I grew up in Washington, D.C., where my father, Howard Kitchener, who grew up on a farm, always had a summer kitchen garden. When I think about home, I think about eating a homegrown tomato in the summertime with salt and pepper. When I went away for college, I traveled across the whole country to Los Angeles—no one in my family had ever lived west of Mississippi—and my parents sent me a box of homegrown cucumbers along with sourdough bread my father had made with a 100 year old sourdough starter. I think about that time and remember sitting down with that bread and cucumbers, making cucumber sandwiches, and feeling loved.
There is a genre within folklore called ‘foodways’ that involves all the customs around the preparation, consumption, and display—the whole system—of traditional food practice. In this special issue of The New Moon, we explore the mental and physical health benefits of cultural and traditional food practices and what happens when we draw on our cultures to practice the most basic elements of preparing a meal. Whether we talk about small businesses and the original pop-up restaurant, street vendors, and the farmer’s marketplace, or about family, or about healing and prevention, the values around traditional food helps bring meaning and sustainability to our food practices.
One of the things that the three essays in this issue of The New Moon does so eloquently is to point out how Californians have so many repositories of knowledge and practice that relate to the cultivation and root meaning of food, and the power of drawing upon bearers’ of traditional foodways wisdom.
Each one of us has these experiences with foodways that are deep inside, and they come from generations of knowing about what is really good for us. If you don’t have the internal place to remember and make and celebrate your own food and food traditions from your family or community, then you don’t have something to bring to the potluck—you’d have to go to the store and buy somebody else’s. We live in a time when making and having healthy food habits and patterns in our lives requires a lot of extra effort. For many of us, we’ve gotten so dislocated from our core support systems of family or extended family and the connection to our food and where it comes from. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own children, who have just started public school and now eat very high sugar, highly processed foods for breakfast and lunch at school, and am absolutely horrified by what is being perpetuated on the policy level and how we teach our children what food is. This reaffirms to me the ways in which cultural food is vital to our future and to our well-being. At its most basic level, real food nourishes.
What we know about traditional arts and folklife is that they are expressions that are shared by a group of people and often interwoven into the same setting. So for example, we have traditional music and dance occurring together along with the sharing of traditional foodways. We’ve also noticed that tradition bearers often have more than one specialty. So it is no surprise to find that Leanne Mounvongkham, an accomplished Lao weaver, is also a specialist in regional northern Lao foodways. In so many ways, this issue is about the bonding impacts of food that are within communities. We also know that foodways are an avenue for bridging cultures. The first introduction we get to another group of people might be trying their food—the first and the easiest, because we all have to eat.
In this special issue, we have invited three guest writers closely connected to ACTA to tell us their stories about traditional foodways and health; one is a Living Cultures grantee in the San Francisco Bay Area, one is an Apprenticeship participant in Fresno, and one is working on a neighborhood project that ACTA is actively designing and implementing in East Los Angeles. We also share a video from a recent roundtable on traditional foodways convened by ACTA in the San Francisco Bay Area. ACTA’s working practice is about convening and reflecting with myriad communities and we hope this issue of The New Moon can help broaden these circles of traditional arts participants and the experiences and knowledge they have to share. Our gratitude also goes out to the The New Moon editor, Suzanne Hildebrand, and this issue’s guest editor, Patricia Wakida.