The night ended with a song. And how fitting that it was not a farewell song but a welcome. Poet Ramona “Mona” Webb sang a bittersweet tribute to New Orleans. “Welcome to the Big Easy, baby.” She was closing out a night of spoken word put on by sfnoir as part of their ninth annual Black History Month Celebration. This year’s celebrations center on the contributions of African Americans to the culinary arts. But sfnoir executive director Herve Ernest was sure to point out that the exploration of the production of Black culture does not just involve Black participants. Jewish poet Josh Healey prefaced his set with a humorous reminder of the complicated ways culture and identity evolve through exchange saying that, though he happily accepted the invitation to be there last night, he first had to check that it was indeed an event put on by sfnoir for Black History Month. It was a light joke about a seriously interesting process.
I wish I could let the poets speak for themselves here, but it would be impossible to recreate the impact of last night. The poets each spoke about food in incredibly different ways, reminding us of what food can-and can’t-do. The poets included host Poetri, Lynne Alicia Elman, Joshua Merchant, and Kirya Traber as well as Josh Healey and Ramona “Mona” Webb. They might have mentioned foods we thought we were familiar with, eggplant or a lamb chop, but each artist presented the experience anew and used the medium of spoken word to do that in different ways. And so the second floor of the Museum of the African Diaspora became the site of that complicated process of cultural production, consumption, appropriation, modification, narration, and exchange. It happened between each poet, between each member of the audience. It sounds too simplistic right? That we could come to a nuanced appreciation of ourselves and others across cultural and personal lines over the course of a single night? But I have this suspicion that this is how it happens, measured in one night increments, in stanzas and lines. It happens when we listen to each other.
And this listening happens in a variety of ways. Josh Healey read a poem about seven years of vegetarianism and a single lamb chop at a friend’s barbecue. He built up the defense, the explanation of vegetariansim and then he slowly let it fall apart. Holes in the fortress came in the form of a stubborn bowl of grandma’s matzo ball soup. She insisted on using chicken broth because that was how she had always done it. And suddenly the bowl was transformed. She was not offering chicken broth with matzo balls and perhaps a few carrots, she was offering herself, her past, her present, and asking that her future be honored. So to say food is complicated is as useful as saying culture is complicated, but there is no other way to spin it. It’s up to us to work through these things, to articulate and narrate our own identities and to listen to and honor the narratives of others.
I’m not an aspiring spoken word artist but I am going to try to start recording my food memories, save them in a cookbook, and hand them down to my children with the family recipes. I encourage all of you to do the same. And if you need inspiration, be sure to check out the rest of sfnoir’s events including a Meet and Greet with vegan soul food chef Bryant Terry tonight 6pm-8pm at Marcus Books in the Fillmore and a Wine and Food Gala Saturday night 7pm-11pm at 101 Second St. to sample Caribbean, Soul, Cajun, Vegan, Southern, Creole, and African food.