Issue 8, Winter 2022 – Special Issue: Flatbush Eats
Robert Anthony Gibbons
Dear Aloe: Notes on the Human Condition
Memories of Hunger 2021
A Last Taste of the Island
Coming to the Table
This Was Here, and This Is How It Was
If Music Be the Food of Flatbush, Play On…
Millicent and She Fish Heads
A Community History of Food: Oral History Excerpts
– Wesly Jean Simon interviewed by Tracy Sidesinger
– André Hueston Mack interviewed by Deborah Mutnick
– Andrea Phillips-Merriman interviewed by Tracy Sidesinger
Flatbush Eats for Kids
Editorial Perspectives: Giving Thanks: A Moment of Reckoning
“Subject Matter of the Book: American cookery and the part it has played in the national life as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes, but also attitudes and customs. Emphasis should be divided between the food and the people.”
~ 1939 FWP memo stating the goals of America Eats
In 1939, the Federal Writers’ Project launched a national effort to collect stories, essays, and recipes documenting how America ate. A program under the auspices of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, the FWP, along with music, art, and theater projects, put writers, artists, actors, and musicians back to work; it also stands as the only federally sponsored, unified public humanities and arts endeavor to stimulate and document American culture—unprecedented and unparalleled to this day. This eighth issue of Voices of Lefferts: The Flatbush-PLG Community Writing Journal is the second of two special issues on the theme of food inspired, in part, by the FWP’s America Eats.
On Thanksgiving eve, 2021, as I was drafting this introduction, three white men in Georgia were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man out jogging. That same week, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white supremacist teenager who killed two protesters and wounded another in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was found innocent of all charges. In November 2020, Biden had just been elected, Trump was claiming the election had been stolen, and the summer of protest precipitated by the police murder of George Floyd was reverberating in national conversations about race and racism. The summer 2020 issue of Voices of Lefferts recorded some of that history as it played out locally in the streets of Brooklyn.
Hardly any of us, myself included, celebrated Thanksgiving that year with extended family or friends because of the pandemic. In 2021, as many of us eagerly made plans for food-ladened dinners with loved ones, I found myself hesitating when I began to write “Happy Thanksgiving” at the end of an email. Instead, I wrote, “Best wishes for the first of a season of holidays,” or simply, “Enjoy the long weekend.” Rising out of my own lifelong deference to family and cultural traditions of celebrating Thanksgiving was a new awareness. It wasn’t that I was unaware of the mythology surrounding the holiday but rather that such an awareness had not yet altered my lifelong habits of speech.
If I had to identify a pivotal shift of consciousness, it might have been a brief exchange just before the holiday with one of my most interesting, quirkiest students, whose fixation on her phone I had forgiven because I believed her when she told me she needed it to focus. As she left the classroom, I said automatically, “Have a lovely Thanksgiving,” to which she replied, coolly, “Thanks but I don’t observe it.” Some of this student’s family is from Jamaica—but many of my students are also first- and second-generation immigrants from India, the Caribbean, Guyana, Egypt, and so on, and most observe the holiday. In many respects, a national holiday defined by family gatherings, gratitude, and abundant amounts of food is a tradition to preserve, Yet, greater awareness of the history of colonization, displacement, and genocide elided by Thanksgiving Day, already evident in toppled statues of Christopher Columbus and louder, better-heard insistence by Indigenous peoples on a national reckoning with that history, should also remind us as all (including documentarians) to reconsider and challenge the basis for such traditions as well as preserve them.
Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans almondine or roasted Brussel sprouts, sweet butter, hot cornbread, Pino noir, pumpkin pie, coffee … These foods and cultural traditions shape our memories, our national and family histories, our sense of who we are across racial and ethnic lines. In 1941, an anonymous federal writer in a collection of five short essays on group meals in Georgia describes an annual midday Thanksgiving dinner in Augusta organized by a Black grocer named Bunch for his poorer neighbors. The menu included “barbecued meats, collard greens, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, butterbeans, tomatoes, okra, rice, hash and boiled meat, cornbread, biscuits, rolls, tea, coffee, lemonade and pie. Topping it all off is ice cream furnished through the compliments of a local creamery.” To document these meals and these cultural traditions is to put flesh on the bones of history.
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In addition to the FWP’s fascinating study of American food culture, the other inspiration for Flatbush Eats was the global preoccupation with food during the pandemic, especially in the first several months of lockdown. Counterposed to the pleasures of gardening, shopping, cooking, and eating, of celebrating our own cultural traditions and discovering others, and of the smells and tastes of simmering, roasting, grilling, frying, baking, and otherwise preparing meals were fears of food shortages, food access, hunger, loss of smell and taste, and exposure of frontline food workers to the virus. We planted vegetable gardens in anticipation of food shortages, organized mutual aid groups, installed community fridges, and for a while we were all washing down our groceries as world scientists determined the nature of SARS-CoV-2.
We thus set out in Flatbush Eats to tell as many stories as we could that documented the 2020s global pandemic just as the federal writers had documented the 1930s Great Depression in the shadow of world war and the rise of fascism abroad and at home. We held a virtual writing workshop in winter/spring 2021 and published our first Flatbush Eats issue of participants’ essays, developed at the height of the pandemic even as glimmers of hope accompanied the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. All of our meetings and author readings have been virtual since March 2020 but, like everyone else, we have become accustomed to this new social reality. In addition to the workshop, we sent our growing squad of trained interviewers out to collect oral histories about the multitude of ways our neighbors relate to food.
Two offshoots of the project engaged us in other kinds of work related to food and urban ecology. The first was “Flatbush Eats for Kids” in partnership with Nancy Katz’s program Seeds in the Middle, which took us to two public schools to work with seventh grade students on writing family recipes and stories about their origins and crafting letters to elected officials about the problem of food deserts in Brooklyn and the need for access to affordable, fresh food in those neighborhoods. We put out a virtual call for “coaches” and thanks, in part, to PLG resident Betsy Andrews, poet, food writer, and coach/editor for Flatbush Eats, we reached food writers across the country as well as neighborhood residents who loved the idea of working with children. We had an astounding 28 volunteers who patiently, firmly, and lovingly gave feedback to the seventh graders, mostly in writing, sometimes in virtual and physical classroom visits. The result is a collection of all the students’ writing that we gave to the schools and the coaches and archived in VoL’s collections, a few of which we publish in this issue.
The second collaborative venture that Flatbush Eats helped spark has now become a new association of neighborhood organizations called the Parkside Food & Culture Collective (PFCC). Made up of members of Voices of Lefferts, PLG Arts, Nurture BK Composting, Q Garden, the Parkside Plaza Committee, and food vendor and VOL author Nadia Ketoure, PFCC aims to bring theory and practice related to food, health, and the environment together with art and culture to provide a site—a public commons—for composting, recycling, healthy, affordable food, and educational and creative forms of expression that deepen our collective understanding of what it means to be human in the epoch of the Anthropocene, what it means to be a community, and what it means for city dwellers to come to terms with our historical debt to nature.
VoL’s contribution to the Commons is to collect oral histories and organize author readings, spoken word poetry, and open mic events. We are especially eager to find a permanent home for our VoL Little Free Library, beautifully crafted by local carpenter Chris Gentry, who also ingeniously designed a mail slot for over-the-transom submissions of essays, recipes, drawings, letters, and more. The library will hold books, articles, children’s books, cookbooks, and copies of the VoL journal; featured for Flatbush Eats will be literature on food, urban ecology, and culture. All contributions are welcome, though, and the collection will change in response to project hemes, local interests and needs, and, above all, whatever books are shared. Of course, the idea is to bring a book and take a book and bring it back for someone else to read. We have been delighted to see so many little free libraries in the neighborhood and eager to join this band of merry literacy-makers.
Meanwhile, we have been applying for additional grants, including a Library of Congress grant for “Of the People: Widening the Path” in support of “contemporary cultural documentation focusing on the culture and traditions of diverse, often underrepresented communities in the United States.” For this application, we envision a concretization and deepening of already existing documentary work we have done on local history, culture, and ecology. Featured in our proposed project are collaborations with the Flatbush African Burial Ground Collective and CaribBeing with the aim, as always, of recording and preserving stories from, by, and of the people who live and work in Flatbush-PLG about our collective past, the struggles of the present, and our hopes and dreams for the future.
We also applied for another Humanities New York grant that builds on the Library of Congress proposal to which we add two new features that resonate with 1930s FWP collections. The first is children’s lore, games, and songs, documenting the culture of childhood in the 21st century, nearly 100 years after federal writers in Chicago collected this jump rope ditty: “Margie had some marmalade, Margie had some beer, Margie had some other things, that made her feel so queer, Whoops! went the marmalade, Whoops! went the beer, Whoops! went the other things, that made her feel so queer.”
Like that decade of economic depression, looming war, and fascist forces abroad and at home, we, too, are living through precarious times—so much so that the New York Times recently reported that “one in four childless adults in the United States … cited climate change as a factor in why they do not currently have children.” A chief reason for gathering stories of those not typically included in the annals of history is to alter our collective compass in contemplating our collective future. Documenting how children see this imperiled world reminds us adults that it is up to us to act swiftly and decisively to ensure their future for them.
The other feature in the HNY grant application is local music history and culture. In the 1930s, folklore specialists like John Lomax and his son Alan, along with Charles and Pete Seeger, Zora Neale Hurston, and other documentarians recorded and archived folk and other indigenous music, preserving it for future generations to enjoy and learn from. Today, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, an array of musicians from the Drummers’ Grove in Prospect Park to Sistas’ Place and the history of The East fill our everyday lives, airways, outdoor plazas, and concert halls with perhaps the most fundamental, ancient, inexhaustible expression of humanity we know.
For these music and children’s initiatives—as of this writing, we don’t know if either application will be funded—we teamed up with local musicians Andrew Drury and Ras Moshe Burnett, Maple Street Nursery School codirectors Peggy Francois and Jennifer Smith, children’s music teacher and project director Amelia Robinson, and several other educators who expressed interest and are awaiting approval to work with us. Keep your fingers crossed for us. Even if we don’t get the grants, we’ll apply for others and find ways to sustain what we do—or not—which, by its very nature is improvisatory and only as resilient as we are.
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In this issue, we are thrilled to present writing by several of our own project team members whose gentle feedback as editors and copyeditors is usually invisible in the versions of the essays we publish. In addition, we welcome essays by recent workshop participant Caroline Holden, who first published in Voices of Lefferts in 2019, and by Jennifer Chen, founder and director of Brooklyn Fam, whose contribution came over the transom through a series of email exchanges. The theme of food resounds throughout in writing about gardens, healing, a beloved bakery that no longer exists, chocolate, neighborhood groceries, Caribbean traditions of cooking and eating, and the ways in which food infuses memories of everyday life in all its complexity, joy, and stress.
In “Dear Aloe: Notes on the Human Condition,” Robert Anthony Gibbons returns to our pages in praise of aloe, also known as “burn plan,” “lily of the desert,” elephant’s gall,” and “sabila.” Braiding together prose, poetry, errata, and love letters to aloe—”I remember you. The wicked way you spire through air like flames…”—Robert takes us on a journey from La Finca Del Sur, a garden in the South Bronx, to his childhood memories of a bicycle crash to meditations on the power of aloe to soothe and to heal.
Next, in “The Spatula,” Caroline Holden remembers the legendary Ebinger’s Bakery, founded in 1858 and bankrupted in 1972 with 58 retail stores throughout Brooklyn, and her father, who worked as a baker at the store for decades. In the genre of a fairytale, she tells the story of her father’s migration to Brooklyn from Budapest at age 14 and the deep sense of loss she feels as she reflects on her memories of him and the store, both of which she adored as a small child, and “the bread, cake, apple pies, and turnovers … filled with cooked apples, real sugar, agave, and honey” that he baked.
Jeanne Baron, who joined the project team this year as a coach/editor, gives us “Triptych,” a series of short, poetic vignettes about the exigencies of life—a lover’s dying brother, separation from an eight-year-old son, and the dangers of reporting news in the “warlord torn” Central African Republic—against backdrops of food, eating, hunger, and truth-telling.
In “A Last Taste of the Island,” Norma Williams takes us to the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Jamaica, where she awaits a flight home to JFK Airport and Prospect Lefferts Gardens, after leaving Manchester “before the cock crow” at four in the morning. In what follows, she celebrates ackee and codfish, tracing her love for the dish to its historical roots in the “meeting of two continents and two groups of people”—African and British.
In “Coming to the Table,” Jennifer Chen writes as a relative newcomer to the neighborhood eager to find her place at the literal and metaphorical table. In describing the role food has played in cultivating friendships, especially in the time of COVID-19, she lovingly portrays her neighbors, including a beloved community member who passed away a few months after his 93rd birthday, an occasion on which she brought him slices of chocolate birthday cake, marking the first time in a year that she had been in the home of anyone besides her mother.
Taking a cue from the Bard in “If Music Be the Food of Life, Play On….,” Rina Kleege retells the classic story of how we or our forebears got to where we are. When she and her husband decided to move to PLG from lower Manhattan, seeking another “family” like the one she and other loft dwellers formed in the early days when artists and musicians were pioneering places like Soho and Tribeca. In Brooklyn, she finds not only another family but also a warm welcome by PLG Arts and lot of great food shops and restaurants despite her realtor’s unsought advice.
Longtime coach/editor Andrea Phillips-Merriman delivers “Millicent and She Fish Heads,” anchored in a conversation between longtime Guyanese friends Jocelyn and Millicent, who now live in Atlanta, GA, and Brooklyn, NY respectively. As the two old friends talk “old-style” on the telephone about “Covid, political ‘bacchanal’ in Guyana, severe flooding in Kwakwani (Jocelyn’s hometown), oil, who died, and food”—especially fish heads—we learn how to cook fish heads, how to eat fish heads, and how not to eat fish heads.
We continue to feature excerpts from our oral history collections, most recently with a focus on food in concert with Flatbush Eats. Xxxx and xxxx …
Also included in this issue for the first time is a cluster of children’s writing, obtained in partnership with Nancie Katz’s Seeds in the Middle and P.S. 240 in “Flatbush Eats for Kids.” A sample of the seventh graders’ family recipes and letters to elected officials reflects both the ever-evolving cultural tapestry of our borough and the generous coaching of a terrific crew of food writers, writers, and others, local and nationwide, too many to name, who responded to a call for volunteers.
Finally, we are thrilled to publish drawings by Laura Thorne, director of the Voices of Lefferts Oral History Program and project writing coach/editor, among other credits to her name. Until the practice became too time-consuming, she regularly contributed black-and-white drawings, prints of which are now in high demand, to every issue. For this issue, we are pleased to republish several of her artworks, including drawings of Allan’s Quality Bakery, Gloria’s Caribbean Cuisine, and Labay Market, and one new portrait of Scoops Ice Cream Parlor.
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By the time this issue appears in early 2022, we will be well past the holiday season. Even so, I find myself returning to questions of tradition, raised by the annual Thanksgiving dinner many of us enjoy, and documentary art. Just as the FWP sought to document foodways of the prewar era, when 19th century traditions were giving way to modern technologies and culinary practices, Voices of Lefferts seeks to record and preserve both local traditions and the forces that transform and sometimes upend them. Amid bitter national debates about the origin story of the United States, we have begun collectively to deal with the long history of Indigenous displacement and death. Since 1974, the Wampanoag have convened a National Day of Mourning each November at Plymouth Rock. No holiday more exuberantly celebrates food than Thanksgiving, a key perhaps to how it will change to better reflect history even as it continues to bring us together at the proverbial table to share a fine meal.
Many thanks to all who make this community history project possible: oral history director Laura Thorne, interim oral history director Liz Oliver, copyeditors Rina Kleege and Sandra Sklobar; photographers Nancy Treuber and Neil Carpenter; and graphic designer Frank Marchese. Acknowledgments also go to Nancie Katz and Seeds in the Middle for connecting us with IS 240; Greenlight Bookstore for supporting many PLG-Flatbush 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, the Brooklyn Arts Council, and LIU Brooklyn for supporting phases of the project that contributed to the production of this issue.