[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
My parents arrived in the U.S. just before the 1979 revolution in their home country of Iran. Growing up during the “Iran-hostage” and “Iran-Contra” eras in the U.S., it wasn’t easy to access stories about my ancestors. But evidence of the colonization of the “new world” by white settlers was close to home and prevalent in school curricula. In the U.S., the mythology of immigration tends to stories that reinforce our national identity as a country of pioneers who came willfully from other parts of the world in search of a better life: a melting pot that assimilates and welcomes many cultures. However, histories of human movement are often more subtle and complex than the traditional notion of immigration that is so often repeated in our popular media.
I spent most of my childhood near the Atlantic Ocean, on what was once Powhatan land. My parents now live close to First Landing State Park, which commemorates the 1607 arrival of Europeans on the coast of southern Virginia. Since I was young, I have been interested in the stereotypes that develop from historical oversimplification. In the absence of reliable information about the Middle East, as a young person I was inspired by the history of the civil rights movement and the Black power movement in the U.S. Positive stories of people fighting against oppression and discrimination were a welcome antidote to the negative news coverage that characterized the U.S. conflict with Iran. As I became an adult, I began to understand how my identity as a light-skinned person of color is undeniably connected to countless other histories. It is with this in mind that I was inspired to start a project called GARLIC & GREENS as a part of my fellowship at Archeworks, a multidisciplinary design school in Chicago.
GARLIC & GREENS: accessible soul food stories is a project to encourage community dialogue about migration history and food heritage. As residents in a large city like Chicago, we are fortunate to have access to restaurants and markets that represent the foods of many different places. In this environment it’s easy to assume that epicurean tourism can educate us about the diversity of our world. Despite the popularity of food-inspired multicultural educational programs, the information conveyed can be limited or even misleading—disconnected from the human interactions that fostered particular food traditions and the ambiance of place in which the cuisine was originally created and enjoyed.
In French there is a term “terroir” that refers to the sense of place that characterizes regional foods. When we investigate the intersections of geography, regional agriculture, plant cultivation, and ethnobotany, the foods of our families and ancestors provide a pleasurable entry point to more specific and complex conversations about migration history. When I want to cook recipes that have been passed down in my family, it is a challenge to find ingredients like fresh fenugreek, dried Persian limes, angelica powder, and dried barberries. These are the kinds of plants I want to grow on my own because they are not readily available on supermarket shelves in the U.S.
As I considered these connections between gardening and family food traditions, I was working with a collaborative team at Archeworks on a site at the north end of Chicago’s Washington Park. Our multi-modal project included a toolkit for creating accessible community gardens for people with disabilities, gardening tutorials for people with aphasia, art therapy through garden activities, and a garden design for Dyett High School. I developed GARLIC & GREENS to further our commitment to providing public programs for people with disabilities, while focusing particularly on stories from African American residents who live in the neighborhoods around Washington Park.
Before thousands of immigrants arrived in the U.S. along the well-traveled route through Ellis Island, black Americans’ ancestors were brought to this country in bondage in the horrifying Middle Passage. Many of their descendants fled for freedom and later traveled in pursuit of greater opportunities in several waves known as the Great Migrations. People searched for a respite from racism and moved to pursue more abundant job opportunities in northern cities like Chicago. This human movement was accompanied by the journey of southern American food traditions including soul food ingredients like okra, garlic, beans, yams, and various dark leafy greens among others.
Inspired by this history, GARLIC & GREENS will offer public programs showcasing the intersections between migration history, food heritage, social justice, the arts, and disability studies. There are two lectures scheduled for summer 2011. The first is co-sponsored by Columbia College Chicago and Bodies of Work, a program on Disability Arts, Culture, and Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Disability and Human Development. It will take place on July 22nd at Access Living and it will feature Los Angeles poet, playwright, and performer Lynn Manning, performance artist Wannapa Pimtong-Eubanks, ensemble member with Erasing the Distance, and Alana Wallace, artistic director of Dance>Detour, a diverse-abilities dance company. Discussion will be moderated by René David Luna and vegan soul food served by Chef Tsadakeeyah.The second event will be on August 6th at the DuSable Museum of African American History. This is a family day at the museum and we will hear from renowned historian Timuel Black and author Audrey Petty, Associate Professor of in the Creative Writing program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Each lecture will be accompanied by refreshments to encourage conversation about the information presented.
In addition to attending the public events, anyone may volunteer to participate in the project’s oral history archive. During an audio recorded one-one-one interview, GARLIC & GREENS will pose informal questions such as: “What home-cooked dish is an important tradition in your family? How do you make it?” Others may share their stories through a call-in phone line at 312.8700.GNG.
The final product of the GARLIC & GREENS initiative will be a collection of stories highlighting food heritage contributed by Chicago residents. This book will feature tactile graphics: images meant to be touched that are designed specifically for an audience of readers with low or no vision. The GARLIC & GREENS project is making a special effort to reach audiences with low or no vision because African Americans are at a higher risk for sight loss from glaucoma, diabetes and hypertensive retinopathy. The good news is that these diseases can be prevented with a healthy diet and regular access to health care. GARLIC & GREENS will help participants make stronger connections between cultural heritage, culinary traditions, food access, and health and wellness.