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Food is a map. Meals are a bridge, a tool, that connects those most impacted by criminalization, underemployment, governmental surveillance and poverty. 

By Amber Butts

I didn’t receive my grandmother’s salmon croquette recipe until the end of her life. We have the same hands, our middle fingers curving right and left at the last knuckle. She coveted the recipe, sprinkling hints every now and again. “You can make delicious croquettes from a can” or “the fish should be oily, smelly, spread into itself.” 

On rare occasions I was invited to sit in the kitchen where she gingerly offered the patties to the hot skillet. The first time I remember this happening, I looked away, afraid. Now, I realize that fear neither came from the bubbling oil nor some concern that she’d get burned. 

I was a visitor witnessing an ancient, intimate, delicious moment. A sacred expression of trust and vulnerability. She was showing me something: relationships are built and sustained through food.

My grandmother could make four things successfully: salmon croquettes, french fries, rice and salads, which she slathered with bleu cheese dressing. We ate them readily. The others were less than ideal, tuna casserole left in the oven for too long, okra stew, hamburger helper. She was not a “good” cook by any stretch of the imagination, but she was always practicing. Always working towards remembering. In constant search of the right combination of flavors, textures, configurations. 

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The quest for and/or assertion of goodness is often an imposed measurement of white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy. These structures seek to intentionally impede cash poor Black women’s ability to forge relationships, self-govern/self-define, and make complex choices. Those pressures and conditions impact various areas of Black life, and they are especially concentrated in seemingly mundane places like the kitchen. 

The kitchen is where I was first radicalized. It is and always will be the place where I learned to listen. Kitchens don’t care about goodness. They care about stories, flavors, scents, life. The tiny kitchen in the multigenerational house I grew up in taught me about the world, about desiring goodness, and about the power of feeding our folks.

Here is what I learned:

Food recounts the path of things, how they’ve been shaped, who they’ve interacted with and sometimes, how time has passed through them. Culinary historians and cultural memory keepers are cartographers. They protect and preserve our foods and practices. This work often goes unrecognized and perhaps it should. Perhaps we can carry these legacies with love and tenacity. 

At the same time that we fight to preserve our food worlds and ecosystems, the eurocentric industrialized food system fights to replace those memories with monolithic, homogeneous, one dimensional narratives. Though Black, Brown and Indigenous communities have been building alternatives to industrialized food systems for centuries, our practices go largely unrecognized or co-opted. 

The criminalization of poverty has far reaching impacts that go beyond the specialized ways our foods are acquired and redistributed. Black food consumption and production are repackaged and reproduced to fit white and western cultural aesthetics. Exercises that were originally deemed barbaric, ghetto, unsafe, unclean and/or a mark of poverty, are now sold in grocery aisles and represented as delicacies.

Food costs and availability, especially in the Western hemisphere, are wholly dependent on what white folks do and do not value. Colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy have made billions of dollars forcing fatphobic propaganda down our throats. They’ve profited from the violence of connecting assumed eating habits to assessments of worth, goodness, attraction, productivity and health.

However, when we assert jurisdiction over our foods, we tap into the ancestral practices and procedures that have sustained us. By doing so, we challenge the violence of colonialism that requires our access points be singularly shaped by consumption, transaction and resource hoarding. 

The function of capitalism is to inject itself into everything. Our folks have always known that. I’ve learned that kitchens talk if you listen closely enough. Their walls are riddled with conversations, suggestions, and living.

I know now that my grandmother and aunts coveted recipes because they understood how white supremacy does its best to pervert the things we hold close by making them available to everyone, while at the same time shutting us out from accessing them. Sometimes the recipes stay in their heads and hearts because they know that at any moment, a house can be sieged. It can be burned. Its contents never to be seen again. 

Recipes are familial knowledge and medicine. They are practices in knowledge sharing and care. But sometimes those recipes and resources are exposed to folks who don’t respect them for what they are. A Black child can bring their lunch to school, made with a caretaker’s hands, and the smell which feels like home, is demonized. makes folks retreat and say things too ugly to repeat. 

Those tinctures that white witches are making, the aloe and sage they use to clean their bodies and spaces, the salve for achy bones. Those are our ancestral guides, fieldnotes and reservoirs. They are medicine, the equivalent of a hug, a revisited memory. 

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Black, Brown and Indigenous food scarcity isn’t accidental. When food is used as a tool to further the intentional neglect that the U.S. is famous for enacting on our communities, its presence and absence are always political. It is never neutral. And it is never just food.

The insertions and assertions on our foods, including the preoccupation with categorizing our food choices as good or bad, is endemic to the U.S.’ obsession with Black production. These function as markers of American exceptionalism and they crave terror. 

I think in all of these recipes shared, hoarded and protected, our folks were trying to tell us that food is a map. Meals are a bridge, a tool, that connects those most impacted by criminalization, underemployment, governmental surveillance and poverty. 

In 1969, the Black Panthers established their Free Breakfast for Children program which provided daily meals to thousands of children until the mid 70s. The program’s primary functions were to: (1) alleviate the hunger that affected children’s ability to function and to learn; and (2) serve as an organizing tool to start discussions about capitalism, racism, and the possibility of revolutionary change with both youth and adults.

Inspired by the work the BPP did to build autonomous, fed, fully functioning communities, Indigenous leaders formed The Red Power and The American Indian Movements. They instituted food programs and policies that enforced economic independence, restoration and recovery of land, and preservation of culture. Ensuring children receive the sustenance they need to survive is not a guarantee that has come from the U.S. government, especially as over 40% of homes in the Navajo Nation are without running water

When I follow my grandmother’s recipe, it isn’t just that I’m honoring her life and spirit. I’m recognizing the long legacy of Black food protectors who came before her. I’m committing to participating in communal initiatives around food justice. I’m doing the work of identifying what our ancestors ate and building new traditions of my own, to be passed down to descendants in whatever form is most accessible.

Recipes are portals, too. They are an investment in our futures and our pasts. They are a fuck you to a world that sees us as products that can be manipulated, extracted from and then renamed. They are a refusal of a world that claims we are no different than items in an aisle assumed to be owned and made by Black hands. 

This is why we guard recipes, food, and medicine with our lives.

Amber Butts is a storyteller, cultural strategist, and grief worker who believes that Black folks are already whole. Her work asks big and small questions about how we move towards actualizing spaces that center tenderness, nuance, and joy, while living in a world reliant on our terror. She is currently at work on an intergenerational speculative fiction novel.

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