Issue 7, Fall 2021 – Special Issue: Flatbush Eats
The Great Hunger
Tunis to Brooklyn
Flatbush Eats and the Maple Street Community Garden (Photo Essay)
Food on the Phone
Grocery Shopping and Cooking in Flatbush: My Mom and Me
A Seed is Our Mother’s Prayer
Remembering My Grandmother and Apple Pie
Editorial Perspectives: “Shut up and Eat”: Stories about Food, Culture, Survival, and Love
“Shut up and Eat” Stories about Food, Culture, Survival, Love
Voices of Lefferts’ first themed issue—Flatbush Eats: Food, Survival, and Celebration—is inspired in part by a New Deal-era Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) collection of writing about food. Writers from the FWP set out in the late 1930s to collect stories and artifacts for a book to be titled America Eats. Interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, the project was abandoned, and the book was never published in its entirety.
However, what we do have is an FWP archive of stories, recipes, cookbooks, and photographs that tells us not only about food but also about a nation in transition. Still reeling from the impact of the Great Depression, the country struggled to balance preservation of cultural traditions with modern inventions like frozen food and the advent of formerly exotic ethnic cuisines that had become “American” by the end of the war. As we drafted our grant application for Flatbush Eats last October, entering the worst stretch of the pandemic, we couldn’t help but be struck by the parallels to the 2020s: economic crisis, massive unemployment, and the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Inspired, too, by Ntozake Shange’s exploration of Black cuisine in relation to the spirit and history of a people, Flatbush Eats aims to achieve the same in-depth understanding of the role of food in history, culture, and everyday life that Shange invokes in If I Can Cook/You Know God Can, in which she declares that she needs to “… know how we celebrate our victories, our very survival. What did we want for dinner? What was good enough to commemorate our humanity?”
Food is a portal to the nuance, beauty, challenge, pain, and resilience that characterize Flatbush-PLG as we strive to pull our way out of the pandemic. Flatbush Eats has helped renew our appreciation of the place of food in our lives and of our own rich, local food histories and cultures. That history starts with the Lenape Indians (the name meaning “people”), who grew corn, beans, potatoes, and squashes and who gave us the “trail” that is Flatbush. This trail, with many twists and turns, takes us through time from conquest, Dutch and British settlements, enslavement, the American Revolution, the Civil War, urbanization, migration, white flight, disinvestment, investment, gentrification, displacement, and the devastating impact of COVID-19.
From farmland to commuter suburb to metropolis, there are stories to be told and flavors to uncover; our responsibility is to teach ourselves to look, and to capture these many nuances and flavors. What can we learn about history, culture, and nature through the lens of food? Every wave of immigrants and migrants has left imprints, among them the Dutch, African Americans, Irish, Italians, Russians, and people of the Caribbean who are not homogenous but rather include Jamaicans, Haitians, Trinidadians, Guyanese, Belizeans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, St. Lucians, and Cubans, to name a few.
Yagil Kadosh and Andrew Rowley opened Kulushkat in Park Slope and Prospect Lefferts Gardens in 2011. Ten years later, on May 22, 2021, Yagil posted a story in the PLG Facebook group about antisemitic vandals who had smashed the outdoor dining enclosure and cut up the restaurant’s lights. I tell this story here because it epitomizes how food, culture, and history are braided together in our everyday lives. And because I was touched by his appeal to solidarity across racial, ethnic, and class lines and his evocation of food as a unifying force. The incident took place as the pandemic was subsiding in the US but more violence had erupted between Israeli occupiers and Hamas in Gaza, during which more than 250 Palestinians, 66 of them children, and 13 Israelis, including 2 children, were killed.
Yagil recalled another attack on the restaurant three years previously, “when there was a wave of antisemitism going around the world.” At that time, he had also received anonymous death threats. He could have ranted about the damage. He could have conflated anti-Zionism and support for Palestinian rights in the Middle East with antisemitism. He could have retaliated. Instead, he wrote that he showed up with a couple of 2 x 4s to repair the damage. He noted the sympathy expressed by his customers.
And then he went on to embrace the diverse community he both relies on and nurtures in the form of “the livelihood of 15 families of color that live in [the] neighborhood and surrounding areas… of the businesses surrounding us that we patronize daily including many Arab-owned (and specifically Palestinian owned) businesses.”
He explained that Kulushkat means “shut up and eat” in Moroccan Arabic and said it
is not only about us and the food we make. Kulushkat is about the harmony, good will and relationships we’ve made as Jews with the Arab community in Brooklyn over the last decade. Our merguez sausage is made for us by Ahmed who is a third-generation butcher from Egypt who has a shop in South Brooklyn. Our grape leaves come from one of the sweetest old men—Gary—who has been running his shop for nearly 50 years in the Atlantic Ave Arab district. Our parents don’t live here. This is our family.
We will keep doing our thing and keep shining our light in spite of it all. We’re born in Brooklyn and we’re not going nowhere.
When the Voices of Lefferts project team decided to launch Flatbush Eats, we imagined we would collect an infinite number of stories like this one, for next to water, food is the most essential of all human needs. It sits at the center of history, culture, and survival. This past year and a half, the global pandemic taught us how fragile our systems of care, transport, commerce, and delivery of those essential needs can be. It exposed the cracks in local, national, and international political economic systems, revealing even more starkly the racial and class disparities that spared the rich and left masses of working and poor people vulnerable to the deadly virus and the cascading effects of its socioeconomic consequences.
Many small restaurants and eateries in Flatbush-PLG struggled to stay open during the pandemic; many closed. Crème and Cocoa Creamery survived, as recounted recently in The New York Times article about the ice cream shop, which Astrid and Omar Thorpe opened four years ago on Nostrand Avenue between Lincoln and Lefferts. Pels Pie Co. was one of the casualties. The beloved café, bakery, and bar on Rogers Avenue owned by Allison Pels closed in August 2020, no longer able to keep afloat despite loyal customers who continued to order pies after the lockdown. Nevertheless, according to Allison, bills kept piling up, and rather than pay increased rent, she decided to call it a day.
The vital need to eat, expressed in the cultural traditions, culinary arts, and abundance of food is not met, however, for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in food deserts—neighborhoods without large supermarkets or access to fresh food. According to the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, 25% of Flatbush residents consume no fruits or vegetables in a day, compared with 12% citywide. Not surprisingly, poor diets lead to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. All these problems were exacerbated during the pandemic, resulting in a sudden outpouring of solidarity that took shape in mutual aid groups, soup kitchens, churches, and elected officials who struggled to provide homebound, unemployed, ill, elderly, and high-risk neighbors with enough food to survive. Community fridges, food shopping runs, and complex delivery systems helped ease but could not totally avert the pain of hunger or the terrible anxiety of not knowing where the next meal was coming from.
It has awakened us all to the interconnections between the pleasures and fragility of producing, distributing, and accessing food and the perils of industrial agriculture, loss of local farms, and viral pathogens jumping from animals to humans in the shrinking borders between cities and the wilds. Add to that the related crises of climate change unfolding so graphically before our eyes—hundreds dying in unprecedented heat waves in once-cool regions, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods—and intensifying global inequality. The pandemic revealed those inequalities in our own backyard (if we weren’t already aware of them) as frontline workers and the working poor, especially New Yorkers of color, suffered disproportionally from the effects of COVID-19.
Food unites and mobilizes us. We cannot live without it. That deserves repeating: we cannot live without it; and the quality of the food we grow, market, buy, and consume depends on a sequence of events over which we may have no control. That is why critiques of the industrial agricultural system are so important. Together with finding solutions like local farms, community gardens, food coops, farmers’ markets, composting, and well-stocked, affordable supermarkets, understanding the problems of environmental pollution and unsafe practices enables us to see the food chain, to demystify the invisible, distant release of carbon and methane emissions in the production of factory-farm meats and industrial crops, typically transported thousands of miles in freight trucks or planes, or the silent biochemistry by which salty chips and sugary sodas clog arteries and elevate blood sugar levels, processes hidden from sight, bundled into supermarket and bodega commodities.
Flatbush Eats has brought together a diverse group of collaborators that includes the Maple Street Community Garden, Q Garden, RTV Garden, Nurture BK Compost, CaribBeing, Seeds in the Middle, the Parkside Plaza Committee, the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association, and PLG Arts. As the project evolves, we envision a farm stand on Parkside Avenue adjacent to Nurture BK Compost’s site, with nutritious food stands and cultural activities ranging from author readings and oral history listening parties to music, dance, and street theater. We imagine our own local fresh produce market, a mailbox and a little free library for letters, stories, recipes, poems, books, articles, essays, cookbooks, and kids’ books about food in all its spiraling aspects and meanings.
In a recent article on Caribbean food in the neighborhood, CaribBeing founder Shelley Worrell, whose essay we are proud to print in this issue of the journal, describes PLG this way: “One of Brooklyn’s original towns, Flatbush is also home to one of the largest and most diverse Caribbean populations in the world. Which is why, in 2017, I helped spearhead the designation of this neighborhood as Little Caribbean. On a jaunt down Flatbush, Nostrand, or Church Avenues, you’ll be greeted by dollar vans and the pulsing, rhythmic sounds of soca, reggae, dancehall, konpa, zouk, and salsa–and find some of the best Caribbean food in the Americas. From succulent jerk and oxtails to savory patties to spicy curries to vegan juice bars and fresh spice markets, Little Caribbean is a must-visit.”
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In this issue, we are proud to feature writing about food by an amazing cross-section of our community. We start with Shelley Worrell’s essay, “A Sociopolitical/Culinary History of Roti,” illuminated by her story of her parents Marva Samaroo and her father Ethelbert V. Worrell, known as Uncle Vic or Baba, who immigrated from Trinidad to Brooklyn in the 1970s. She speculates that her father may have assumed her East Indian mother loved to cook roti, but when they divorced, her mother gave her tawa to her godmother “as a rejection of making thousands of rotis, ‘slaving’ over it, as she recalls.” Her dad, on the other hand, performed a “ritual of love” every Saturday afternoon, shopping for ingredients on Utica and Church Avenues, followed by “[t]he ritual of cutting the meat into perfect cubes, kneading the flour, rolling the rotis, then cooking them one by one on his tawa” as “an act of love.”
Next, we get another perspective on Flatbush through the eyes of returning author John Munnelly in “The Great Hunger.” Chronicling what Michael G. Malouf calls “transatlantic solidarities,” John begins his essay with the stark line, “I come from hunger with a need to be fed,” harkening back to the nineteenth century potato famine as he recalls growing up in the 1980s during the “shure-no-one-has-any-money” recession in Ireland. Jumping ahead in time and space, we land in Flatbush. Having met the “famed maker of one of the best hot sauces ever” while visiting his in-laws in Antigua, John—by trade a musician and music producer—decides to try his hand at making his own hot sauce in Brooklyn, an enterprise that would eventually become Hattwood Hot Sauce. Woven into the cross-cultural story of his sauces is a poignant chronicle of familial loss and love.
In “Rice Rituals,” Brenda Edwards, a Voices of Lefferts coach and another returning author, ranges across regions and continents, starting with her father’s impoverished sharecropping roots in one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. Deprived of leafy greens, corn, and peas that had to be sold to pay rent for use of the land, her father’s favorite dish was rice: “Red rice, slightly sweet. Simmered and seasoned with tomato paste, garlic, onions, green peppers and various spices, it gave homage to its predecessor, Jollof rice, with its many versions eaten throughout West Africa.” From there, Brenda wends her way to the Senegambian Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Mali in search of her own history and the “rice rituals that have been passed down for generations.”
Nadia Ketoure continues the story of Flatbush-PLG’s global routes and roots in “Tunis to Brooklyn.” She tells us how she came to live in the neighborhood after traveling the world with her diplomat father and why she decided to stay after the birth of her third child: she had found a new home. Interspersed throughout her essay is the poetry of food: “couscous with lots of sun-ripened tomato sauce, harissa, chickpeas, carrots, potatoes and fried peppers or whole fish with turmeric baked in the oven” and “whole porgies and black sea bass…infused with lemon and herbs.” Yet despite her joy in discovering Brooklyn farmers and fish markets, the poor quality of public school cafeterias and ten-minute lunch periods enrage her. “Brooklyn,” she concludes, “can learn from Tunis. Slow down and pay attention to the food we serve our kids.”
In “Food on the Phone,” Laurie Buck entwines the story of her relationship with her widowed, quintessentially American, middle-class father with the poignant loneliness they each feel—she in Brooklyn with her two sons, he in the Midwest by himself—during the pandemic, talking only by phone, often about food. He seems always to be making beef stew and Indian pudding, favorites from his childhood, while Laurie experiments with maqluba, which means “upside down” in Arabic, a dish her “displaced Palestinian” mother loved to cook. Through that lens, we learn about her parents’ marriage from “opposite sides of the universe.” As Laurie observes, “Holiday trips between grandparents’ homes careened from the hushed library of my father’s family in Westchester to the chaos of my mother’s enormous family in Rochester.” What she discovers about her father and herself through this meditation speaks volumes about the place of food in our lives.
The allure of food suffuses these pieces, as if by naming them, the printed word releases their aromas. In “Grocery Shopping and Cooking: Mom and Me,” Bernie Jones explores cuisines from Italian to Chinese to South Asian to Caribbean, the cuisine of her Grenadian parents, who immigrated to Flatbush before she was born. Bernie left home for college in the late 1980s and didn’t return to Brooklyn until 2015, when she wanted to be nearer to her aging parents. She invokes tastes and smells of cocoa, spices, roasted cashews, fudge, and coconut candies, pizza, chili, stuffed shells, baked ziti, calzone, roti, fried or roasted bakes, coconut and/or raisin buns, patties, cheese rolls, and black cake, muffins, plain cakes, cheese cake, carrot cake, and pies, including sweet potato and pumpkin. Like the other authors in this issue, Bernie mixes autobiography and the profound love of primary relationships together with recipes, grocery shopping, and the omnipresence of food in everyday life.
In “A Seed Is Our Mother’s Prayer,” yet another returning author, Zhenia Nagorny, invokes Mother Earth in a tribute to the seeds from which all life grows. From the mythical origins of life, Zhenia proceeds to Flatbush-PLG’s own Maple Street Community Garden, where we meet Earl. As she watches Earl work in the soil, she feels “reverence like a prayer in movement.” Asked what he is planting, he replies, “Peppers,” and tells her he brought the seeds from Trinidad. He continues: “I grew up growing my own food as a little boy. We never had to go to the supermarket. Anywhere you can plant something, you put a seed in. We always had land and you could plant anytime. A whole year, if you want.” Through Earl, we learn how to cut bhagi leaves, cook callaloo, and then replant the stems to grow the bhagi again. These reflections on life in Flatbush-PLG, the garden, and Earl lead back to her Ukrainian roots and the story of her grandfather, who ultimately joined his son’s family in the US despite his “deep sadness for what was lost” in leaving behind his roots in Ukrainian soil.
Susan Palm delights us with childhood memories of the “everydayness of working with apples” in her essay “Remembering My Grandmother and Apple Pie.” Again, we experience the sensuousness of food writing as Susan describes the childhood magic of visits to her grandparents’ home “on a hill overlooking Chequamegon Bay off Lake Superior” across the water from Canada and her grandmother’s three apple trees, one crabapple and the other two McIntosh—her “beloved Macs.” The coincidence of the COVID lockdown and Susan’s retirement in Brooklyn give her time to ponder her grandmother’s apples, which “provided jars of a spicy, honey colored sauce, clear amber apple jelly, the darkest mahogany of apple butter and jars of larger slices of apple, a mosaic of white embedded in cinnamon, pressed against the glass.” In what follows, we discover the “the fullness of possibilities with apple pie” during lockdown.
Finally, we continue our art feature in this issue with Nancy Treuber’s rich display of photographs of the Maple Street Community Garden. Asked to describe her approach to photography, she notes, “Some photographers take pictures of things. I am the kind who takes pictures of the light on things.”
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Many thanks to all who make this community history project possible: all of the authors, oral history director Laura Thorne, coaches Betsy Andrews, Jeanne Baron, Brenda Edwards, Robert Gibbons, Liz Oliver, Andrea Phillips-Merriman, and Norma Williams; copyeditors Ron Drenger and Rina Kleege; photographers Nancy Treuber and Neil Carpenter; and graphic designer Frank Marchese. We also thank Greenlight Bookstore for partnering with many Flatbush-PLG community projects, including this one; and Park Slope Copy Center for expert printing services. Finally, we are grateful to Humanities New York, Citizens Committee of NYC, and the Brooklyn Arts Council for their generous support of various phases of the project that contributed to the production of this issue. — by Deborah Mutnick