When is the last time you cooked a meal for yourself and thought about the process? Do you cut the onions the way your mother taught you? Do you cook with the spices that used to fill the air at your grandparents’ house?
Stacey Tran has spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between food, family and identity. This trifecta is the foundation of her storytelling series, Tender Table, where women and nonbinary people of color gather to share stories and a corresponding meal. Event spaces are often set-up to replicate the feeling of a family dinner, and although tickets for the events cost money, the tickets are offered on a sliding scale and no one is turned away.
“I love to think of Tender Table as a healing space for people of color in Portland who maybe miss home and maybe aren’t able to find those foods that remind them of home,” says Tran.
The storyteller and Una Gallery director Mercedes Orozco is all too familiar with the challenge of finding a childhood staple in Portland. It took her years to come across epazote, an herb that’s found all over Orozco’s hometown of Mexico City. When she finally discovered epazote in the bulk section of the People’s Food Co-op, she was able to share her mixed feelings at Tender Table with others who might understand her experience.
“Epazote was a weed that grew in my backyard in Mexico City,” she says. “My mom would be cooking, and she would send us out in the yard to grab a couple leaves of it. So, to have to schlep all the way across town—and it’s so expensive—it really brings up that sensation of what being a person of color in Portland can be like.”
Leslie Stevenson, another storyteller, used her time at Tender Table to verbalize her frustration with the way the food that raised her family has been treated in American culture. Specifically, the story Stevenson tells is about kale and its classification as a superfood, which ignores its cultural history.
“Every superfood is somebody’s food they needed to live,” says Stevenson. “We need to honor the origins of these superfoods and not just reduce them to snack foods or smoothie fodder. We need to think of how we got them. Who’s been cooking them? What do I do with this? And if I don’t know, who do I ask?”
Stevenson credits a colonial attitude for the “reinvention” of superfoods like kale and says that heavy issues like the impact of colonialism come up frequently at Tender Table events.
Tran herself has been inspired to question how the colonizers of Vietnam influenced the dishes she grew up eating in her parents’ home. “I think of a Bánh mì, and I don’t want anyone to mess up my Bánh mì,” she says. “But that meal wouldn’t be possible without the French, so I think a lot about what we claim as ours.”
The next Tender Table is April 14 at In Other Words, and the storytelling series is celebrating its first birthday on April 15 with a dance party at Holocene.