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.”
But looking at cost and preparation and the whole idea for this meal, we ultimately decided that we don’t always have to have a dessert with a meal.
Q: What’s going to happen on the day of the event? Besides eating, of course.
A: It’s going to be a big piece of art, a big piece of social sculpture.
Folks will be seated all at once. We’ll read grace by G.E. Patterson, who was commissioned to write it. The servers will bring the food from the serving stations to the table performing a set of movements choreographed by Ananya Chatterjea [artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre]. I’ve always had this vision of looking up from the top of the street and seeing those graceful moves of the servers bringing the food to the table.
Once we sit down, we’ll eat, and we’ll begin this dinnertime conversation.
We’ll depart with a closing. I don’t want to use the word “prayer.” We struggled with that. It’s not a benediction. It’s a closing. Five poetic lines, composed by [poet and seminarian] Soyini Guyton. We will all start to leave and we’ll be enlightened by a performance by a group of spoken word artists, who have been commissioned to work with elders in their communities.
Q: How many people does it take to stage a dinner for 2,000 people?
A: There’s a core team of about seven folks from Public Art Saint Paul, and about 400 volunteers. There are countless farmers, fabricators and family that are all pitching in to make this happen. It’s free for those who attend. We’ve been raising money to keep it free. The money that we’ve raised is going back into the pockets of farmers and artists.
Q: Can you share some specifics about this table?
A: It’s one long table, even across the intersections. We’re going to close Victoria from University Avenue to Minnehaha Avenue, it’s not quite a half-mile. We’re not going for a record for longest table. We decided that setting a record is not our focus.
We’re using it to begin a real suppertime conversation about food. We hope that people walk away with a pledge to become more involved in the food system.
Q: Where does someone get their hands on a half-mile-long table?
A: We thought for about 10 minutes about building a table, but that was way too crazy.
We’re renting tables and chairs from a rental company. We called them last year. There are 42 tables per block, and eight people per table. It’s assigned seating. People will be getting their tickets in the mail.
Q: I’m trying to picture a tablecloth stretching from University Avenue to Minnehaha Avenue, in the style of Christo, the artist famous for wrapping landmarks in fabric. Is there one?
A: That was going to be one of the big elements that we ended up having to drop. We were going to do a half-mile long tablecloth. We did a prototype, but the reality of the costs, and then what to do with it afterwards, were just overwhelming.
We thought of taking the same approach that Christo does — cutting it up, having people purchase pieces of it — but I wanted the focus to be on the food. There will be a tablecloth, but it’s coming from the rental company.
One artistic element that remains are 2,000 handmade placements, made from handmade paper from Mary Hark, an internationally recognized papermaker.
She has been working with a multigenerational group of neighborhood residents, using bio-waste from the neighborhood to make paper in her driveway. There aren’t too many alleys within a couple-block radius of Mary’s house that still have any signs of burdock or other invasive plant types that are good sources for fiber [laughs].
People will be eating on these fantastic works of art. They’re the same size and the same thickness, and kind of the same color, but not a single two are identical.
Q: Who is doing the cooking?
A: It’s a group of chefs led by chef James Baker. Chef has a small restaurant on Glenwood and Morgan in Minneapolis, the SunnySide Cafe. It’s open three days a week, and it’s always packed.
He has served a meal for 5,000 people, but the thing that’s greatest about him is that he’s a storyteller. He’s going to be working with a group of younger chefs, primarily people of color.
Q: Why are you emphasizing locally raised food?
A: This is going to be an opportunity for people to meet their farmers. A big majority of the food is coming from within 50 miles, and most of the food is being raised by farmers of color. We’ve ordered 500 chickens from a farm in Northfield; it’s an incubator for Latino farmers.
Q: Where is meal being prepared?
A: That was also a struggle. SunnySide Cafe was too small, and chef [Baker] was so gracious, he said he would close the restaurant for the weekend. But we ended up finding a kitchen incubator in south Minneapolis, City Food Studio. We’ll be using six trucks on the day of the event. Chef will be on a golf cart as he goes from serving station to serving station.
Q: Are all of the seats taken?
A: Yes. The response has been really amazing. Our goal was to get half the folks seated at the table from Frogtown and Summit-University, and we thought that would be a struggle, but were able to meet that goal a few weeks ago. Once word got out, we knew the other thousand seats would fill up quickly, and they have. Now we’re going down the list and asking people to give up their seats and become servers. We need more volunteers. [Learn more at www. publicartstpaul.com/create].
Q: Have you created any legacies beyond the event on Sept. 14?
A: We have designed and are building two mobile art kitchens. They’re demonstration kitchens that Public Art Saint Paul has commissioned with funding from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.
They’re towed by bicycles, and they’ve been gifted to two organizations that work with young people and agriculture, the Youth Farm and the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center at the Science Museum of Minnesota. They’ll use them to prepare food for their programs, but also to set up at events for demonstrations on how to prepare healthy food.
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