Nourishing Resistance, was born. Every month, I’ll talk to someone I know or would like to know whose works connects food and drink to cultures of resistance. I’ll let our conversations be driven by a series of bigger questions: What can food teach us about communities of resistance, mutual aid, and radical history? How can memories of a meal complicate the larger narrative, so often focused on specific events and individual changemakers? What lessons can we learn from those who have spent long hours in kitchens-- feeding protesters, direct action campaigns, disaster relief efforts, and so much more? And why does it all matter?
When I posed that last question on social media, several days after I asked about food memories, I got a handful of different answers: The table is a place for communal ideals to thrive under capitalism. Meal-making is a way of pooling and sharing resources. Both have the potential to make the world just a little bit better.
Then Tinea, whose work focuses on mutual aid in border regions and conflict zones, replied, “Because care is the antidote to repression and food is care.” She was paraphrasing someone else and, though she can’t recall the exact source, the expression is often on her mind. It’s easy to see why--it sums up so much about resistance work, and the place of nourishing food and drink within it, so simply and well.
Wren Awry is a Tucson-based essayist, poet, and educator with a deep interest in the intersections of food and radical social change. They've worked in kitchens for direct action campaigns, in the dish pit and on the line at restaurants, and as a restaurant columnist for a local food website. Although Wren isn't a practicing herbalist, they studied and apprenticed at the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine in Western North Carolina, giving them an appreciation for traditional medicine and wild foods. Their work is informed by their experiences as a genderqueer adoptee and their anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian politics.