How has Anna Murtaugh carried on the legacy of her mother in organizing communal meals? What conditions in her town make this possible?
Organize an intergenerational interview around family cooking and eating practices. For example, if you are a young person, interview your grandmother or someone of her generation to find out about their practices and how they have shifted over time.
Compare the different stories shared in this photo essay. What are the geographic conditions and cultural values that shape their eating practices?
Talk about your own daily practice of eating, how often you share cooking or eating with others.
Check out the Canada Food Guide. See what it says about the values of eating together and the suggestions it makes about how you can create more opportunities to share meals at home, at work, and in your community. Note that it recommends you put away distractions like TV and electronics. What challenges do you face in organizing the sharing of meals?
Plan a community potluck asking people to bring food that says something about their personal histories and/or cultural backgrounds. Share the stories behind the food.
What kind of rituals are used in your community around growing and eating food? Listen to “For the Wild Podcast” on rituals related to agriculture (from about 40-45 minutes)
Joshna Maharaj is a chef, author, and activist with big ideas for helping people make deeper connections with their food. Joshna has recently published her first book, Take Back the Tray: Revolutionizing food in hospitals, schools, and other institutions. She co-hosts the HotPlate podcast, hosts Kitchen Helpdesk, a weekly call-in show on CBC radio. Joshna is a two-time TEDx speaker, and was recently named a fellow at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
This collection of stories is like a roadmap, or a collection of signs, all pointing towards the need to make food and our relationship with it a more important part of our lives. The contexts, people, and times are different, but the thread through all of it is the deep value of connecting to good food and sharing it with others.
Something that really resonated with me was in the piece about cooking in the Yucatan in Mexico. One of the women in the group said: “each time we hold the corn dough and make a tamale, we are reminded of our ancestors”. I love this idea of lineage, and that food is what enables connection to the ancestors. I was instantly reminded of the spluttery excitement of green chiles and cumin seeds blistering in hot oil as the base of so many of the dishes made in my Indian family’s kitchen. As a child, it was the promising sound and smell of something delicious being cooked.
As an adult who now cooks like this in my own home, and in professional kitchens, every time I drop spices and chiles into hot oil I feel that spluttering invoking every other dish or pot of curry I’ve made this way. I do it (mostly) the way my mom did it, which was (mostly) the way my grandmother and great grandmother did it. And somehow, as I’m standing over that oil, blistering chiles and roasting spices, they are all there with me. It’s wonderful that simple things like turning on the stove, or, adding water to masa to make dough are what open the door to welcome our ancestors in.
After reading this piece and sitting with some of the stories, I was grateful for the beautiful reminder about how food and our relationship with it is about so much more than putting calories in the tank. In my work in public institutions, this is something I’m constantly talking about. Once you shift your perspective, and understand that our relationship about food is about our connection to the goodness and nourishment from the earth, the way you grow, cook, and serve food will change in a significant way. I want to change the attitude behind the meals served in hospitals, schools, and prisons. I want to open up the connection available through good food for everyone, particularly those who are healing, learning, and rebuilding.
What I love so much about this photo essay is the resounding invitation back to the table. I too have been thinking about what Chandra describes as “the collective impacts resulting from the loss of this practice” during the pandemic. Yes, many people ate more family meals at the table than ever before in their lives, but many other people ate more meals alone than ever before as well. One of the most fundamental questions of this moment, as vaccines are giving us all hope that the end is near, is what has happened while we were all away from the table, away from each other? And how will we learn to be together again? I’m not entirely sure how this will happen, but I am 100% positive that more time around a tableful of good food with good people is the right way to start.
I want to invite you into a conversation about the table as a colonial imposition. In so many cultures around the world, people cook and sit to share food on the ground, with no table in sight. In fact, here in North America, there are many cultural images of the hostility of the table, where indigenous people were forced to sit to participate in a thanksgiving meal that was not quite as full of gratitude as it should have been. I’m starting to realize that spinning dreams around the table might not be as full of good feelings for everyone.
Deborah: I grew up in the 1950s in a rural farming community in the United States, where we sat down to dinner as a family. As, and as a community, we often gathered in the Grange Hall or the church basement for potluck suppers. Everyone would bring a home-cooked dish, often made of fresh vegetables from their gardens, farm-raised animals, fruit from their orchards or berries gathered in the woods abetting their fields.
A new Food Guide issued by the Canadian government in 2019 proclaimed: “Healthy eating is more than the foods you eat. It is also about where, when, why and how you eat.” It suggested involving others in planning and cooking meals, integrating cultural and food traditions into healthier eating, and eating meals with others.
Stories about sharing food together abound in the Earth to Tables Legacies project. The project is framed by the complementary passions of Dianne, a settler farmer who focuses on growing food, and Chandra, an Indigenous community food leader, who focuses on the kitchen table as a site of deep cultural meaning, sharing good food, nurturing healthy bodies and good minds, and building community. From the start of our exchange, Chandra has been emphasizing the collective impacts resulting from the loss of this practice and inviting us back to the table.
Chandra: Sometimes food itself and the eating of food gets lost in the context of the larger discussion of the food system. We forget that at the end of the day, it comes down to what’s on your table, what’s on your plate and what’s going to go inside your belly. And that we are eating it with people we like, with our family, or with whomever we’re calling our family at that point.
The wicked question is: What did you feed your kids today and what did you talk about? Family and food around the table taps into childhood memories, and a lot of people don’t have those childhood memories anymore. Food pushes people’s buttons, because it is life itself. It can stir up a lot of things for people. As you go further back into your family and collective cultural history, there are other issues. Particularly if you are in the Americas, there is the pre-colonial and colonial legacy that includes food.
The beauty of living in a communal longhouse style pre-contact was that you knew where your next meal was coming from, because they had a lot of food stored. That’s why the community and culture were able to thrive, and they had the time to be artists and deep thinkers. When you have that level of food security, you can get on with your life.
It’s different when you are hunting and gathering every single meal. That’s a really big difference in how Haudenosaunee people were living at the time of European arrival. They had a thriving culture because of food, because of the diversity of food available and their storage practice. This allowed them to stay in one place. And they were also able to have this deep political philosophy based on the good mind.
“They had a thriving culture because of food, because of the diversity of food available and their storage practice.”
But how do you feed a good mind? With good food! I’d love to see that happen again. But it happens rarely these days; it’s rare that I go to a function and am happy with what my kids are eating.
After 400 years of contact, the issues are around not being able to grow food. It’s trying to convince people why they should grow food or go to the local health food store and buy good food instead of going to Tim Horton’s or McDonald’s. There’s a big gap between Indigenous thought and philosophy, on the one hand, and Indigenous People and how they eat, on the other.
We’re seeing the history of residential schools brought to life, and understand how they separated people from the land and fed them bad food. If education and food can be used as a weapon, to take away culture, to harm, then the opposite must be true: education and food can also be used to relearn the good way, to live a good life.
I’m trying to take a practical, realistic approach. We have big social gatherings in this community where food is present all the time. I’m trying to make sure that every time we gather, we are cooking food that is a little bit better. The way I can do that is to be the go-between for what people like Dianne do – growing food – and what people eat.
I try to get my family to do some mindful eating, so we’ve had many different rituals at our table. And one that our 6-year-old came up with is that we all hold pinkies, and we take a nice deep breath together and we’ll just say: “Nya:wen tsi enskatne tentewa’tska:hon” (or “We are thankful that we are eating this food together”). And that’s both with our family and when others are here at the table with us.
My interest in eating psychology led me to the realization that when you slow down before you eat, it helps the nervous system to slow down so that you digest food better. So that’s what I’m trying to teach my girls. It’s not just hovering around the table, scarfing it down, and running away. Eating together is something we do every day, at least once a day, if not more. It’s really important to me.
Deborah: At the potluck dinners in my rural community in the 1950s, there was always a wonderful array of food spread out buffet style. We would line up to fill our plates with contributions from many different families.
While restaurant and take-out meals have come to dominate urban eating experiences, the potluck tradition is practiced by small pockets of people, whether food-conscious young people or members of the dwindling number of farming communities. The tradition is well and alive, for example, in rural Quebec.
Legacies collaborators Anna and Adam live in the small coastal community of New Carlisle in the Gaspé region of Quebec. They have organized community meals with other vendors in their Farmers Market. In 2016, over 25 people gathered at the Community Centre for a Thanksgiving dinner. The turkeys raised by Anna and Adam were central to the menu, and their preparation was a collective effort.
Anna was influenced by her mother, Elizabeth Harris, famous for the community meals that she organized in their downtown Toronto neighbourhood where Anna grew up.
Deborah: Every time that we visit Legacies collaborators Fulvio and Maria in the autonomous Indigenous community of Nurio in Michoacán, Mexico, we experience the tradition of the fiesta and feast, and in particular, the collective cooking and communal eating that accompanies any special event. In early 2019, we witnessed the importance of food in one of a series of pre-wedding events, celebrating their son Jorge and his bride Belen. Jorge’s sister Serena explained to us the different food traditions in the ‘agradicimiento’ or ‘thank you’ ceremony.
Serena: The agradicimiento ceremony is held after the bride has lived for a few months with the groom’s family and proven herself compatible and capable of managing a household. Jorge’s mother was joined by other women to cook an enormous pot of morisqueta (rice with meat and tomato sauce), which she served to all her relatives (over 100) as they were gathering outside her house, accompanied by a brass band.
The previous day, my parents had gone to town to buy the food they will present to Belen’s family. They filled a couple of pick-up trucks to the brim with bags of fruit (oranges, bananas), baskets of bread, and pastries to be delivered to the bride’s family.
My family served each relative as they arrived, gathering outside the house, waiting to go in a parade to the bride’s house. They also brought wine to offer to the bride’s extended family. When they finished eating in the groom’s house, the women danced in the streets with a band, while the men walked behind. They are followed by the trucks filled with fruit and bread, which then get deposited into the kitchen of the bride’s house.
The offering of bread comes out of the Catholic tradition. With the bread, you are thanking the whole community for receiving the new bride or groom into the family. It’s a commitment from the community that they will support the couple and that they will never go hungry.
“They work collectively to make these large meals. It’s a social experience for them, in the kitchen.”
At the bride’s house, women have gathered in the kitchen to cook chicken mole for the feast. Every woman contributes some particular skill. They work collectively to make these large meals. It’s a social experience for them, in the kitchen. They fill containers with the cooked food for all of those who helped to take home to their house.
In front of the bride’s house, all the groom’s relatives eat at long tables. The bride’s family sits along the wall or inside the house. There might be as many as 300 people.
It’s a big investment for both families. There are many fiestas like this every year – maybe 30. In all the fiestas they share large meals with everyone. They have lots of food for three days.
Fernando: In talking with Chandra at her table (in 2016), I understood something that is really important that I hadn’t realized. What’s she’s doing is really important for farmers who are trying to do things in the right way. Because finally who has the last word is the consumer. If all the consumers agree how and what they want to eat, that will force the food system to change.
That kind of inspires me. Since I’m doing urban agriculture in Guadalajara, I thought that maybe the best way to promote agriculture for people in the cities is to share the food with them.
We need to try to stop the rhythm of life for a few minutes and show them how they can cook more nutritious vegetables and share what they’ve grown.
Eating food is part of farming for me. From Chandra, I realized that that’s my passion, that’s why I like farming. But it’s not something that I had focused on. I want to get the food finally to a plate that I can share with people I love, in a moment that I can enjoy with music, good wine, good friends, and great food. That’s the whole meaning for me. I’m looking forward to making some changes in the way I’m doing things right now.
Dianne connects with the soil, and works outside. Chandra is inside, at the kitchen table. They’re the two ends of the process.
Dianne connects with the soil, and works outside. Chandra is inside, at the kitchen table. They’re the two ends of the process. Chandra would not be able to do what she does if there are not farmers like Dianne. And Dianne would not be able to sell anything, to be farming if there were not conscious people like Chandra who really appreciate what she does. That’s what I’m trying to bind together – both parts. So I organized a communal meal in our garden with the students who had taken my classes on growing food in their own backyards.
Deborah: For ten days in January 2020, John and I shared daily life with Angel and Valiana, Legacies collaborators, in Valiana’s hometown of Sinanche, an hour from Yucatan’s capital Merida, and 15 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. We were honoured that they spent a day preparing tamales for us that are typically cooked in the ground for the Day of the Dead celebrations in October/November.
Valiana: Our culture is very rooted in la comida (food); it is the centre of our lives, it is who we are. La comida is not just something you eat, it carries the memories of our abuelos/as (elders). Each time we hold the corn dough and make a tamale, we are reminded of our ancestors.
Angel: This form of cooking in the earth is a legacy our ancestors left us. Today we prepared Pip (buried food); it’s what we offer to the dead on November 1. The tamales we wrap in banana leaves represent the people who are no longer here. What’s inside represents the blood, the meat, the bones. To bury the food is an act of returning to who we are; we are of the land, and one day we will return to the land.
“It’s the spirit of the space that we connect not only with the planting and harvesting of food, but also with the art of cooking and the art of eating together.”
Valiana: We really like to cook together, with others. It’s the spirit of the space that we connect not only with the planting and harvesting of food, but also with the art of cooking and the art of eating together.
Angel: We call those who are already there to come again to eat with us at our table. We offer the food to the dead first, so they can eat before us. It’s a sacred moment.
La comida is an act of resistance. What we did today confronted a system that says to cook in this way and to eat this food is backward, is the way of poor Indians. But no, our comida is very rich. To make these tamales reconnects us with our past and our ancestors. To bury the food, to cook in the earth is to connect again with the earth.
When Chandra hosted a gathering of Legacies collaborators at Six Nations in Ontario in July 2019, she created an opportunity for us to cook together in a communal kitchen, learning how to make cornbread from Bonnie Sky. This was not only a fun activity that stimulated informal conversations, but one that gave all of us a sensory and visceral understanding of this staple food for Haudenosaunee cuisine.
Each of the stories above speaks to the importance of commensality, or gathering around the table to share a meal, and to reclaim cooking as a cultural practice.
There are many different kitchens and tables in the diverse cultural context of the Legacies exchange. Each of the stories above speaks to the importance of commensality, or gathering around the table to share a meal, and to reclaim cooking as a cultural practice. And more than that, to the importance and power of building community through food.