Cheshire Tongkat on Feeding Others as an Act Of Resistance

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I’ve known Cheshire Tongkat since 2009, when we met at a Climate Justice rally during the G20 protests in Pittsburgh. I was a nascent environmental organizer, and they were serving homemade burritos on behalf of Everybody’s Kitchen, a mobile kitchen with a long history of feeding protesters, disaster survivors, and economically impoverished communities. A month later, Cheshire moved to the anti-mountaintop removal direct action campaign I was living in and working with in southern West Virginia, and a friendship formed, tied together by a mutual love of food and storytelling. Over the years, we’ve turned dumpstered sausages into gumbo, and made bread and yogurt from scratch in the Mississippi Delta; scarfed pizza in a ballfield next to West Virginia’s historic Blair Mountain; and toasted smoky quesadillas over open flame on a southern Arizona sky island. All the while, I’ve been enamored of Cheshire’s wending stories, fierce kitchen skills, and commitment to feeding others as an act of resistance.

When did you start cooking? What is it about food that draws you in?

When you ask, “When did you start cooking?” the question that I actually hear is, “When did you get on the kitchen bus?” In my mind, that was the beginning of my hunger: a hunger for community, for a more equitable world, for a diversity of experience in my life, for deeply fulfilling work that I could do with my hands. That hunger was when I began to view and understand food through a radical lens.

I grew up surrounded by traditional Chinese food, and by cooks: my grandfather, my great-aunt and great-uncle, and my cousin all owned and managed Chinese restaurants. My grandfather was the first in my family to emigrate here to the states, and it was a really common practice for Chinese immigrants (and many other people of color, displaced from the familiar flavors of their homelands and cuisines): to open restaurants and to continue making and sharing the food and culture they were suddenly severed from in a new country. They did everything: they were the chefs, the servers, the line cooks and dishwashers; and they started from almost nothing and worked really hard for what they had. It was a way to survive; a way to hold onto a culture through familiar tastes and familiar movements in cooking.

Somewhere in my teenage years, though, I grew disillusioned with the strictness of the culture I was born from, and I didn’t get along with my parents, so I didn’t really start learning how to cook traditional Chinese food till later, and I still have a lot to learn.

I was so lucky to run into Everybody’s Kitchen very early on in my travels. I should offer some explanation about this mean, orange, capitalism-killing machine called Everybody’s Kitchen here: it’s a kitchen project that’s been active for about twenty-five years; the current iteration resides in a thirty-eight foot school bus by the endearing name of “Clementine,” which includes a solar panel and battery bank setup, three-piece industrial deep sink, two stainless steel counters, speed racks, a six-burner Vulcan propane stove with two ovens and a flat top, a motley assortment of industrial pots--the largest of which I can climb inside, a roof rack welded out of old combine parts, and enough dry goods to survive the apocalypse, or better yet, the revolution.

Everybody’s Kitchen was born and built from the vision of a handful of scrappy itinerants, hippies, and punks over twenty-five years ago. Seated in beliefs of anti-capitalism, a disillusionment with the state and its authority, consensus-based decision making, and the adamant conviction that healthy food is a fundamental human right, and therefore should be free, the kitchen is an autonomous, grassroots, donation-funded project determined to help build a more equitable and less hungry world. The crew is comprised of a loosely organized, rotating cast who travels the states and offers free food support to homeless encampments, inner city neighborhoods, activist camps, and counter-protests. Anybody was welcome to eat with us or to cook with us.


I met Anne and Victor, two staples of EK’s core crew, at the Rainbow Gathering in New Mexico in 2009; I had just hit the road for the first time and I was twenty, and really pretty naive, not yet radicalized; but when my friend Vanish put out a call to action later that year and asked me to come and cook with the bus in Pittsburgh for the G20 protests, I went without reservations. That’s the first time I really worked with the bus.

 Photo by Cheshire Tongkat

Photo by Cheshire Tongkat

I spent most of my time prepping vegetables by the hundreds of pounds, and we all spent a fair amount of time being moved about and harassed by the cops. We were forcibly relocated three times, from an art warehouse to a vacant school lot, and finally a church parking lot, where the pastor put his foot down and said, “Well, if they want to arrest you, they’ll have to arrest me too.” The city really targeted us, along with the medics and the media, because we were providing the bulk of food support for counter-protestors. During all this chaos, harassment, and sleeplessness, I’m proud to say we never missed putting out a single meal. In Pittsburgh, I learned that food was critical and powerful, and that food could be revolutionary; in fact, sharing food could be so radical that we were threatened with arrest and police violence, and simply persisting in sharing food in the face of repression was a really radical act.

In a wider lens, food draws me in very simply because I find a beauty in cooking, and always have… baking in particular has always been special. Cooking is like this alchemy for me: control of heat, of ratios, understanding processes and chemistries, intuiting tastes, how they pair and work together, balance each other out. I love working with my hands, and the kitchen is traditionally such a sacred and shared space where everyone convenes; a space inherently based in community, in working together to create something delicious and magical. It’s as much about the process as the end result; the creation is as important as the breaking of bread. I’ve always used food as a way to share myself with others, and when I think of cooking, that idea is inseparable from who I’ll be making that food with, and who I’ll be eating it with. It’s such a simple, soulful way to nourish others; to feed our bodies and minds and spirits with meaningful community, thoughtful work, and the shared fruits of our labors.

You’ve cooked for disaster relief efforts and protest campaigns. Could you tell me a little bit about those experiences? What do you think are the connections between activism, mutual aid, and cooking?

My experience cooking with social/environmental justice campaigns has been so varied and diverse: I’ve grilled venison at Mountain Justice Summer in West Virginia, made mutton stew and fry bread on Black Mesa, conned the local grocery store out of compost for imaginary chickens for the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas, baked homemade sourdough with a culture I carried from Texas to St. Louis for a summit against Peabody Coal. I’ve also carried gallons of water and cans of beans to leave along migrant trails in Arizona, helped manage a kitchen putting out over a thousand meals a day post-storm surge after Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, and worked in a disaster relief kitchen serving a predominantly Latinx  community after the flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.

I feel like all of these experiences are so different and incomparable, although two strings tie them together in my mind: there was a need for food, and that need was filled by a radical grassroots group. Most of my experience in sharing food has been in grassroots kitchens, and I think that experience has really shown me what’s possible in the realm of mutual aid, radical food, and food as activism.

In a capitalist, colonialist, racist culture and economy where access to food, healthy options, and food education are monetized and highly intersectional with race and class, sharing food becomes, suddenly, an intrinsically radical act. Floppy, one of the founders of Everybody’s Kitchen, would say that no matter where we were or who we were serving, anybody who was hungry and wanted food would never be turned away. Regardless of race, class, appearance, social status, or any other factor, our goal was to share healthy, home-cooked, free food with anyone who was hungry without judgement--even if they were rich, even if they were a cop (and trust me, Floppy really hates cops). Hunger is such a universal feeling, and while we focused on serving homeless communities, activist camps, and low-income neighborhoods of color, the need for food transcends all of these divisions. In this way, food felt like something we could use as a healing force, and hunger felt like a feeling that could unite diverse communities.

In a culture where people are trained to pay for everything, to monetize any and all transactions, giving something as simple as food away becomes a paradigm shift for everyone involved--food becomes a gift that’s quite arguably more difficult to receive than to give. By sharing food, Everybody’s Kitchen aimed to shatter the dominant paradigm that assigns meaning and self-worth to race, class, ableism, gender, or sexuality; to destroy the idea that dignity and respect (and a right to healthy food) are earned through hard work and by overcoming obstacles in a world that’s inequitable. We firmly believe that dignity and respect are inherent in all of us, and food is, and always will be, a fundamental human right.

On Everybody’s Kitchen, our motto has always been “Solidarity not Charity.” This meant that we didn’t come with the intention of being charitable, and we didn’t want to be a group of outsiders serving people that we felt needed our help. Our goal was to connect with and be a part of the communities that we served food to and cooked with, to share our skill sets, and ideally, to leave a community-run kitchen behind when we moved on. One of the most humbling things I learned when working with communities in places that had seen ecological and social injustice, disaster, or struggle at the hands of systems of oppression was to listen, first and foremost, and to earn trust and respect by acting with trust and respect. For me, mutual aid is inextricably tied to the practices of radical foodshare and support: as equals, within a consensus-based decision making structure, prioritizing local leadership, and hearing and honoring local needs.

The practice of making and sharing food together feels like such a real and honest process in which I’ve learned to set boundaries and work with so many diverse people, to bring my own struggles to the table and understand how I fit into so many different communities, and to respect where others are and meet them. It’s humbling, and so illuminating, to say the least.

What the most interesting kitchen-related situation you’ve found yourself in?

There are so many stories that I could tell you about all the adventures that food justice has led me to… it’s hard to choose, really. When I think of mutual aid and the controlled chaos that epitomizes disaster relief, I always think of the kitchen that we set up after Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey. It was one of the wildest kitchens I’ve ever been a part of: it was the first time I’d helped manage a kitchen crew of probably eighty or more people, and the first time I’d worked disaster relief. I arrived within a week after Hurricane Sandy made landfall there, and the New Jersey coastline was absolutely wrecked. There was a Time Magazine cover that came out later that year, with that iconic yellow two-story house with two-thirds missing, and the roof was somehow still intact, perched on top of this sliver of house. That was in Union Beach, New Jersey, where we were.

Early organizers, many of them from the core crew of Everybody’s Kitchen and other peripheral kitchens, had scouted and set up at a firehouse in town. We had water, miraculously, but no power; the entire neighborhood was running on generators. Everyone started putting out calls to action and gathering kitchen gear and a crew. People came from California, Montana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, New York, Arizona… we came from literally every corner of the country. Core organizers were in touch with the incident command system at the county and state levels, but the magic of this kitchen was that while we were talking to and working around these power structures (that commonly direct many large non-profit disaster response teams, the Red Cross being the iconic example), we were not funded by them, and we were therefore autonomous from their demands. Our funding came partially from Organic Valley, who also graciously donated so much equipment and kitchen gear, but for the most part, we were kept afloat by small donations from friends, family, and strangers.

The Union Beach Firehouse Grill, as we came to be called, began in two ten-by-ten foot army tents with several crab cookers and a motley assortment of industrial kitchen gear, cobbled together from the Rainbow Gathering kitchens closest to us in Asheville and upstate New York. It was snowing when I arrived, there was a core crew of perhaps a dozen people there, and the kitchen was still being built. From here, we knocked out the essentials: we tested our water; someone wrangled a port-a-potty donation; Navigator got us diesel and propane donations to keep the generator and stoves running; Amazing Dave handled site security; Baker Bob convinced the county to send us a fifty-three inch refrigeration unit.

It’s really hard for me to describe just how inspiring and wonderful this kitchen was, to encompass the feeling of momentum and unity it brought. New gear and fresh faces rolled in every day, and within a week and a half, the army tents had turned into food storage, and we had expanded to fill out a canopy tent, replete with a row of at least eight crab cookers, an arsenal of sixty to eighty quart pots, two or three rows of prep tables, two three-piece industrial deep sinks for dishes, and propane heaters that we would huddle around on the cold nights. The yard of the firehouse was filled with tents where volunteers camped, and as word got out about the kitchen, friends and strangers got in touch and flew, drove, and bussed in from all over to volunteer.

People from all walks of life passed through for hot meals: volunteer construction crews that had come in from surrounding states to help gut houses, people living in the surrounding communities who didn’t have power, heat, or water. A FEMA crew came through and remarked that we had served them the best meal they’d had in the field; the Red Cross began to drop off cambros of food on our line. Neighbors from less affected surrounding communities came and offered whatever they could give: massages, manicures, haircuts, food, equipment. A local restaurant owner came and asked us to name a piece of industrial kitchen equipment we needed but did not have, and he returned the next day with an industrial immersion blender, which was promptly put to use on a creamy curried cashew-coconut-sweet potato soup.
 

At the culmination of this wild, chaotic, incredible kitchen, we served over 1200 meals a day and sent out two satellite functions: the U-Hungry Cafe used a donated U-Haul truck to shuttle food to housebound neighbors and to hotels where storm victims were living, and Richard handed out hot grilled cheese sandwiches from an Organic Valley kitchen van. On a typical day, most of us worked up to twenty hours, there were up to a hundred volunteers in the kitchen, we prepped vegetables by the hundred pound case, made coffee ten gallons at a time, and the next meal was always on the stove. Donations showed up by the truckload, and Alice set up and managed a distribution center for clothing, food, household goods. Someone donated a bounce house for the kids, Diamond Dave started an open mic, and the kitchen exploded into a full-blown block party with a row of grills and smokers outside the dining area.

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At some point, someone in the incident command system offered the kitchen a large amount of funding if we would relocate to a different location, and Bob came to the core crew to get a consensus decision on the proposal. We basically unanimously agreed that the new location wasn’t where we wanted to be, that the community we had chosen to set up in had a greater need, and we turned the money down. That was a really powerful feeling, that we had built from scratch this miraculous, community-centered kitchen, and we could make autonomous decisions about where we wanted to be and how we wanted to run things. And that experience was critical in my understanding of how to practice autonomy as a kitchen and as a person, and how to respect the autonomy and needs of the communities and people I’ve worked with.

And, most importantly, seeing that community in New Jersey respond, and watching neighbors support one another in times of hardship showed me what was really possible in grassroots organizing. Foodshare projects or relief efforts are, in reality, oftentimes messy, filled with difficult decisions, poor communication, interpersonal conflict, lack of sleep, too few volunteers, very little funding, and unimaginable workloads. But sometimes, despite of (or maybe because of) all these challenges, we can create magical and powerful spaces. Moving forward in this work, I remember what this magic feels like when it happens, and I am deeply humbled and inspired by all the meals we’ve served and all the faces I’ve worked with.

What do you see as the future of activist kitchens?

I firmly believe that the future of resistance and food justice is, without a doubt, grassroots. Healthy food access and education have always been so inequitable, so out of reach for some communities, and that access is so intersectional with race and class lines. It just makes sense to me that if we’re going to envision a more equitable world where food is abundant, then that vision has to include and elevate the voices that are most often lost in those dialogues now. Who is it in our current world that has the least access to wholesome, healthy, affordable food? When I think about food justice, I think about migrants walking the trails of the Sonoran Desert borderlands, homeless folks, communities of color who live in food deserts, indigenous tribes who have to drive hours to pick up frozen, canned, and dehydrated food from distribution centers because they can’t afford other options. I think about how little food education exists, and how little time many working class folks have to make healthy food at home because they spend so many hours at work, often making food for others at service industry jobs.

But, when I think about food justice, I also think about the magical urban gardens I’ve seen spring up in Detroit, where remediating toxic soil and growing food wasn’t even necessarily a choice--the city was just such a huge food desert that people had to learn how to take care of themselves. I also remember driving through dry arroyos and hiking miles under the unforgiving Sonoran summer sun to leave gallons of water, cans of beans, and food packs on migrant trails, and in each step I dream of a world where no human being is illegal, and no matter someone’s legal status, they are never left hungry. I think of making mutton stew and fry bread with my friend Kerry Begay on the Dineh reservation on Black Mesa, and I remember riding with him in his beat-up truck to make water runs, when we had to siphon the water from the community tanks and haul it back to his house, where we would scoop it up by the precious ladleful for washing dishes or drinking.

I also remember sitting at the kitchen table as a child, legs dangling, happily helping to wrap hundreds of dumplings with my mom, my aunt and my grandmother as they spoke in Toishanese, a rural dialect of Cantonese that I’ve since mostly lost. I was in elementary school, and I didn’t yet understand how far my family had come or how hard they’d worked to provide me with the opportunities that I had growing up. I remember, too, that my grandmother (who had survived the Cultural Revolution in China) would chide me if I didn’t finish every last grain in my bowl of rice, because in her youth, the number of children a family could have was determined by how many people they could feed, and how much each child could work in the fields.

Food justice, like any form of activist work, means that we have to take care of the most vulnerable and forgotten communities first. Dismantling systems of oppression means that the only way of doing this work that makes sense is to work in solidarity instead of charity, within structures where everyone has the opportunity to learn from and support each other in an inclusive community. If the realization of our dreams toward a better world don’t look like the world we want to see, then it’s time to stop and reflect on what exactly we’re doing.

And, in this work, I really believe that it’s so necessary to pause and rest sometimes, and to remember to celebrate where we are in the present moment, too. I don’t want to fight for a future where we don’t sit down and break bread together, where we don’t remember to pass our stories (and recipes) on to the next generation, where we forget the miracles that we’ve struggled for and won. If food justice is a struggle, food itself is also deeply restorative; and I want to always remember to be grateful for the people that I work with, and to remember the dreams that we are always creating. To me, that’s what grassroots work is: stopping to listen to complex and powerful stories, recognizing my place and privileges in those intersections, and moving with intention to understand and disrupt systems of oppression so that I can help create something better in its place. Grassroots work is one person, one story, one meal at a time.

What’s your favorite meal?

It’s so hard to choose a single favorite! I’m definitely really fond of baking, whether it’s lasagna, pot pie, sourdough, or cheesecake. There’s a lemon ginger cake, modified from a traditional recipe for a blitztorte (German for “fast cake”) in The Joy of Cooking, that I would bake by the triple sheet pan in New Jersey. I also really love from-scratch all-butter pastry, and I once made a chicken pot pie at the house we were staying in at the time, and the federal marshals raided us while it was baking, so I had to convince them to stop detaining me for a moment so I could take it out of the oven!

I also have warm memories of baking bread with Anne and Victor on the bus at night. We would work by candlelight, and Anne would open a bottle of wine to drink while we were kneading the bread, and Victor would put on Morrisey, of course, and we’d work in comfortable silence. In those times, the bus became a haven for us. These are the moments that are so deeply restorative for me, steeped in care and rooted in a sense of home, even though I was living on the road at the time, and to this day don’t quite understand what home means. But in those times, I felt at home and at ease, full of a simple joy that I worked into whatever I made with my hands.

Then, my favorite meal to eat is zhong! Zhong is a traditional Chinese food that my grandmother aunt, and mom would make for us when I was growing up. It’s a packet of sticky rice filled with cured meats, dried seafood, sweet Chinese sausage, peanuts, and a preserved egg yolk; the whole bundle is wrapped tightly in banana leaves, tied up with string, and cooked in a pressure cooker for four to six hours. The result is this savory umami sticky rice snack. Everyone makes it a little differently, but my favorite will always be my aunt and grandmother’s recipe.

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