Celebrating migrant histories and cuisines in California’s East Bay

15 Mar 2024

California’s Bay Area — a nine-county region including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley — has long been a cultural kaleidoscope, reflecting the unique history of the area. The Bay Area Equity Atlas reports that people of color have comprised the majority of the region since the 1980s, a remnant of its ties to the Pacific Rim, Mexico, and the complicated history of the Gold Rush. Naturally, Slow Food East Bay, the region’s primary chapter, celebrates biological and cultural diversity in a number of ways. Most recently, its Cultural Food Traditions Project has built a grand stage for people to exchange ideas, histories and culinary traditions.


Slow Food East Bay's Cultural Food Traditions Project

The  Cultural Food Traditions Project is an ongoing series of dinners featuring chefs from immigrant or refugee backgrounds given the space to cook a meal of their choosing, followed by a presentation and discussion among the participants. Each dinner involves both a delicious culturally relevant meal and a conversation with the chef about the food’s history and how food and the traditions and rituals involved in producing and serving food help maintain connections to homeland and culture. 

“When we started the Cultural Food Traditions Project, it was with passion and some anger. In a time of crisis, we wanted to use this platform we have – food – as a way to connect and also to teach. To wake people up to how integral diversity and exchanges of labor and ideas and flavors and ingredients are to our food system and to our health and wellbeing. We never imagined we would be five years and thirteen dinners in, having raised $9,578 for our nonprofit beneficiaries, paid nearly $33,000 in cash directly to small scale chefs and seated over 800 people at our tables. We’ve visited countries from Senegal to Hawaii to Iran to Mexico through our food and our guests. And we truly hope that we have both opened guests’ palates and minds and provided a space for a culture to be celebrated by all” – Willow Blish, Slow Food East Bay’s Cultural Food Traditions Project.

In October, for instance, the East Bay chapter focused on the Phillipines and welcomed chefs Cleodia and Ryan Martinez of Midsummer Kitchen, a plant-forward, seasonally-inspired catering company in the East Bay. They flipped the script on pork-centric Filipino dishes, preparing a delicious, plant-based meal. Chef and storyteller Yana Gilbuena hosted a discussion, and nonprofit beneficiary Sama Sama Cooperative received a portion of the proceeds. By donating just over $1,000 to Sama Sama, it will help them continue to offer summer camps free of charge to local Filipino youth, teaching language and arts and imbedding pride in culture for the next generation.  

Slow Food East Bay’s next Cultural Food Traditions Project event just took place on Sunday, March 3  at Korner in Oakland with Puerto Rican chef Emmanuel Rodriguez who has just recently launched his own project, Temporal:Comida del Caribe y Latino America. They partnered with the Puerto Rican Civic Club as the evening’s beneficiary, a local organization that raises awareness of climate change’s effects on the islands and raised critical funds in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Fiona to feed the Puerto Rican people.

By involving a community nonprofit at each event which focuses on preserving cultural heritage or working with recent arrivals to ease their transition, attendees are given tangible ways to get involved with the community through both financial support and volunteer time.

The main goal is to create a safe and inclusive space to celebrate diversity in food while calling attention to the role of migration in the historical development of global foodways and the ways in which immigration is integral to our current food system.  From the ways in which food moves around the world to create the rich webs of like of cilantro from Mexico to coriander in India to the reality that the cheap prices are propped up by the use of immigrant labor, Slow Food East Bay believes we need to be strongly advocating for good quality immigration law and celebrating the role of migration instead of villainizing it.

With an eye to bringing climate change into the conversation, the current iteration of the CFTP dinners are highlighting chefs and nonprofit organizations from island nations: Hawaii, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The hope is to bring to attention the ways in which climate change is disrupting people’s way of life and contributing to the loss of cultural foodways, from agricultural loss and forced migration.

Eating is a political act and through personal choices we can build a fairer, stronger, more diverse, more open, and frankly more delicious food system.

Sharing culture through the Negroni Week Fund

Thanks to the generous funding provided by the Slow Food Negroni Week Fund, Slow Food East Bay is able to offer sliding scale tickets, ensuring that the table is accessible to all, and also ensure that the chef’s are paid not just a fair but abundant wage for their time and knowledge. 

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