I grew up during my elementary school years in Northeast DC just outside the University of Maryland campus. Maryland had a diverse campus population, and my parents always rented out one of our rooms to an international student. They setup a deal with the Malaysian and Taiwanese students who lived with us during that time, that they could eat a meal with us six nights out of the week, if on the seventh night, they cooked and taught us how to cook a dish from their home country. This experience was formative on so many levels, not the least of which was my early love for Asian Pacific cuisine in all it’s forms, and an early grasp on how to prepare it. Growing up in our house, once you hit middle school, you were responsible for preparing all your own lunches, and one dinner a week for the whole family, which means I got an early start in my culinary endeavors.
This spirit of sharing meals continued through my teenage years as we always set an extra plate for dinner, and we were always free to have a friend join us. Our friends knew this came with the expectation of contribution, whether it was harvesting the vegetables from our terraced gardens, prepping and cooking the meal, or cleaning up after. The communal nature of the meal experience had a big impact on my current life, along with the value of always making room for one more person at the table.
I originally moved into the Bottoms (Franklinton) in 2009 with a group of nine other friends who all committed to live in proximity to each other and share a meal together every Thursday night. This practice continued for five years as we grew from a group of nine to twenty, and our potlucks became increasingly more tied to the earth and a group wide commitment to only purchase and prepare that which was local, organic, and fairly treated. As our group grew, so did the intolerances and allergies. Our crew had dairy allergies, gluten allergies, vegetarians, and vegans. It was a unique challenge to learn how to cook and be thoughtful for the many different dietary needs of our community, but one that ultimately broadened my horizons.
It is a gift to live in the Bottoms, with its fertile land, and to work alongside those who have grown Franklinton Gardens from a community plot to the urban farm it is today. The gardens provide thousands of pounds of organic vegetables and fruits for our neighborhood, and make beautiful the formerly vacant lots around our community. I’m already counting the weeks until the first harvest of spring will come in, and fresh veggies from the neighborhood can be part of my diet again.
Speaking of the neighborhood, the picture above is taken at the corner of West Broad St and Central avenue, on the western edge of Franklinton. Every Sunday, (rain, snow, sleet, or shine), my faith community at St. John’s Episcopal gathers for Street Church which is Eucharist and a shared meal. The service and meal draw neighbors from nearby homeless camps, squatters, and others who wouldn’t otherwise come through the door of a church. St. John’s made a commitment to serve healthy meals (a rarity in any homeless outreach or shelter) low in sugar, and using as many locally grown vegetables as possible. My community is in charge of making the meal the first Sunday of each month, and it has been a great experience learning how to cook for 75 – 100 people, and finding new ways to make healthy meals appealing for our friends who are used to processed foods.
There isn’t much in this world that holds more importance for me than the experience of a tasty and healthy meal shared around the table with friends, whether it is with two or eighty. If I had my pick, the meal would consist of primarily seafood and veggies, followed by a piece of dark chocolate and sip of bourbon to finish the evening, but I’m not truly picky, and if you cook it I will come.