48. Culinary Reliquary (I)
For this month's letter, I want focus on food's power to foster community, the way recipes become inherited histories, and reflect on a meal's ability to feed us a nourishing story.
I'll be honest, I don't love celebrating Thanksgiving. Something about the stress of getting the perfect meal ready, the chaos of figuring out travel plans, my own inability to devote a whole day to doing nothing but eating when I love having a million different things to do. I've always been more of an eater than a chef. With the exception of baking every once in a while, I'm quite clumsy in the kitchen—so much so that I've managed to give myself food poisoning more than once. What I lack in skills I long decided I would make for with an appreciation for eating. There's something so special about being able to savor a meal cooked with love or talent (or both), to experience a dish that tastes like home to someone, to check out a place recommended by a friend and experience for yourself a meal they adored.
For many, Thanksgiving isn't a celebration, but a day of mourning for lives and cultural heritage lost, anger at the whitewashing of tragedy. For this month's letter, I want focus on food's power to foster community, the way recipes become inherited histories, and reflect on a meal's ability to feed us a nourishing story.
Michelle Zauner's Crying in H Mart haunted me for weeks after I finished it. Like the title suggests, food plays a big role in this autobiographical narrative. As Zauner recounts her turbulent relationship with her mom from childhood to adulthood when she becomes her mother's caregiver in her final years, meals act like ghosts of memory. We see how cooking turns into a tool for coping with grief and a way to keep one’s culture alive, marked by the flavorful comforts of familiar recipes. Zauner captures the painful, isolating experiences of being in an immigrant family, caught between both worlds, and leaves you with a plateful of healing and heartache.
It’s rare to find me in the kitchen unless I’m cleaning up after a meal cooked by someone far more skillful than me. But for the moments when I’m feeling adventurous or looking for something sweet to satisfy my stress-induced cravings, I turn to Claire Saffitz’s cookbook Dessert Person, for delicious ideas. These recipes are a wonderful mix of sweet and savory, without giving you a sugary headache. Saffitz’s guidance is so thorough, too, perfect for a novice like me. I’ve already made one batch of chewy molasses cookies, now a poppy seed almond cake is next on my list.
Archestratus is an absolute gem of a bookstore. I remember first visiting it when I moved to New York and being absolutely awestruck by the idea that a whole store could be devoted solely to cookbooks and literature about food. Since then, Archestratus has expanded its offerings to include a specialty grocery, gifts, and kitchen supplies while also continuing its rich tradition of events and cooking classes. Whether you’re an avid eater, cook, or food history lover, this is the place to go.
Perhaps it’s a little inappropriate to include a book about a cannibal in a newsletter about food, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chelsea G. Summers’s A Certain Hunger. The novel follows a food critic who develops a killer appetite for men. I would skip this if you have a weak stomach but, if you’re ready to embrace the gruesome and the gory, get ready for a foodie satire with one of the most compelling female protagonists I’ve read in a long time. Summers uses the pulpy plot to reflect on sex, power, the pretensions of fine dining, and the lengths we go to satisfy our hunger.
Three weeks ago, I picked up Queer Earth Food from editor Clare Lagomarsino at the Boston Art Book Fair. This book is a wonderful collection of poems, photos, and essays contributed by queer folks working across food and agriculture. I appreciate how this project prioritizes rural perspectives (still so underrepresented in LGBTQIA+ culture today) to tell stories about a special kind of queer community-building that comes from cultivation and care for the land.
Sarah Espuete's trompe-l'oeil embroidery technique turns ordinary table dressing into a playful experience. Each reworked piece is handmade and the fabric, sourced from all over the France, can be up to a century old. I love Espuete's minimal style that adds whimsy to these old pieces while still letting the tablecloth's history shine through.
Lindsey Lou Howard takes clay and transforms it into surreal ceramic food sculptures. I love the humor embedded into these works, like an egg with devil horns (get it?), a lamp shaped out of spaghetti and sauce, and a trash can full of meat. Along with smaller sculptures, Howard's hilariously precarious stacks of food items bring a kind of foraged wildness back into the ostentatious pretentiousness of fine dining.
This past summer, fashion designer Tal Maslavi decided to turn pairs of ordinary black leather derby shoes into a collection of frosted cake footwear and I haven't been able to stop thinking about them ever since. Inspired by viral ASMR trends and the Netflix show Is It Cake?, Maslavi took this menswear staple and, like the rest of the pieces in his graduate collection, and elevated it with surreal textures. Unlike a white chocolate tank top that wearers can bit into, these don't appear to be edible.
Julie Green's The Last Supper is a decades-long project of documenting the final meals of death row inmates. Green passed away last year, yet her creative legacy lives on in the form of over 500 plates painted with stories of requested food items she learned about over the years, final choices in a person's life now forever frozen in time. Green decided that she didn't want to stop creating plates until the death penalty was outlawed in the United States, finding the process of making these pieces to be deeply intimate and humanizing in the face of such a violent criminal justice system. She noted in a 2013 interview: “I’m a food person…I grew up with great cooks and great food. Food has always been a celebratory thing for me. That’s part of why this whole thing is interesting to me, because of the contrast. It’s not a celebration.”
Toasted Sister is dedicated to highlighting Native foodways. Each episode features chefs, farmers, and makers who are thinking about modern day Indigenous cuisine, keeping traditional techniques alive, and addressing issues of food access in their community. All of these conversations are so insightful that it feels wrong to just recommend one episode, so here are a few personal favorites: Indigenous cuisine on the US/Mexico border, following the Pueblo bread trail in New Mexico, a conversation with a NASA horticulturist, and an interview Potawatomi chef Loretta Barrett Oden.
The Southern Foodways Alliance’s podcast Gravy is a refreshing break from the typical bi-coastal focus of food media, focusing instead on vibrant food cultures all across the south. For as long as I’ve been listening to podcasts, I’ve been subscribed to this show. No, seriously. I love how each episode is a deep dive into a particular emerging cuisine, highlighting fusions influenced by southern immigrant communities, chefs experimenting with traditional cuisine, and the diverse histories of food and agriculture that have shaped the region. All of their episodes make for interesting listening, but their piece about a Florida chef’s quest to turn invasive lionfish into a deliciously ecofriendly meal holds a special place in my heart.
Maintenance Phase tackles wellness culture head-on, debunking fad diets and dubious nutritional advice along the way. This show is one of my all-time favorite, and I can never recommend it enough. While I’d love to just recommend their whole back catalog, their recent episode on the Daily Harvest food poisoning scandal and the lack of regulation for meal kit delivery was equal parts enthralling and mind-boggling.
Naomi Miller-Dawson was memorialized not with a traditional headstone but by a beloved cookie recipe. Atlas Obscura has a great episode about this unusual gravestone (which can be found in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery) and what it means to memorialize the dead through their love of making meals. If you’re interested in more, I suggest this article about a women’s quest to find and recreate gravestone recipes.
If you're not already following Alexis Nikole Nelson (known as @blackforager), what are you waiting for? No, seriously. Alexis's content is infectiously joyous as she turns her forays into lessons about foraging, plant identification, and using wild ingredients in your recipes. From 'seaweed week' to reflections on racism in the outdoors, Alexis is changing the way we think about the land around us. I was so happy when she won a James Beard Award this year since that recognition was well-deserved.
To this day, my favorite Youtube cooking videos ever come from 'Art Cooking,' a series from PBS's The Art Assignment. Hosted by curator Sarah Urist Green, each episode uses recipes to tell the story of a particular artist or teach you about a creative movement. From Gordon Matta-Clark's Bone Meal to Salvador Dalí's Surrealist feasts, who knew that the intersection of art history and cooking could be so tasty?
Meals On Reels is an Instagram archive documenting cinema’s most delicious meals. I love scrolling through, recognizing some scenes and discovering new movies to add to my watchlist. Be careful if decide to check it in between meals, because you might find that your stomach starts growling.
Fermenting Feminism is a compendium of speculative and literal writings made by artists who take the transformative properties of fermentation and turn them into empowering new ways of knowing and imagining the world around us. Bridging art and science, the human and the microbial, wellness and sickness, Fermenting Feminism wrestles with survival, symbiosis, and preservation through queer, disabled, and decolonial perspectives. If you’d like to learn more about the process behind this transdisciplinary project, I’d recommend reading editor Lauren Fournier’s article, “Fermenting Feminism as Methodology and Metaphor.”
The holiday season is always marked by dinner table gatherings, so it’s important to take a moment and reflect on the fact that many families are currently struggling to access food, squeezed between poverty, disinvestment, and a growing cost of living. There are three articles that I think are great introductions to this issue. The first is a report from the NRDC about what food apartheid looks like. The second is a piece from Teen Vogue about high prices and lack of food access on Native reservations. The last is a frustrating story from The 19th about the resurgence of student lunch debt.
Suzanne Cope’s fantastic essay about the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program is an important reminder that we shouldn’t accept our dysfunctional food system as-is and that we should always fight to create something better. This is an important history, that frankly, needs to be talked about more as we think about community-building and mutual aid. As Cope puts it, “The Panthers’ breakfast program addressed a dire need in communities around the country, but it and their other food justice program were always about more than feeding the hungry.”
In her piece, “Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts,” writer Crystal Wilkinson recounts her childhood in Appalachia through the meals by her grandmother. Dancing between the past and the present, as Wilkinson consults family members and recounts the rhythms of recipes, you see the way food becomes a kind of inheritance, a nourishing knowledge passed down through the generations. Wilkinson writes, “I know that women in my family have been kitchen ghosts for centuries.”
How could redesigning the kitchen transform the way we think of gender roles and domestic labor? That was the question at the heart of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen. Created by the first female architect in Austria in 1926, Schütte-Lihotzky reimagined this space as more productive and efficient, elevating its importance in the home. MoMA has a great article about the Frankfurt Kitchen and its legacy in feminist art practice and domestic design history, inspired by their 2011 exhibition Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen.
Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry” takes the consuming power of reading and transforms it into a monstrous hunger. i love how visceral his lyrical description is, the way the tension builds like the moment before a jump scare in a horror movie. “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth,” Strand opens deliciously, “There is no happiness like mine.”