I am blessed to come from a lineage of artists.
As far as I know I’m the only writer. But I’m sure if I asked around at the next family gathering I’d find out that one of my innumerable cousins enjoys the same vice, seduced by words.
My grandfather passed away before I was born. I have come to know him through his paintings.
Last week I had the pleasure of swapping war stories with a grandmother in the Old North. She is a sabra, the 5th generation of her family to live in the Holy Land. I asked her what it was like when the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem, the city of her youth, and her husband waged war to defend the newborn state.
I used the Hebrew words from her tale to build a poem in English.
The Taste of Sin:
the man from Gaza came knocking.
He slipped a fat envelope into my hand.
I begged him with my eyes:
“Go home. Stay safe. Hide under the kitchen table.
Do whatever it takes. Don’t let them find you.”
With my mouth I said:
“I can’t take your money.”
“Pay me back after the war,” he smiled.
He made me swear by the taste of his harvest,
By the pies and slices of white flesh
The red, yellow and green skins
that would nourish strong sons and beautiful daughters,
It was 1948, the eve before my wedding,
Before the banquet of scrounged rations and a borrowed dress.
I was still a juicy virgin,
Almost a bride, blushing and a little frantic.
I gave him my word in return for his trust.
Then the man that smelled of sweet apples
Melted into the night.
Apples paraded through my dreams.
My stomach cried for the enemy.
Rumbling and churning in reply to gunfire.
After the war,
I smuggled myself across the invisible line.
Battle had redrawn the world,
made my home a stranger.
We looked all night,
My husband and I
Every full moon
We hunted by starlight.
But we never found the apple farmer.
I could not return the love he left in my safekeeping.
So I carry it with me
Wherever I go.
It is the chain around my neck.
On March 22, World Water Day, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) arrived in the city of Quito, concluding their 14-day national protest march. Hundreds of indigenous Ecuadorians from the Amazonian and Andean regions came wearing traditional regalia to protest the same government they once helped bring to office. CONAIE hopes their protest will mobilize indigenous communities against new mining developments and a proposed law that would sell international corporations the rights to local water resources.
This story appears in the Spring 2012 print edition of the San Francisco Public Press. Photo by Leigh.
The Quesada Gardens Initiative, which has helped green and revitalize one of San Francisco’s most economically neglected neighborhoods, is struggling to survive as funding is running dry.
Formed in 2002 as a community-building effort by Bayview residents, it has gone on to transform portions of the community, spreading through vacant lots, backyards and community spaces. It has also begun to produce significant quantities of food for a neighborhood where the available of healthy options is limited.
Malnutrition is a problem even in a wealthy city like San Francisco. An estimated 85,000 low-income adults in San Francisco County are “food insecure,” living in fear of hunger or starvation, according to a report last year by a group that researches diet in communities called California Food Policy Advocates, which has offices in Oakland and Los Angeles.
“Especially since the recession, the poverty rates are quite extreme,” said Anne Lee Eng, environmental justice program manager for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. “People have had to make do with less. The philanthropic community and nonprofits are struggling. Through projects like the Quesada Gardens, people learn to leverage resources and share. People are learning to build those partnerships themselves.”
Quesada Gardens has been able to spread through vacant lots, backyards and community spaces in the Bayview, thanks to ample volunteer labor and government grants that have now ended. More than two-thirds of the gardens’ $296,000 in funding since its founding in 2002 has come from government sources. A little more than $5,000 came from individual donors and $87,000 came from a combination of foundation and corporate donations.
The bulk of the funds came from a now closed environmental justice grant program that resulted from the closure of the polluting Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power plant.
“Place-based, grassroots community building projects are multiplying for all the right reasons,” Jeff Betcher, one of the organizers of the project. “They produce sustainable social and environmental change at a fraction of the cost of top-down approaches. Yet we haven’t identified a reliable revenue stream to cover even that fraction.”
The group’s members fear what the future may hold without the support of government grants. “We are woefully underfunded,” Betcher said. “We are barely holding on. It is very likely Quesada won’t be around next year. It’s hard to say what would happen to the gardens.”
Hardwick, Vermont was down on its luck. Once known as the “Building Granite Center of the World,” the hamlet of 3,000 people in Northern Vermont had been battered by the decline of the quarry industry. Per capita income in the area is less than $15,000. In 2005, a fire devastated one of the finest buildings on Main Street, the historic Bemis Block, leaving a burned-out shell.
Then a kind of renaissance occurred. In recent years, Hardwick has become the epicenter of a thriving regional food economy. Today the area is home to Vermont Soy Company, maker of organic tofu and soymilk, and the Vermont Milk Company, which churns out yogurt, ice cream, and cheese. High Mowing Organic Seeds, a well-respected national seed company, is based there, as is the award-winning North Hardwick Dairy. The Center for an Agricultural Economy, a local nonprofit, is planning to develop a 15-acre “Eco-Industrial Park” near the center of town. The new town diner, Claire’s Restaurant and Bar, serves local and organic fair in the space where the charred building used to be.
How exactly this hardscrabble town revitalized its economy through agricultural commerce is the subject of Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved. Hewitt avoids abstraction and rhetoric, and through keen storytelling about his neighborhood reveals what a sustainable economy can look like.
(San Francisco City Hall. Photo by Omri Dotan & Leigh)
This appeared in the Spring 2012 print edition of the San Francisco Public Press as part of a larger investigative report with numerous journalists and artists.
A California group dedicated to stopping human trafficking is hoping to take its fight directly to voters this fall.
In January, the nonprofit advocacy group California Against Slavery began circulating petitions to get a measure on the November 2012 ballot to strengthen the state’s human trafficking laws. The measure is called the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, and the campaign has mobilized hundreds of people around the state to collect the 800,000 valid signatures required for the measure to make the ballot.
Among the harsher penalties on traffickers and provisions to protect victims, the act would:
- Increase criminal penalties on human traffickers, require them to register as sex offenders and make them report private Internet access to law enforcement
- Use criminal fines to support victim services
- Require all police to undergo at least two hours of training on trafficking and how to treat victims
- Prohibit evidence of a victim’s past sexual history from being used in a trafficker’s trial
In 2009, Daphne Phung first learned about human trafficking in the United States from a TV documentary.
“I was shocked by the lack of justice,” said Phung, who went on to found California Against Slavery. “We first circulated the petition two years ago, when the organization started, but couldn’t get all the signatures in five months.”
The initiative is a joint effort. Authors include Sharmin Bock, who spent 23 years as a prosecutor in Alameda County, which the FBI has identified as a hotbed of domestic human trafficking. Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer and head of global public policy for Facebook, wrote the proposed law’s digital penalty. The Polaris Project, another anti-trafficking organization, reviewed the petition as well. Phung said more than 1,000 volunteers from across California have contributed to the campaign.
Maya Angelou taught me how to be a woman. I had just reached the final cusp of my teens when I picked up my first fix from the library. Then I couldn’t stop. I was ripping through volumes of poetry and groundbreaking memoirs known for having expanded the genre itself. Angelou wrote with irreproachable dignity about society’s underbelly—rape, drugs, prostitution, discrimination, poverty, confusion, and broken truths. She spoke of attack without being a victim, and of her own youthful mistakes while still sounding sharp and wily. Her memoirs told the story of a single soul with a fleet of talents. She was a dancer, a cook, an outlaw, a mother and a poet. Her writings paved the way for American women of color to command ownership of their own narratives, in print and in the public eye. Her syntax and courage taught me that confronting exploitation and prejudice is how a girl can become a woman, victorious and uncorrupted despite the broken system.
So it’s no surprise that Angelou’s latest cookbook, her second, is brimming with lyrical reflections on her struggles with portion control and health. In Great Food, All Day Long, Angelou combines her saucy wit with the recipes and food philosophies she has accumulated throughout her lifetime. Predominately defined by Latin and Southern tastes, her recipes are wildly flavorful, as are the short autobiographical stories of her encounters with these foods.
Even while preaching the importance of nutritious food, Angelou gives her take on the pretension that often accompanies conscious eating habits. She shares a snarky poem in defense of carnivores, inspired by attitudes encountered at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant.
The Health-Food Diner No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw & spinach raw
Today I need a steak.
Not thick brown rice & rice pilau
Or mushrooms creamed on toast,
Turnips mashed & parsnips hashed.
I’m dreaming of a roast.
Health-food folks around the world are thinned by anxious zeal.
They look for help in seafood kelp.
I count on breaded veal.
No smoking signs, raw mustard greens, zucchini by the ton.
Uncooked kale and bodies frail
Are sure to make me run.
Loins of pork and chicken thighs
And standing rib, so prime,
Pork chops brown & fresh ground round
I crave them all the time.
Irish stews & boiled corn beef.
And hot dogs by the scores,
Or any place that saves a space
For smoking carnivores.
I roamed the markets and Arab-owned liquor stores, but nothing satisfied my garbanzo-lust. So I embarked on an exodus. From greasy shawarma joints to swanky Turkish wine bars, I infiltrated kitchens and went behind counters to taste test some of the best hummus the city has to offer. Turns out, there is many a place in San Francisco to worship the chickpea.
Complexity is the sole universal measure of good quality hummus. Global cultures each have their own distinct variations – mild or pungent, salty or savory, with tons of garlic or no garlic at all, the styles are endless. But a great hummus will surprise you with its layers of flavor, the soft crunch of a whole chickpea, or a subtle dash of cumin that wasn’t obvious at first bite. Universally, a good hummus is a challenge to eat slowly.