APNA GHAR: TASTE FOR LIFE FOOD GALA

I was fortunate enough to be invited to Apna Ghar’s 2013 Taste for Life Gala, hosted at the Chicago Cultural Center. Apna Ghar is a “safe haven for women and children in Chicago who face domestic violence, but don’t have the support networks or access to services needed to break free.  While our services are open to all women in Chicagoland, Apna Ghar specializes in serving immigrant women who must overcome significant cultural, social, economic, and legal barriers to life in the United States.”

Restaurants who contributed their delicious morsels included:

  • American Junkie (poke fish with cashew cream sauce, lentil and cauliflowers with spiced almond & caper dressing)
  • Atwood Cafe (Ramp soup, lamb dish)
  • Bombay Wraps (berry lassi, chicken and purple potato partha wraps)
  • Cabot Creamery Cooperative (cheese samples)
  • Cantina Laredo (octopus and shrimp ceviche on spicy blue corn chip)
  • Chocolat-Uzma Sharif (tea-infused chocolate, truffle with white chocolate chip)
  • Cobra Corn (spiced popcorn)
  • Emilio’s Tapas (balsamic grilled vegetables, quinoa, black bean, and mango salad, and potato and cabbage salad)
  • Gaylord India (Bhel Poori, chicken malai kabab)
  • Isla Pilipina (grilled vegetables, vegetable pancit, lumpia)
  • Metropolitan Club (sticky rice cake with cauliflower, white chocolate mousse in mini waffle cone)
  • The Peacock-Fine Indian Cuisine (mini rotis, Lamb kebabs, spiced chicken, spiced paneer and eggplant)
  • Sataza (Chicken Tikka, Tandoori Tofu with lots of toppings, including chickpeas and red onions)
  • Sullivan’s Steakhouse (ahi tuna tartare on wonton chip, filet mignon pretzel sliders with horseradish sauce)
  • Untitled (chicken liver on homemade crostini, cream-cheese filled grit cake with tomato jam)

All participating restaurants also had to incorporate a purple food item into at least one of their dishes, and many of the dishes were uniquely created for the event (i.e., not available on their main menu). Let’s just say I consumed enough food to last me AT LEAST six Chicago winters, and that I probably should’ve spent more time taking pictures than stuffing my mouth. Although all the restaurants presented superb dishes, I literally could not resist three or four trips to American Junkie’s station. The smooth texture of the seared poke meshed perfectly with their slightly acidic, creamy cashew cream sauce (i even got the recipe!). The freshness of the pea shoots, peas, and mushrooms also added a delightful earthy undertone. Their lentil dish topped with purple cauliflower and an almond and caper sauce made me weep with vegetarian glory.

Cantina Laredo’s spicy tortilla chip topped with fresh ceviche (shrimp, freshly grilled octopus, avocado, onion, Jesus’s tears) also brings back fond memories. Gaylord’s malai kabob–chicken marinated in spiced cream cheese and then baked–melted so gently in my mouth that I barely had to chew (not that I chewed much anyway while shoving things down my throat). And Untitled introduced me to chicken liver for the first time..and dear god, was it a delicious explosion of umami.

The fantastic food reflected the fantastic chefs/owners/managers who created the dishes. I met several interesting and funny characters, including the guys  from Isla Pilipina. They’re like the big brothers I’ve always wanted–silly, goofy, and goddamn lovable in every kind of way. And the tattooed chefs from Untitled reminded me that the best food comes from general badasses. Even MasterChef Suzy Singh was there!

Apart from the food, the Taste for Life gala proved highly enjoyable. There was plenty of booze, great music, and lots of FlAsHinG photography. But what I found most amazing was the sheer diversity and amount of people that came to the event. The idea of domestic violence often evokes anger and shame, and these uncomfortable feelings often deter individuals from understanding more about the subject. Yet there were children, men, and women of all ages and ethnicities present at the gala, all bound by a common desire to support Apna Ghar’s cause (and a common love for food, of course). As Serena Low (Executive Director at Apna Ghar) says, “Food is life.  And it cannot be ignored or taken for granted particularly when we are trying to heal and or help others heal from trauma and abuse.”

Apna Ghar’s core services include (from website):

  • 24-Hour Hotline: Our hotline addresses the immediate safety needs of callers, who can connect to our services, get referrals to other programs, and get information about domestic violence and the protective options available to them.
  • Emergency Shelter: Our 15-bed, 24-hour emergency shelter provides women and their children who are escaping abuse a home-like atmosphere where they can regain control of their lives.  Care is taken to maintain a culturally-sensitive, secure, and healing environment.
  • Transitional Housing: Our seven transitional housing apartments offer Apna Ghar shelter clients who have moved beyond an emergency phase the space to establish long-term self-sufficiency.  Transitional housing is available for 18-24 months.  All transitional housing residents receive ongoing, intensive case management during their stay.
  • Counseling: Our counselors use individual and family therapy, support groups, art therapy, conflict management, and communication training to help women and their children process and heal from the trauma of abuse.  Counseling is provided to both residential and non-residential clients.
  • Legal Advocacy: Our legal advocates guide residential and non-residential clients through the US legal system.  Advocates help clients access available legal remedies, including obtaining civil orders of protection, pressing criminal charges, obtaining crime victims’ compensation, filing for divorce, custody, and support, as well as acquiring legal immigration status through protective statutes such as the Violence Against Women Act.  Advocates also help clients obtain legal representation through an in-house legal clinic and partnerships with area legal aid agencies and volunteer attorneys.
  • Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Center: Our supervised visitation and safe exchange center, one of only three in the city of Chicago, provides a free, safe place where children can interact with their non-custodial parent in the presence of a trained facilitator.  The center also offers a safe location for parents to pick-up and drop-off their children when the courts determine that the non-custodial parent may have unsupervised visits.

TACKLING HUNGER AT THE COMMUNITY KITCHEN

For me, hunger has always been a voluntary choice. I’ll forget my lunchbag on the El or fast for an upcoming barbecue, but I have never faced serious issues procuring and eating food (as my blog clearly suggests). So it shocked me that in Cook County alone, 1 out of 6 people suffer from food insecurity. In fact, a 2010 study by the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) found that:

  • 47% of households that the GCFD serves “have had to make the choice between buying food and paying for utilities
  • 44% “had to choose between paying for food and paying for housing”
  • 28% “had to make the choice between buying food and paying for healthcare

To lack the basic necessity of food is a problem you’d expect in Sierra Leone or Haiti, but in the goddamn United States of Excess? “I don’t know why people still struggle with hunger when we’re one of the richest countries in the world. I think it’s racism, I think it’s classism, I think it’s the structures that are in place to keep people disempowered,” says Mary Frohna, Volunteer Coordinator at A Just Harvest (AJH). Located in Rogers Park, AJH is “an anti-hunger organization committed to feeding the hungry andaddressing the root causes of hunger and poverty.”

I decide to explore the hunger crisis in Chicago by volunteering at The Community Kitchen (CK), one of AJH’s numerous programs. With an operating cost of $1,000 per day, CK receives immense support from local volunteers and corporate partnerships (including Jewel, Whole Foods, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository). Having served 54,000+ dinners and contributed 296,000+pounds of food in 2012, the kitchen is open 365 days and welcomes anyone in need.

Our goal is to have it be about respect and dignity,” says Mary. Volunteer waiters serve patrons in a restaurant manner, and house rules (no seconds, no fighting, no taking food home, etc.) are faithfully obeyed. Mary says the goal is to promote interaction between the patrons and volunteers by creating a mutual understanding that “we’re all just people not that far from being in either circumstance.”And tonight’s particularly special because I’m cooking with the Temple Judea Mizpah, the only organization that regularly cooks along side AJH’s chefs. Donning on my plastic gloves and sexy hair net, I help by mixing a monstrous bowl of chicken salad and slicing up gigantic whole watermelons. The menu also consists of spaghetti, chopped salad, mixed vegetables, bread, and various pastries.

As we prep the food, I ask one of the volunteers why hunger remains such a critical issue in America. “There will always be people who are needy,” she replies, adding that a poor economy, dwindling public services, and personal circumstance all play contributing roles. Intrigued, I decide to ask the patrons for their opinion. By now, most of them have settled into the dining room as our one-hour service begins. I strike a conversation with George*, a local resident who serves on the board of directors and organizes Northside P.O.W.E.R., another AJH program that offers “community organizing training and leadership development.” He’s recently returned from a trip in Washington D.C., where he spoke to Senator Durbin about affordable housing. “There are little jobs, no education, it’s a sad situation. Each day you get up, it’s getting worser and worser,” he says. George has been a social activist since the 60s, when he used to be a member of the Black Panther Party. “My thing was to kill the white man. I was carrying guns and weapons, protecting my woman and children,” George says, adding that age and experience has since mellowed out his philosophy.

I ask George about the racial dichotomy often seen in soup kitchens. In fact, 75-90% of CK’s patrons are people of color, 60-65% of which are African American. He replies that blacks suffer from an overwhelming and crushing sense of poverty, adding that “they really have knocked the self-esteem out of our people. We don’t feel like we can go any higher than where we’re at.” Furthermore, he says “every other ethnic group in this nation have been able to prosper. They own their own businesses, they control their own dollars. We haven’t been able to do that.” George says that drugs are “deliberately placed in our communities to stagnate growth of our people.” His friend, Tina*, nods along but holds a positive outlook. She says the biggest misconceptions about black people are that “they’re lazy, they don’t wanna work, they have a lot of babies, they don’t want an education. A lot of us want more out of life; it’s just that some of us are in more situations than others. There are a lot of stressors in the world.” A community organizer and mother of 3 young children, Tina is currently studying for both her GED and college degree.

“I really do believe everybody’s one person, one body, one blood. If people stopped looking at the outside and really look at what a person really is on the inside, they will just see we’re just all the same. What is color anyway? That should be a good blog right there.”

Tina adds that people tend to overly fixate on social issues within the narrow perspective of black versus white. “Why do they always look at black people? We got other nationalities. They have hardships and issues as well.”

George says that nowadays, economic status overshadows skin color as the main problem, adding that “the black man suffers from being poor, not from his color.” However, he acknowledges that the two are inextricably intertwined. He also points out the current fast-food strike, describing the industry as “modern-day slavery” where workers are “underpaid for hard jobs.” George further laments Obama’s increasing centrism, poor education opportunities, and despite my general optimistic disposition, I’m beginning to feel rather morose. But Tina smiles and pats George on the shoulder. “Everyone has the same potential to make it; it depends on you. Even though you’re going through a lot of things in life, you just don’t give up hope. What’s the point of living when you can’t put yourself to make some of your dreams come true?”

Dinner service begins with a rush but quickly dies down in the last 20 minutes. With the crowd dwindling, I sit down with a patron named Keith, who is eating alone and looks needing of company. It’s his first time at CK, and we click immediately. A former coke addict, he now attends Malcolm X College for his GED and describes himself as a workout fanatic. He says programs on the Northside have far more resources than on the Southside or Westside, and he’s taking full advantage of the community programs.

“If you’re hungry, you’re hungry. There’s nothing to be ashamed about,” he says.

Keith tells me about his struggle with hardcore substance abuse: “Coke and heroine are the biggest things that can pull you down into the slums.” He says that drugs play a significant role in many of the patrons’ lives, warning me that drugs “will take you down some dark alleys, some places you never thought you’d go.”

I ask him how he managed to get clean when a sizable percentage of his community still struggles with drugs. “Some people don’t make it—their hearts bust. They die,” he says, “But by the grace of God, I know He has a plan for me.  You can lead a horse to a bucket of water, but you can’t make him drink it. You can lead someone to something, but you can’t make them do it. They have to want to do it on their own.” He adds, “I’m striving for excellence—it’s not where a person has been, it’s about where a person is going in life.”

From my chats with both patrons and volunteers, I realized that food inaccessibility and hunger inevitably became a conversation about race. Nowadays, one would find the rampant racism and sexism of the 50s and 60s as ludicrous, but contemporary Americans fare no better by ignoring our generation’s issues. Not enough people question why homeless people tend be minorities or why certain industries are dominated by blacks or Hispanics. We tend to ignore or delicately meander around uncomfortable information, suppressing them neatly into the back of our social conscience. In trying to foster a “partnership” between patrons and volunteers, Mary encourages volunteers to take the first 20 minutes to interact with patrons. However, she admits that there is often hesitation from the “perceived separation and discomfort that comes with not knowing.” In fact, I rarely observed any of the volunteers interacting with the patrons outside of their perfunctory duties. But really, there’s a fine line between shaming and raising attention to glaring social issues, and I struggle with treading appropriately. Identifying ignorance is often interpreted as an attack on character, and I try immensely hard at avoiding the latter.

If this post has mentally fatigued you with social commentary, rest your weary soul. Ultimately, the Community Kitchen (and all of AJH’s programs) is a fantastic organization that fights hunger by providing the basic necessity of food. Sure, hunger remains a serious societal concern, but they’ve made significant achievements with the resources they have, and that’s a wonderful thing.