Between folds of fufu, phở and stews are stories as rich and layered like the flavors found in the dozens of culinary dishes served at this week’s, Tender Table.
An event fusing storytelling and food, Tender Table features women, trans, and nonbinary folks who are Black, indigenous, or people of color to provide narratives about the sweet, savory, sour, and bitter relationships to food and its connections to identity, memory, and community.
Chef Cassandra Loftlin, America’s Top Kitchen chef on Holland America cruise line and food and culture writer for Ark Republic, participates in this round of sharing memory and cuisine. She says “I will discuss the bitter, sweet, and salty journey of how I became a chef which includes the small and large life events that set me on the path to culinary school.”
Loftlin, reared in Augusta, Georgia, chose black-eyed peas and butter beans with cornbread—a southern comfort food—to tell her story. “I chose this dish because in the application process, one of the questions is, ‘If you could only eat one meal forever, it would be?’” Explains Loftlin.
“And my response was, “my grandmother’s black-eyed peas and butter beans with cornbread.” It was and still is a staple in my family and represents who I am as a chef [which is] locally sourced, fresh ingredients, cooked in a historical context.”
An anthropologist who studies culture and food, Loftlin focuses on how foods evolve with the natural growing seasons of produce and the production of fish and meats. “With traveling all over the world and seeing people’s food culture, there is a way that we learn about culinary traditions and still respect it, but also enjoy its richness,” she says.
Loftlin who also is committed to preserving southern foodways and traditions, tells a story about her experiences with someone else’s culinary heritage. “I asked a famous chef once for a recipe for what he called ‘Asian Pork Ribs.’ He graciously shared the recipe and when I thanked him, I mentioned that I was surprised he shared the ingredients for the dish. He responded by saying, ‘What you don’t realize yet as a young cook is that you are the recipe…the recipe is you.’ I have never forgotten that. By cooking you honor and express yourself and that is what people enjoy and appreciate.”
Created by Portland poet, Stacey Tran, Tender Table emerged from her noticing how conversation often interlocked around food. With the two, narratives of food and the stories from them showed Tran how culture could be preserved and passed on when both of them are present. Reared in the Pacific Northwest by Vietnamese parents who fled the Vietnam war, Tran started the event to expand her experiences and interests of food and conversation.
At Tender Table, while storytellers detail their accounts, the audience enjoys small bites of their food. The idea caught such a fire that the event has been put on in Seattle, New York City, Providence, Rhode Island and San Jose, California. This week, it is in Portland, Maine with over 80 presenters rolling out dishes for several days.
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