@victorygrower: Past/present/local/global, all connected through a narrative of food and gifted artists/ans. A menu for the body, mind, soul. Thx @PopUpMag

(Longer than most of my blogs. It was a significant experience. Clear your plate and read the entire thing).

Recently, I walked up a flight of old, uneven wooden stairs to the Starline Social Club in Oakland. Built in 1893, the Starline has served as an Oddfellows Hall, a gathering place for the Deaf community, and a janitorial supply business. This gem of a building is finding new life for what some term “the creative economy” in Oakland, and the Pop-Up Magazine event I participated in there was indeed creative, generative, and an exercise in experiencing community around a particular topic.

I have never attended a Pop-Up Magazine event before. The concept is – well – brilliant. It is a live magazine. Contributors are varied, and include artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians and other kinds of creative folks. The “issue” of the “magazine” never appears in print, nor is it recorded. The model is resonating with audiences; the events are selling out in sometimes as few as five minutes. I get it: I could engage with those who created the “content”. It is storytelling at its best: as a way to spark conversation. It was dynamic, it was creative, it generated authentic discussion and I was hooked from the start.

Image(1)The Starline event was Pop-Up Magazine’s first foray into a dinner setting – the focus of this “issue” of the “magazine” was food. My first thought was “salon” (in the French sense). Being both an historian and a food advocate, I could smell wisps of memories in the historic venue…as well as an incredibly creative, mouth-watering and perfectly executed meal by writer, cook and teacher Samin Nosrat and her team. The menu and the contributors framed the narrative of the evening. The food and place-based discussions generated by the presentations of the contributors, in this case through prose, taped recordings, music (Thao Nguyen), slide shows, and photographs (Shutter Diplomacy by Lucas Flogia) were both highly local and global. Actual vinyl spun by my friend, the multi-talented Bryant Terry. Local roots…global reach.

Because food is like that: it is fundamental, and it touches every aspect of our lives. It is local, it is global, and it is every place in between. Throw any topic, any idea at me, and I’ll relate it to food immediately. Because food – in its largest sense – cuts across every social, economic, environmental and political topic that I care about. The evening was filled with the things that are closest to my heart – family and food, and the larger issues that deeply concern me – including the critical issue of food insecurity that plagues so many of the world’s inhabitants.

During the course of the evening I traveled without leaving my chair. I learned about the challenges of marketing honey in Oakland despite California’s recent cottage food legislation, and I tasted honey produced by bees at the home of the Ventura family, who live in Honduras. Honey: Oakland and Honduras.

Even the tableware fueled discussion around the topic of food. My water glass showed the capacity of Shasta dam (via a line), and its current level. (I’d driven by Shasta about a month ago and had been shocked by the lack of water; it was purely by chance that I got the Shasta glass, a sad reminder of California’s persistent drought). The plate that held our salad – consisting of green, yellow and purple beans, Kern County almonds and herbs – was made by the young man sitting next to me: a talented ceramic artist named Travis McFlynn. He later got up and spoke broadly about the economics of his food-related enterprise; he creatively uses materials that others might regard as waste. And there is an enormous lesson for all of us about up cycling in his work.

This was an evening about food in its largest sense: about how local and global are inextricably linked. UC President Janet Napolitano offered some compelling comments about the University of California’s new Global Food Initiative, which seeks to put the globe on a pathway to a sustainable, nutritious future for a growing world population. She spoke about the power of the University’s agricultural research, about how it helps locally, and how the seeds of that work are sown across the world to improve global food security…to improve lives. She spoke about local roots and global reach, and how both are sorely needed as we face unprecedented challenges.

(And as a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension advisor, I see this dynamic at work every day. Recently, my colleague Ben Faber, a former Peace Corps volunteer and a UC expert in sub-tropicals, traveled to Colombia to work with small farmers on issues that are critical to them, and to us…we’re all in this together, after all. And one of the most exciting things about working at UC is seeing the way our individual and collective work improves lives in our communities, across the nation, and all around the world).

The evening presented myriad narratives that I’ll continue to ponder for the next several weeks. Thao Nguyen’s story and song about her family’s relationship to food reminded me of my family’s own food stories (moveable feasts).

But there was a clear beginning and end of a particular narrative – at least for me – in the first and last things to cross my lips that evening. The first: a precious bit of honey produced by the Ventura family in Honduras, lovingly brought back in a water bottle to share with us. It took a year for the hive to produce that honey, presented on tiny silver spoons, received with reverence by those at my table, a communion of sorts between producers and those who eat the precious food they provide. And the benediction…a cup of coffee produced from beans grown by the same family. Dense, sweet, coffee.

Image(2)As I sat next to Travis McFlynn, the ceramic artist, I repeatedly picked up the plate he had made and held it in my hands, turning it around, examining its slight asymmetry, feeling its weight, contemplating that it was made with something reclaimed from near where I lived as a child. I asked him what color he called it. He didn’t have a name for it, and asked me what I’d call it.

I didn’t have an answer.

But for the last couple of days, I’ve thought about what I might call that color.

Growing up in Kern County, my friends and I would often roam the desert. Despite warnings from our parents, we’d scramble like tiny goats up Soledad Mountain, wary of rattlesnakes and mine shafts from the old gold and silver mining operations that had proved pretty much a bust. After reaching the best vantage point, dirty and scraped, we’d sit and look at the highways and the railroad laid out before us, the Greyhound bus stop at French’s Café, all so tiny they looked like toys from that height. (But those were the things that would eventually lead most of us on to other places, and to other lives). And as the day wore on and the sun lowered in the sky, the dirt took on a particular hue, like gold, and for those precious moments, everything around us was glowing and beautiful and full of possibility. I haven’t thought about that for years.

Travis: Call it “Soledad.”

“A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”

P.S. @victorygrower: @PopUpMag…Thanks again. I’ll be back for seconds.