Over chicken and collard greens, artist Seitu Jones is jump-starting a dinnertime conversation about healthful cooking and eating.
On Sept. 14, an eight-block stretch of Victoria Street in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood will become the site of the ultimate in pop-up dining.
Artist Seitu Jones is the force behind Create: The Community Meal, a sold-out event that will bring 2,000 neighborhood residents together for a multilayered discussion about making healthful food choices.
Jones’ large-scale public artworks can be seen in venues across the Twin Cities, including the Capitol/Rice Street and Dale Street stations along the Green Line light-rail route in St. Paul.
In a recent phone conversation, Jones talked logistics, the fresh-food challenges faced in low-income neighborhoods and the ways artists are enriching the Create meal.
Q: What’s the genesis of this event?
A: It didn’t come to me in a dream [laughs]. It really came to me by watching people walking by my studio windows — we live in an old storefront in Frogtown, and the studio is downstairs, and my wife and I live upstairs — and when I’d open the blinds, I would see people walk by the windows in one direction, and then walk back a few minutes later with bags of groceries, and I know they were shopping at the local convenience store. Looking at the bags, I know that most of the food was packaged. That got me thinking about making better food choices, and about working with my neighbors and giving people different options. At the heart of the project, it’s really about food access, food justice and healthy eating.
Q: Those issues have been at the forefront of a community group that you’ve been involved with for some time, right?
A: Yes. We received a grant from the USDA, maybe four or five years ago, and it gave us the opportunity to make food assessments in Dayton’s Bluff, Frogtown and Summit-University. We asked people about the obstacles that prevented them from making healthy food choices.
The first was cost, or what I say is the perception of cost. I mean, cheap packaged foods are inexpensive in the short term but they have long-term health costs.
Another obstacle was transportation. But people also felt they were intimidated by making healthy food choices. People have forgotten how to cook; they don’t know how to prepare whole foods.
Create: The Community Meal is an opportunity is to make an invitation into the food system, and as a way to demonstrate to my neighbors what healthy eating is all about, that it’s not intimidating, and that it’s good.
Q: What’s being served, and how did the menu come together?
A: A year and a half ago, we received a grant from the Joyce Foundation in Chicago. Working through Public Art Saint Paul — I need to thank them, they’re the producing organization for the event, providing infrastructure, staffing and hand-holding to make this thing happen — and this grant allowed me to take time to gather food stories.
Everyone has a story written in proteins and carbohydrates and culture and family traditions. The menu is based upon stories we collected in Frogtown and Summit-University, and it’s also based on eating up and down the restaurants along the Green Line.
At the top is chicken. There were so many cultures that added some sweetness to chicken. Working with a chef, we came up with this recipe for honey-ginger chicken. It’s absolutely delicious. We did a tasting about a month ago.
We’re also serving green beans, collard greens, black beans and rice — the rice is coming from the greatest distance, with this not being a rice-growing area — cornbread and apple cider, from the St. Croix Valley.
Q: Pardon me, but I don’t think I heard the word “dessert” in there. Is that intentional?
A: There is no dessert. We went back and forth on that. We thought about chocolate, or some sort of apple dessert. One of the food stories we received was about an apple. It was almost transcendent, and when we read it we said, “We have to have an apple-inspired dessert.”