The morning I packed up my car to drive to Baltimore from Cape Cod, I drove to Nauset Beach for one last plunge in the ocean. It was December 28th, 2020. I wanted to arrive in my new home tasting like my old home.
I arrived in Baltimore hungry for community. I had thrown that word around so much since I first learned about community-based theater as an undergraduate. But what did I mean when I said community? Was it a group of people? A place? How could I be a community-based artist without a community to ground myself in? Why did I not feel like I could do this community-based work back in Cape Cod?The night before I left, I wrote in my journal, “I feel like I did before going off to college, knowing I’m going to change but not sure how.” I felt this urgency to change, to be in a stronger connection with my body and my community. I knew that I wanted to invest myself in my new community, knew that I came to Baltimore searching for community, but I didn’t know what I meant by community or how I was looking for it to fill me or why I felt that hunger in the first place.
My first Saturday in Baltimore, I bundled up in my royal blue winter jacket and walked the ¾ of a mile to the 32nd St. Farmers Market. It was bigger than the market I went to in my undergraduate college town in Ohio, but there was still a comforting familiarity to the canopy tents that filled the parking lot. I bought local apples from Black Rock Orchard, a treat I had never experienced in the winter. Eggs from Cindy at Glenville Hollow Farms, her hands covered only by latex gloves as she unfolded my crumpled dollar bills. A bucket of collard greens from Bartenfelder Farms, dumped into my upcycled CVS bag which filled an entire shelf in my refrigerator. I returned to this market week after week, and eventually started working at Farm to Face, a farm-to-table vendor specializing in falafel wraps. Having moved to the city during a global pandemic, shopping and working at the market helped me feel connected to my new home. The market became the lens through which I came to learn both about Baltimore specifically, and community in general.
While grounded under the Farm to Face white canopy tent, I became aware of the flow of the market. Vendors like us who sold prepared foods filled empty crates with fresh produce to take back to our kitchens, transforming market ingredients into ready-to-eat foods for the following week. Sometimes vendors brought their own goods to trade, exchanging loaves of bread for collard green wraps. A larger story began to unfold for me: a story of symbiosis and reciprocity, of generosity and abundance. My ambiguous hunger for community crystallized into a hunger for a communal-mindset, away from the individualist perspective of success and growth. Reading Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown gave me language to articulate many of these ideas, as well as prompted critical reflection about my history with community engagement. I realized that in my previous community-engaged work I had thought about where I was reaching towards but not where I was reaching from, and that I hadn’t reflected on the impact of how I had been changed through these interactions.
Emphasizing this reciprocal nature of community feels especially important as a white woman living in a hypersegregated city like Baltimore. José Luis Valenzuela, UCLA theater professor and director, emphasizes the importance of investing in your community before you decide to make art inside it. “Paternalism can exist, or the savoir idea, or exoticism that communities offer through economic or social conditions,” he said in an interview for Staging America, a book about American community-based theater. Learning about Baltimore through the stories shared at both the 32nd St and JFX farmers’ markets has been critical to my investment in my new home. It’s through these stories that I have also learned about the systemic disinvestment in areas of the city, particularly through the lens of food apartheid. This has complicated my understanding of community, making it something more complex than the joy of gathering on a Saturday morning to buy fresh collard greens.
Recipes for Community has become a container that holds these complexities. With each iteration of the project, I seek to create space for intentional communion and reflection on the ingredients that make up our communities, and how these ingredients influence each other. The metaphor of a recipe highlights the reciprocal and adaptive nature of community. I’m interested in the stories of these adaptations, and in creating space for people to come together and create new recipes/stories using the given assets of the people and place around them. Furthermore, in unearthing the origins of what we ingest–literally and metaphorically–I seek to encourage a deeper connection to our bodies and an awareness of the history of who and what has cultivated these seeds.
If what we pay attention to grows, then strengthening our awareness can change the stories we bring to the table.
Photos Credited to: Michael Caballes