Feeding diaspora

Commemoration and creative intervention: Chefs politicize space

Chef Reem Assil serving food at Mission Mercado.

Photo by Gary Stevens

Food is a multi-sensory experience that can transport us elsewhere.

When diasporic chefs create meals, they are creating moments of home to share with others. This act of sharing and consumption is then elevated through various strategies of intentional place-making.

Chefs have the power to perform creative interventions, not only through the foods they prepare, but also through the contexts they create. Every factor carries political weight: labour, ingredient sourcing, art, entertainment, design, community engagement and more.

It is a success in and of itself for BIPOC to unapologetically celebrate identity through food. There are countless diasporic chefs whose work also performs a more overtly politicized sense of space.

A Palestinian Muslim woman, chef Reem Assil is the owner of the Oakland restaurant Reem’s California. The restaurant proudly boasts a mural of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian leader who committed decades of work to helping immigrant women.

“As part of widespread attacks on Arabs and Muslims, particularly those vocal about Palestinian human rights, the US government targeted and arrested Rasmea in 2013 for a fabricated immigration violation,” Reem’s website states. Odeh was later deported in 2017.

Assil’s celebration of Odeh received significant backlash from zionists in the form of death threats, protests and negative restaurant reviews, but she continues to speak out and garner community support.

In addition to advocating for Palestinian liberation, Assil also signals toward other social justice issues. On the mural, Odeh’s kaffiyeh has a pin attached to it of Oscar Grant’s face – a young Black Oakland man killed by police in 2009 at the Fruitvale BART station, just across the street from Reem’s.

“Physical space matters,” Assil said in her keynote address at La Cocina food conference in April 2018.

“After visiting the Arab world, I was very inspired by how Arab street-corner bakeries played a role in being anchors in the community and which kept people rooted despite the political upheaval all around them … Many of us are forced to have to recreate our homes – that’s a tragedy right? – but how do we turn that into a privilege? The hope is that in creating physical space, we regain our sense of home and belonging.”

Assil’s creation of space is a gift to Oakland residents, and it is a gift to witness from afar.

Another socially engaged chef, Tunde Wey, is Nigerian-born and New Orleans-based. “I use food because food is what I do, but I also use food to comment on larger social questions, because there shouldn’t be any spaces that don’t contribute to the conversation,” he says.

In his 2016 dinner series, “Blackness in America,” Wey traveled across the United States, creating Nigerian food and facilitating conversations around racism, sexism, classism and police brutality. He found that many white people were uncomfortable sitting with the discomfort and wanted to come to a solution.

At Wey’s pop-up lunch counter, Saartj, he serves Nigerian food to People of Colour for $12, and he gives white people the option to pay either $12 or $30. This two-and-a-half times price difference accounts for the racial wealth disparity in New Orleans.

Wey told The Washington Post that over 80 per cent of white people paid the higher price. He reckons this could be because of social pressure or because of their ability to immediately respond to the wealth disparity statistic.

Like at Reem’s California, Wey commemorates one of his heroes through place-making. The name of his lunch counter, Saartj, honours Saartjie Baartman, according to The Washington Post. She was a South African woman in the early 1800s in Europe who was put on display because of her large buttocks.

Interventions such as Wey’s and Assil’s are many-layered, inviting a more politicized engagement through food. Like any other creative discipline, food carries potential for emotional encounters, resistance and home-making. There is transformative power here.

Christina Hajjar is a first-generation Lebanese-Canadian pisces dyke ghanouj with a splash of tender-loving rose water and a spritz of existential lemon, served on ice, baby. Catch her art, writing and organizing at christinahajjar.com or

Published in Volume 73, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 31, 2019)

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