Food Makes Family

Alternative families break bread, break taboos

By David Szanto, Ph. D.

The image of the family meal is one that tends to glow in our minds. A dining table laden with dishes, parents and kids talking about their days, candles flickering. Movies and television shows generally reinforce such a pleasing portrait. At the same time, however, food anthropologists and cultural historians have been sounding the alarm that the dinner hour is dead — along with social connectedness — thanks to over-programmed lives, convenience foods, and digital devices.

But maybe a subtler series of shifts is taking place, both in what we understand as family, and what we understand about eating together. Just as families make food, so does food make families.

Various alternate interpretations of "family" are already familiar. Blended households of new couples, step-siblings, and grandparents are one example. Twenty-something roommates who come together to share space and sociality, are another, as are child-free couples that gravitate toward clusters of other, non-procreating adults. Together, by cooking, eating, and creating new traditions, these domestic groupings redefine the diversity of family.

One particularly inspiring example is the arts mentorship program, "Our Bodies, Our Stories," based out of Montreal's Project 10. Conceived and facilitated by educator and performance maker Kama La Mackerel, the program provides training and production support for QTBIPOC (queer, trans, black, indigenous, people of colour) youth. Weekly meet-ups enable the participants to create their own artistic works — poetry, choreography, zines, spoken word — leading up to a two-night performance showcase. But each session always begins with a meal.

"The focus of the program is transformation, and so food is an ideal way to start," says La Mackerel. "When you mix together different ingredients, something new is made. Food is transformed in this way, just as people are when we come together." The food is also a way to nurture the participants, in both physical and emotional ways.

When someone identifies as QTBIPOC, it often means they come from a history of trauma. They may be disconnected not only from their homeland, but also from their birth families and the cultural context in which they live. As La Mackerel puts it, "the youth have a lot going on in their lives."

A hot meal once a week doesn't change everything, but it is a very real way to support the processes of healing that "Our Bodies, Our Stories" is all about. Food and self-expression become ways to come back from the ongoing colonialist and gendered violence that characterizes many lives in QTBIPOC communities. Over time, social connection, empowerment, and self-caring sets in, and these are important steps toward a strong and healthy sense of identity. Importantly, they also help heal both the future and the past, by disrupting systemic cycles of hurt.

As people migrate, and societies evolve, so do families and food. How we learn to both see and appreciate these new realities is not only what makes us human, but also what makes us resilient. In Kama La Mackerel's words: "We tend to think of the revolutionary act as something that is massive, or super public—an act of resistance. But what we do around the table is just as powerful, a revolution in itself."

David Szanto is a Montreal-based food researcher, consultant, and long-time contributor to this magazine. In 2015, he earned a PhD in gastronomy from Concordia University, the first of its kind.


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