It’s hard to describe dining at a half-mile long table set for 2,000.
My place at table 123 wasn’t just part of a meal, but a massive art piece that finally came to fruition after two years in the making.
Artist and host Seitu Jones was inspired to partner with Public Art St. Paul and plan CREATE: The Community Meal after watching people pass by his residence and studio located in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota carrying grocery bags of processed foods from the convenience store. He embarked on a food assessment of the community with the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and Afro-Eco to learn what factors drive people to choose unhealthier foods. The study identified cost, a lack of access, and lost sense of knowing how to cook whole foods to be these driving factors.
Volunteers played a pivotal role in cultivating community. They set up and tore down. They greeted us at every entrance gate and helped us find our tables. And at least one volunteer sat at each table to facilitate the moving pieces of the meal’s artistry.
Even the table settings had a very intentional layout.
The whole event was designed to have zero waste and these Zero Waste Labs dotted each block. The place mats were handcrafted by Jones’ neighbor Mary Hark from neighborhood plants like burdock and rhubarb.
Empty seats were offered to those who were not able to reserve a ticket online and anyone else that wanted to join.
When it was time to eat, our hosts processed to the tables with platters of honey-ginger chicken they served in unison with gracefully choreographed movements.
We dove into the tender chicken with our fingers and enjoyed it with rice and beans, cornbread, salad greens and Salad Girl vinaigrette, and spicy collard greens with carrots and green beans all sourced within 40 miles (except for the rice). Of course, everything was served family style.
It’s impossible to be an island to one’s self while eating from platters meant to be shared. At some point, even the shyest person would have to ask for more of something, as every component was worthy of seconds. Chef James Baker of Elite Catering & the SunnySide Cafe prepared the type of meal that I will try to replicate over and over.
During my first year after college, I interned at Redeemer Center for Life located in the Harrison Neighborhood of Near North Minneapolis across the street from SunnySide. Elite catered some work events and I was filled with excitement when I first read that Baker would lead the menu.
Throughout the meal, our gracious host facilitated discussions about our favorite childhood meals, favorite desserts and asked us to brainstorm one way we could overcome an obstacle in our community to healthy and sustainable food.
Growing up in Apple Valley, Minnesota, we didn’t eat too adventurously. Therefore, my favorite meals were the special occasions where we would order Chinese take-out. I’ve always had a taste for spicy foods and preferred savory over sweet, so as an adopted Korean, I was interested to learn that one’s food preferences can be influenced in utero. In my case, this explains a lot.
All of our food stories are so unique and worth exploring.
When the final bell sounded we read a closing written by Soyini Guyton that ended with the final words, “We wish to never forget the healing power of food, community, and love. We go in peace.”
Those who walked by and wanted to dine was offered food and a seat at the table, yet some leftovers remained. These were offered to anyone who wanted to take them home and finally delivered to a shelter.
The rhythm of spoken word drew us down Victoria towards University and continued to weave personal stories of food and identity.
Participating in Jones’ community meal was a humbling experience. There’s something humbling about being cared for by strangers.
I left overjoyed at connecting with old friends and making some new. Is there a better way to bring people together than over a meal? Good things happen when you break bread with strangers.