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Ode to my Father and my brother…

February 3, 2011

I’m cooking as fast as I can!

big brother and little sister in the Tenderloin National Forest

A week and a half ago, I found myself cooking for one food party after another and no sooner than I finish washing my trusty pot that I cook my stews in does Julie Phelps and Keith Hennessey call me and ask me if I can come cook for 150 people at the amazing marathon performance they produce at Dance Mission called, Too Much!
What do I say? Hell yeah!
I had a blast… There were performances happening in the theater, in the hallway and a stellar line up of performers had been doing their thing all day long. Around 6pm we set up the small dance studio at Dance Mission with Table cloths on the floor with candles and soft lighting, and I had folks line up for Recession stew, rice and Jamaican coconut cornbread. We encouraged folks to share dishes and eat together…It was beautiful…no one ate alone…and that line went on forEVER! I think it was the first time I scraped that pot bare!!!! It was so beautiful to see everyone huddled up together on the floor, sharing food, sopping up stew with their cornbread…

Somehow, I always have energy to cook…it is feeding me…deeply…
Even if you don’t get a chance to really talk to folks when you cook or serve them food, you do get to feel them…
This experience makes me understand my papa a little more. Any time we had family gatherings he would rarely come out of the kitchen, preferring to stay cooking and washing the dishes while everyone was in the dining room or breakfast room talking. We would complain that he wasn’t engaging in conversation with us, not part of the discussions…but I think this was his way to connect to everyone all at once. Maybe he understood that his tasty Barbecue Chicken inspired our conversations. Or that his traditional new year’s Blackeyed peas, neckbones, Greens and Cornbread was what was bringing us together in the first place .
This is how we enjoyed him the most. He loved to cook for people…never a great conversationalist but always a phenomenal cook. My Papa doesn’t cook anymore…dementia has robbed him of that ability…but when my family gathers, he still ends up in the kitchen. He still likes washing dishes…                                                              and we love that he is here…

I have definitely inherited from my papa the joy of listening to the conversations of others while they eat the food I make. I don’t need to be active in these conversations..I am present in other ways…

Family is blood is community is nourishment is food is love..

This whole process is bringing me closer to both my blood family and my community. I am getting to know folks I have known in this bay area community for years in a whole new way. As my friend DJ Carlos Mena said to me recently, “A friend is not a friend until you share a meal together”.. this is so true

And this process has brought my brother Darryl and I together to collaborate for the first time. Darryl is the co founder, director and curator and I say, tireless visionary of The Luggage Store Gallery along with his partner, Laurie Lazer. We have been collaborating on this monthly Potluck food party called, Fresh from the Oven that we do one Saturday a month in the Tenderloin National Forest. This food party has been a profound experience for both of us. We are both really committed to having folks come together who might not normally intersect and the diversity of the community who comes through these events has been amazing.. I talked about this in the last blog so I won’t repeat myself about the last event. But I really didn’t mention in the last blog how Darryl and the Luggage Store make magic with all that they do and how this event we are coming together on has been inspiring both of us to continue this tradition as long as possible…

Come to the next one if you can. It’s on Saturday, February 19th from 1-4pm in the Tenderloin National Forest( 509 Ellis @ Leavenworth St., SF). As always, we will be serving up home cooked food, Arizmendi pizzas baked in the brick oven and this time local spoken word performing artists Aimee Suzara and Ramona Webb will host guest artists who will be sharing spoken word on the themes of Love, war and uprising. Aimee’s sister Aileen will share some yummy vegetarian Filipino cuisine and stories about food.  Luggage Store artist in residence,  Minori Yata will have an art installation in the gallery next to TL Forest that will be open for view as well. These food parties are always free and potluck but no one ever turned away for lack of food

Come get some nourishment in many forms…

Red beans and ricefully yours,

Amara T. Smith, Daughter of Clarence Smith, Baby sister of Darryl Smith

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In a recession, you gotta have stew…..

January 27, 2011

I have to say…there is so much going on, I’m having a hard time keeping up in these posts!

For the last 2 weeks it’s been about recession stew. Recession stew is a creation of mine that was inspired by the way my mama would take random left overs and hold overs in the fridge and make magical meals.

I’ve been cooking up my stew at various locales over the last couple of weeks; fed it to the beautiful young people at Mission High School a week and a half ago and most recently, at Fresh from the Oven, the monthly food party I’m throwing down along with my brother Darryl in the Tenderloin National Forest. That day was beautiful; it was the first warm day after a period of cold and wet bay area weather. I cooked up my recession stew along with some rice, Darryl baked pizzas donated generously from Arizmendi Bakery, DJ fflood was spinning righteous music, Michael Swaine had his sewing machine set up and was sewing for the people like he does the 15th of every month and the day was topped off by the official opening of Luka, the newest mural in the TL National Forest created by Chad Hasegawa. The beauty of this day was the intersection of beautiful folks. There were kids, folks from the neighborhood, good friends, family, art lovers, food lovers and folks who heard the music, smelled the food and were drawn in…

The stew stayed nice and warm on my trusty hot plate (that goes with me everywhere these days!) and folks just hung out! I love how a home cooked meal makes people relax, even if they are in an unfamiliar setting and don’t know anyone else. Tara brought an amazing vegan split pea soup and her daughter Eleanor made a slammin’ cake! Yuko showed up later in the afternoon with a platter of fresh fruit and edamame that was so beautiful folks were taking pictures right and left! Needless to say after the picture taking, that platter emptied out pretty quick!

Then this past Sunday I made Recession Stew for over 100

Recession Stew

yukos beautiful platter

folks at Too Much! the marathon performance event that Keith Hennessy and Julie Phelps produced over at Dance Mission. I cooked up the stew along with rice and Jamaican Coconut Cornbread. We set up table cloths on the floor in one of the dance studios and encouraged people to share plates which most people did. It was beautiful to look around the room and see people huddled together sharing a warm dish…this is part of my mission to make sure when people eat my food, they do not eat alone (see my previous post on this issue).

The point of all of this is simple. I call this dish Recession stew because like I learned from my mother, you can make magic with what ever you have..it doesn’t take much…it’s all in your intention…

There are more food parties to come…

Come get fed some magic…

Red beans and ricefully yours,

Amara

Trying to hold on to the magic of Africa….

January 18, 2011

students making salad dressing @ Mission High

The most beautiful salad-EVER!

It’s been almost 2 weeks since I left Senegal..every day in Senegal I ate 3 meals a day. Everyday, 3 times a day, we stopped everything else so we could eat ( I say we because I never ate alone there). Whether it was Adama’s cooking that we ate everyday at L’ecole des Sables where I was studying dance, or with my brother and sister in law and their family’s house…I ate 3 meals a day that nourished my soul. Since being back from Africa, I was only able to cook for myself for the first few days…

and then the stress and dysfunction of this society started to take hold.  I don’t like cooking and eating alone. It feels so wrong and sad to me. So I don’t do it. Fortunately for me, this past week I have been cooking for other people. This past week it has been all about recession stew. Recession stew is a yummy (so I’ve been told) stew that I created a few years back. It’s made in the spirit of Stone soup. Besides a few core ingredients, everything else can be whatever veggies you have in your kitchen. The inspiration for Recession stew will be written about in a blog to come soon.

So as I was saying, I have been able to eat my own home cooking when I have made this stew at a few food events this past week.

It started last Thursday morning. I got up at 5:30am (easy for me to do when I know I’m gonna feed somebody) and made the stew for the economics class at Mission High School where Mary ann Brooks teaches. Mary ann is a dope peformer and food activist who works for Pie Ranch and teaches at Mission High. She invited me to come cook and talk about food and my work as a choreographer with her class. I brought my recession stew that I cooked earlier that morning, some rice and some salad dressing ingredients to be prepared in class. Mary ann brought some locally grown salad fixings grown at Pie Ranch. When I arrived we set up in the class room the pot of stew, rice and some cutting boards, salad bowls and a station to make salad dressing. After introductions, we had students write about one of the most memorable meals they ever had. Some of these stories brought tears to my eyes. One story in particular was by a student named Sandi. She talked about being 10 years old and cooking Pansit with her dad, one of her favorite dishes and how eating this dish which was only cooked by her dad on special occasions, connected her to her Filipino roots.

After the students told stories, they took a field trip to the bathroom to wash their hands. Then they got cooking. Maryann and I had them cut veggies for the salad and I set up a table with ingredients for a salad dressing and told them to work together to make a tasty dressing for the salad. It was beautiful. Everybody was engaged. Cutting, tasting and critiquing the dressing (“more oil, too much vinegar”, etc.). At the end, there was a most colorful and beautiful salad and a dressing that was so good, I wish I had been watching more closely so I could see how it was made! We then served up the stew, rice, salad with the crazy good dressing! As we sat around eating I asked students to reflect on this day; what were some thoughts that came up for them. One young man proclaimed, “we need to do this every day”…yes, I thought, we all do….

That night I made more recession stew for Release; a dance party hosted by my dear friend Dj fflood and Cecil at Paradiso in Oakland. This dance party happens every Thursday by the way, from 9-2am. No cover. The music is off the chain! And there is food, sometimes cooked by me, sometimes others..

Then came Saturday when I made more recession stew for Fresh from the Oven; a monthly food party that takes place outside in the Luggage Store’s Tenderloin National Forest at 509 Ellis in SF. The weather was beautiful. I made stew and rice. Darryl baked pizzas that were generously donated by Arizmendi Bakery. There is so much to say about this last food party that I will hold off for the next blog (coming in a few days)…

Which brings me back to Africa. What is the connection you ask? It’s all about community and family. I have no desire to cook for myself only. Part of what nourishes me and brings me joy is cooking for others, sharing a meal for others. When I was in Africa, I never saw anyone eat alone, ever. It may happen but I never saw it. So, I am asking myself  how I will attain the well being that I experienced in Senegal- here in the stressful, time deficient lifestyle that has been my reality here in the USA. One way is to keep having food parties where I can feed others and in doing so, feed myself. Look for more food parties to come….

Red beans and ricefully yours….

Narass ak jamm (digest in peace)

January 9, 2011

Well, it has definitely been awhile since I last posted…I have been on a journey with this food project that has taken me to the Republic of the Congo, New Orleans twice (I may be going back), several food parties in and around the SF bay area and most recently to Senegal from where I just returned  less than 3 days ago. This last journey has been the most profound for me in so many ways but what I am clear about is this-
It is not only WHAT we eat but HOW we eat that will determine whether our food is making us healthy or sick…nourishing us or keeping us feeling empty. It doesn’t matter if I am eating a bowl of freshly cooked organic greens purchased from the local farmer’s market over a mound of organic Quinoa. If I am eating them while sitting at my computer, driving my car or being otherwise distracted as has become the norm in US culture, I am not eating well..I am not respecting my food nor my body and I will not- as they say in Wolof-
digest in peace.

I arrived in Dakar, Senegal early in the evening of December 16. My brother in law Demba met me at the airport and the first thing we did when we got back to the apartment in Yoff ( a neighborhood in Dakar) was sit down to a meal…we eat family style and with our hand…the right hand specifically. Demba is a Baye Fall- one of the mystics/mourids of the islamic faith. It is tradition that you eat with your right hand and handle your bathroom business with the left.

The whole family sat down together on the floor and we ate Chebujen- the national dish of Senegal which consists of fish (jen) potatoes, african yams, carrots, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, garlic and spices. It is a stew served over rice. Getting the technique of rolling the food in my hand before putting it in my mouth and not making a mess was a challenge!
There were six of us around that huge round platter- Demba, myself, Mame Marie, Fatima, Aminata and Mara- all eating quietly and being well fed. Mame Marie had been cooking the Chebujen as we walked into the house.

After dinner Demba and I went to the roof and he talked to me about how you eat in Senegal. Senegal is a predominately Muslim country and though all Muslims in Senegal don’t eat with their hand, it is very common in Baye Fall households.
Demba talked about how eating with your hand stimulates more efficient digestion. In the way that we know chewing stimulates the digestive juices, eating with your hand further increases that stimulation. It made so much sense. I found myself eating slower and much less than I usually do and I was so satisfied. Many times when I eat food that is so delicious (and that Chebujen was damn good!), I will eat even after I feel full. I did not have that desire in Senegal…not once in my whole trip…
I asked Demba if there was a prayer that was said before eating since I noticed him say something I didn’t understand but it was short and quick. He said that you say one thing before you eat-

bismiallah- by the grace of god

and at the end of a meal the person who prepared the meal says-

Narass ak jamm…Digest in peace…
This moved me to tears
and this was only day one.

“Home Cookin'” Food Party @ CounterPULSE was deep…

October 27, 2010

So this past Sunday it was raining in the Bay Area. Cold and wet.

But that afternoon at CounterPULSE in San Francisco, an intimate crew of folks braved the rain, brought food, shared stories and ate together. The topic was, “what are the factors that support or prevent us from cooking meals on a regular basis”.  What I am finding about food is, no matter what the topic might be, the food will direct the path of discussion.

Most of the stories centered around the foods we grew up with. Travis talked about his grandma’s marinara sauce and how her special ingredient was brown sugar added to the sauce. His story was sweet and loving and I could feel his grandma’s love for him in his story. Chika brought these delicious Croquettes that she made and shared the story of how her grandmother used to make them for her in Japan. Joe told a story about southern cooking that was hilarious and alarming but a little too controversial for me recount here (you had to be there!). I learned a great deal about food, something I never cease to be amazed at as I continue to hear these personal stories, folklore about food in our families and communities.

But the biggest revelation was something I learned about my own food folklore that I hadn’t realized until that day.

Ellen, who is directing my piece, “Our Daily Bread”, asked me about my recession stew. This is a stew I created a couple of years ago. She asked me if the stew I created was inspired by the time I spent in Brasil. I thought about it for a moment but realized as much as I love eating and cooking Brasilian food, I knew that the stew wasn’t connected to that experience.  I wasn’t sure what inspired the creation of that stew.  And then it came to me.

My parents divorced when I was around 11 years old. Up until that time, my mother was a stay at home mom and both she and my father were great cooks. When my parents separated and I went to live with my mother, she started to work and wasn’t home regularly to cook food. In fact, she didn’t even shop for food on a regular basis at that point.  The combination of working and struggling to make ends meet meant that there were many times when dinner was a combination of what ever ingredients happened to be in the cupboard and refrigerator.  These dishes often did not have names but were improvised. And they always tasted GOOD!

What I realized Sunday when pondering Ellen’s question was that my recession stew was inspired by the improvisational/survival skills of my mother- who could take a little of this, scraps of that and make a delicious feast. It is in this spirit that I created Recession Stew which many of the ingredients can change based on what is in your kitchen.  It doesn’t take much to fill the belly of a cash strapped hungry person- just a willingness to improvise and a lot of love.

Eat well and stay tuned for more opportunities to break bread together and share stories…it is a nourishing revolution…

Let’s get Cookin’!

October 4, 2010

well this is my first post….a long time comin’ but those of you who know me know that I can be a bit slow with these things…but I am getting on it..I am getting over my resistance to technology!

For the next year my blogs will be focusing on the development of my piece, “Our Daily Bread” which will premier next April at CounterPULSE…and the journey that this piece is taking me on is already soooo deep…

Most recently, I cooked for folks who were taking Rashad Pridgen’s (AKA Soul Nubian) AfroHouseHop class at Dance Mission this past Saturday. I made my recession stew and rice for the students who joined me in the Dance Mission lobby glowing from a fantastic class which I forced myself not to take (I am nursing an injury). The energy in class had been bumpin’ due to the incredible energy of Mr. Pridgen and the amazing musical magician DJ Carlos Mena who was spinning live and throwin’ it down for the class.

Anyhow, (forgive me because I come from a lineage of story tellers who go on long tangents!) the dancers joined me in the lobby and I fed them stew and they fed me stories about food…

The power of coming together and eating cannot be understated…and more importantly, the power of coming together to eat HOME COOKED food cannot be measured..it is that deep, and unfortunately rare..DJ Carlos Mena made a powerful statement when he said, “A friend does not truly become your friend until you share a meal together”…so true…

I am going to be making meals (and hopefully friends) over this next year to many folks in sometimes random and spontaneous places because people need to be fed for real…look out, here I come!

On that note, the next scheduled food party is going to go down at CounterPULSE on Sunday, October 24th from 2-4pm. Food parties are usually free and always potluck though no one is ever turned away for lack of food. The focus of this food party will be to dialogue about how we can eat home cooked meals more often and what are the factors that support or prevent us from doing so. These food parties are homespun and relaxed so just come as you are but more importantly-COME. I will always be making a dish to share and I’ve been told that my food is kinda good!

CounterPULSE is on Mission and 9th in San Fran.

Eat well,

Amara

Hello world!

September 17, 2010

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