Tender Table is a storytelling series about food. And yes, there are samples.
The idea is straightforward and yet open-ended: Gather together in a room and listen to a group of talented people of color talk about the way food has shaped their lives. Themes of scarcity, healing, guilt, colonization, pleasure, and abundance abound. Audiences are offered a small bite of the foods the performers discuss. "It's sort of reminiscent of going to Costco as a kid and getting the little sample," series creator and curator Stacey Tran says.
Tran has been running the series down in Portland since last February, but Tender Table makes its Seattle debut at 7 p.m. this Saturday at ZZZ, which is the studio in X Y Z Space occupied by Gramma Press.
The Seattle iteration of the event features three of the best writers in town: Poet Jane Wong (who just won the prestigious James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award), Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renée, and writer/visual artist Leena Joshi.
Wong plans to read sections from an excellent essay called "A Family Business," which appears in an anthology by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters called This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. She says it's about growing up in a Chinese takeout joint in a New Jersey strip mall, and also about a homestyle tomato and egg dish her mom would make for her but would never sell to the customers.
She told me she has mixed feelings about seeing the recipe for Chinese Stir-Fried Tomatoes and Eggs in the New York Times. "It's weird to even see a recipe for it—it's so homestyle," she said. "Plus, I'm worried white people will take this dish and make it fancy/bougie and then charge like $14 for it in a sleek-modern cafe!"
Anastacia-Renée plans to read all new poems about the mighty sweet potato pie. Does she believe, as I do, that sweet potato pie deserves the level of seasonal prestige that pumpkin pie currently enjoys? Yes, she does. "It's also more practical because you can make a sweet potato pie pretty much 24/7 if you wanted. Sweet potatoes are always in season and good," she said. Hear, hear.
She also plans to talk more generally about food and its relationship to culture. "I think food has a way of being an energetic memory portal for all people. It's the closest thing to traveling through a time warp," she said, adding that macaroni & cheese and sweet potato pie serve as her gustatory DeLoreans.
Finally, Joshi will read a "long poetic essay/casual story conglomerate of memory" about chai. "Not that sugary stuff you get in cafes here but like, actual Indian chai," she said. Though she says she could pick from "a deep and endless repository of extremely meaningful relationships" she's had with Indian food and the act of making it, chai turns out to be "a simple constant with a long memory palette."
In addition to being a platform for great storytelling, Tran hopes Tender Table works on a lot of different levels. She says she launched the series earlier this year in part because she felt the need for "more healing spaces, especially for people of color," due to the violent arrival of the current administration.
But it's also a personal project for her. As the daughter of two Vietnamese refugees, she says her parents taught her much of their stories and histories through food. Lately she's been thinking a lot about her love of the food her parents made, but also of her desire to fit in with the white kids at school and eat what they were eating. She recalls a deep love of Top Ramen, and an after-school habit of eating Kraft Singles over the sink.
The series also aims to raise awareness about the complex, intimate connections between people, food, family, and identity. White people who think they might be too full of their own guilt to sample the food and hear the stories should reconsider that thought, but they should also pay attention while they're in the room.
"I’m not thought-policing where you draw the line when it comes to cultural appropriation," she said after I confessed that I might be drowning in my own white guilt at this event. "We all have different capacities to embrace and respect other peoples’ cultures, and that's something that I want to promote with this."
"But it’s definitely something to think about," Tran adds. "It makes me pause and think when I’m about to go get food—'Is this place POC owned?' I would like to support POC businesses when I can. And there are also interesting conversations about this idea of safety. If Anthony Bourdain or Guy Fieri says it's okay to eat something, then you can eat it," but until then it's too funky or gross. See for reference: this incredible feature on eating bugs by the Stranger's Charles Mudede.
To those of you taking food advice from Guy Fieri: put down your Guy-talian Fondue Dippers and go to this event. To everyone else who thinks they're the only ones who walk around and think about food all day: go to this event and feel less alone.