People’s Kitchen Collective: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik & Jocelyn Jackson & Saqib Keval

Between You and Me

People’s Kitchen Collective: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik & Jocelyn Jackson & Saqib Keval

By Sita K. Bhaumik, Jocelyn Jackson, Saqib Keval December 19, 2018

Between You and Me is a series of dialogic exchanges between artists and their collaborators and peers to materialize the countless conversations, musings, and debates that are often invisible, yet play a significant role in the generative space of art-making.


This column is funded by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a private family foundation dedicated to enhancing quality of life by championing and sustaining the arts, promoting early childhood literacy, and supporting research to cure chronic disease.

________

To: Saqib Keval
From: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik

Dear Saqibz,

When we met, I felt like I found a missing piece of the Oakland puzzle. Robynn asked us to be on KPFA’s APEX Express to talk about “Feeding the Masses,” and you invited me over to cook with you before we were on the air. I guess it was kind of an intense way to meet—I came through your door and right into a homebrew Iron Chef smackdown. I remember there were so many dishes crammed in the sink, we couldn’t even get a glass of water. As Cece likes to remind us, our team lost. I met not only you that night, but Cece, Jonathan, and so many other folks who are People’s Kitchen Collective family and have become my family too.

There were a lot of similarities between us. We both were part of big communities. You had already started People’s Kitchen and were working with People’s Grocery. I was MamaSita, cooking big meals for Left Wing Futbol Club and organizing with Kearny Street Workshop. We both came from big farming families who like things like ATVs. Both of us were second gen, double diaspora kids—your family through India, Ethiopia, and Kenya, to the US, mine through India, Japan, and Colombia to the US. Our bios both said that our favorite spice was cardamom. Once, we were at different events and we texted each other photos of our “formal wear” socks. Mine had vegetables on them. Yours had lal mirch.

I roped you into a few of my schemes; you tried to usher me into People’s Kitchen (PK), but it didn’t quite stick. I even interviewed you, Aileen, and Kay for Hyphen magazine when it was PK. You have an awful memory, so you are probably saying “oooh” in mild surprise right now as you are remembering this. Your voice shifts tone upwards during the elongated “ooo.” This is also where you say you hate how well I know you. We know a lot about each other. If I ever seem critical, whether in frequency or content, it is because it is easy to tell you these things, and you are one of the few people in my life who I have this relationship with. It is not that I am more frequently frustrated with you than other people; you’re just easier to tell it to!

We started working together three years ago, when you asked Jocelyn and I to cook with you for an event you didn’t want to do alone. Then, I had an event that I needed help with, and Jocelyn had been offered to make a meal for more people than she usually cooked for. Somehow, through working on each other’s projects, People’s Kitchen became People’s Kitchen Collective (PKC). I remember I drew in my notebook, “We did the work before naming it.” I was at a crossroads in my own practice. I felt stuck creatively and remember telling Jocelyn on a late car-ride home that maybe I was done being an artist and was thinking of becoming a caterer. Thank God I met you guys. There was an ease and energy to our work. The three of us also had our own momentum, our own rhythm, our own roller coasters. Our challenge has been that as our individual roller coasters roll in different directions, we have to engineer where they meet.

Every three months of PKC has felt like a different PKC. Our relationship to each other has shifted, too. At each turn, we keep asking ourselves, each other, and the folks that we do this work with, why are we doing what we are doing? We have big revolutionary words and big revolutionary heroes. This is the dream of PKC—its possibility as something larger than ourselves. I feel this at our events, but I don’t know how to describe this to people. When you have those big ideas, I see you waving your right arm and then your left, as though clearing the air in front of you for you to speak something grand. You always have a smile on your face—a flash of teeth and a badmash grin. This is the sparkle and snark that is yours alone among the three of us. At times, you have been my political compass, but we both know, never my moral one. You are one of the most gifted people I have ever met with flavor, and yet you would rather squeeze nacho-cheese sauce on Little Caesars Pizza than eat your own food.

There is a permanence now. We have partners and families. We’ve been in different cities, different countries—you moved to Mexico with Norma to manifest many more dreams. And somehow, over this last crazy year, we still have each other. Tuesdays at 5 p.m. It is a weekly call that takes us by surprise every week: two hours to wade through eight easy things, two impossible ones, and one thing we never get to. I only see my therapist with this much regularity. I’ve been surprised by how we’ve made this work in the face of everything—your restaurant closure, each of our other jobs and projects, our families’ needs. But, as we all confirmed with our therapist Melvin, we are stuck with each other. (We often refer to therapy as PKC’s most revolutionary act.) Although the particulars may shift, we’re in it for the long haul. This is comforting to me when everything else seems like an unknown.

People's Kitchen Collective. STREETS! (2018); a free historic community meal for 500 people in celebration of resilience in West Oakland. Photo: Sana Javeri Kadri

I have learned so much from you. You are a dreamer. I’ve learned to let you speak your crazy, impossible ideas without interrupting you to tell you how dangerous or expensive that thing might be. You’ve shown me how not to think of all the reasons something can’t be done, and to let someone else shut it down. You’ve taught me that as I grow as an artist, I can think beyond the parameters I might even set for myself. You believe in dreams. I believe in wonder. They are linked, but different ways of thinking creatively.

A lot of this is gendered: the expectations of labor, how we care for each other, how much we allow ourselves to dream, how much we expect to get paid for any of these things. You’ve been an accomplice in this; we talk openly about these things. You’ve negotiated for higher rates for me, when I have been offered less money for the same work. I love and appreciate you for this. I remember so clearly when we began working together, Jocelyn had an event at a space in San Francisco. Her name was on the menu. She introduced the meal. I’m pretty sure she sang. The guests were largely white women. As I walked past, one of them cooed, “Is that the chef?” and pointed at you in the kitchen. This happened over and over again, and it still does. We learned early on that your maleness was like a magnet that reinforced the expectations of what a chef, or an artist, is. In my adult life, I have always been loud and confident in front of a crowd, but there was something about PKC, that at the beginning, I was re-learning my own voice. It was like I opened my mouth to speak, and nothing came out.

Before working with you and Jocelyn, I thought I knew what it meant to collaborate. I had no idea. How we are to each other is the core of what we produce in the world. We try to be good to each other. I think that’s rare. I have always said that working collaboratively is only possible when something is possible together isn’t possible alone. I think we have felt that. Stepping into a space with 150 or 600 people, there is wonder. Possibility. We, along with some magical people who do impossible things with us, set the stage for this to happen. PKC has also given me the freedom to be an artist who isn’t tied to the things that I felt somehow attached to before. Every person that we work with has taught me to be more bold, to suspend belief while not suspending criticality, what it means to love a whole community along with the people within it. This is the possibility you planted more than ten years ago, and I am grateful that our stars aligned for us to do this together.

You inspire me,

Sita

P.S. It had never occurred to me to look up the meaning of your name but apparently it translates from Arabic to shining, bright star. My name means furrow in the ground, or from the earth. So there you have it.

Random:

________

To: Jocelyn Jackson
From: Saqib Keval

Alright Jocelyn,

This is my chance to tell you how I feel.

You’re a butthead.

You’re really touchy feely, and you make me eat too many fruits. You sneak vegetables into everything, and your food tastes like love and caring. It’s annoying. Please stop trying to make me live longer. Let me eat burgers and chicken wings in peace.

End of letter.

s

Ok now that I got that snark out of the way:

Dear Jocelyn,

I consider myself so lucky to know you and even more fortunate to be able to work with you so closely. I feel like my dreams, my schemes, and all my wild-eyed madnesses are safe with you. More than safe, they feel more real when I tell them to you. You have a way of keeping these things alive—of bringing them back up in the strangest times and reminding me of these hopes and schemes. You bring the dreams to life, and you always seem to have an endless amount of time and energy to make things happen. I am in awe of you. I have always been in awe of you. I don’t know what deep reserves you pull your early-morning baking sprees and boundless love from. I don’t know if I will ever know or fully understand what or how you do what you do, I just know that I am grateful. Your patience and love has had a profound impact on my life. I am better because of you, and more than all of that, I am in awe of you.

You, Sita, and I... We are close. I know we have worked to get this close. I know you have pushed for us to be this close, and keep working to stay close and get closer. You love deeply and make us Love Us deeply. And it’s ANNOYING!!!!!! HA! But, as is often the case, you are right. You ignore all my eye rolls and huffing and puffing and make sure we regularly schedule our group therapy and retreat time. You make us eat meals together, and more often than not, you make us food that’s all healthy and delicious and shit. You make sure we do check-ins before our calls, and you ask us how we are doing, in the way that makes me feel it and also makes me nervous to answer fully cuz there never feels like there is enough time.

I often don’t know what to make of our time. It always feels like we are in a bit of a rush—maybe just a rush to catch up with ourselves and all that we dream and scheme up. It never feels like we have enough time together, even when we have spent waaaay too much time together. I wonder if this is how a lot of collaborators feel? We have done so much; we are still doing so much, and I know we have so much in front of us. You know I don’t always feel bright-eyed & bushy-tailed about our work. I grumble more than most and get bitter when reflecting on my “founder’s syndrome” and the trap of “oh god what have I done with my life.” You and Sita hear all that bitterness and grumbling and hopelessness, and somehow, you both always bring me back into what we love. Sita will grumble with me, but you, Ms. Jackson, find ways to pull me out of my funk and get on track. It’s deeply annoying, but damn, it’s effective and loving and kind. Ugggghhhhhh. Why are you like this?! Please stop, and just let me be a grump. JK (kinda).

People's Kitchen Collective. In Living Color (2016); a community celebration for West Oakland Youth Center's youth and their families. Photo: Sana Javeri Kadri

I grump a lot, I know, but sometimes grumping is cathartic. I appreciate the hell out of you for listening to my grumps and not passing judgement. I also appreciate that you catch me in those moments of joy and remind me to sit with it, to live in it, and to celebrate our work rather than always looking at what is missing. When our events are about to start and I feel the most chaotic, I am brought back by the songs you sing to welcome people to the table. I imagine Sita feels the same way, and that’s why we always insist you sing to start our meals. I think it brings us all into the moment together. What we are doing is big. It’s hard to hold onto a dream like PKC, but when I’m with you and Sita, it feels more possible. PKC has always felt like it’s running away from me, but with the two of you, I feel like it’s closer. It feels like us.

Years back, I dreamt of PKC in three parts: the open palm, the fork, and the fist. This turned into the drawing, then a wood carving, and now our logo. The open palm, to welcome; the fork, to feed; and the fist, to be in the struggle together. And above all, Love, in all it’s radical possibility. There are a lot of ways to describe these three images, but for now I will keep it simple. This was before I knew you or Sita, before I knew what a partnership like this could be, before I thought that PKC would live on in all the glorious ways it has. What I love about us is how we all take turns living into those different symbols. We have our strengths and what we are drawn to (you are by far the most welcoming person I have ever met, and you’ve turned greetings into art forms), but I feel like we have each lived into these different approaches to our work and made them come together. It feels powerful. Radical. Rebellious.

It feels like love.
In all it’s radical possibility.

s.

P.S. You’re still a butthead.

P.P.S. Let’s go watch bad movies and drink slushies.
________

To: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik
From: Jocelyn Jackson

Sita. Each day we pick up the tools of our trade and I can't help but think of the fire that made them and the fire that is required to activate their purpose. Sita, you are also fire. You transform ideas into action, recipes into rebellion, community into family. You make us better. You make us stronger. I ni cé, Jocelyn
________

From: Jocelyn Jackson
To: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik

Dear Jocelyn,

The first time I met you, we were in construction vests and hard hats. Saqib was thinking about a possible home for what was then People’s Kitchen, and he asked both of us to join him for a site visit. You were asking all the smart questions. I remember pointing at you and asking Saqib, “Who is that? I want to be around her.” A year or so passed, and I saw you again at Miss Ollie’s. Saqib and Sarah were cooking, and, as is known to happen there, people spontaneously burst into song. From your seat at one of the tables, you summoned and you sang, and I remember thinking, “She sings, too?!” Shortly after, Saqib asked us to cook with him. It was a blur, and I can’t remember exactly which came first: Urban Tilth, Free Breakfast at Life Is Living, or Decolonize Your Diet. 2015 was a moment in which our worlds shifted in the formation of a Venn diagram. We shifted Saqib’s People’s Kitchen into our People’s Kitchen Collective.

In order to make these People’s Kitchen projects possible, we ended up working each other’s events. You asked me to cook with you for a retreat, and I said yes. The morning of, something had happened with your rental car, and you asked me if I could drive us along with the ingredients for the retreat. I said “of course” without stopping to think how cases of food were going to fit in my…Mini Cooper. It took us over an hour, but we stuffed bags of grain next to my spare tire, in the cup holders, and under the seats. You were so calm that I had no idea we were running late until halfway through our road trip, when you began making calculations about what had to be unloaded in order for us to cook a meal for a room full of people in under an hour. By some act of divine kitchen intervention, we managed to feed everyone—I had turned into a peach tart-making machine—running ovens and fans to get them done. I have never made that many peach tarts since then. At the end of the night, as we cleaned up and started peeling vegetables for the next day’s meal, you looked at me and said, “Go to bed. Do not try to keep up with me.”

I brushed it off with a look that I hoped said, “You just don’t know me yet.” I have always been the person other folks “can’t keep up with.” I set an alarm for the next morning at 5:30 a.m. I struggled out of bed and down the hall only to find that you had already prepped half the meal. Only two days into the retreat, I woke up dizzy and nauseous from exhaustion, shut off my alarm, and went back to bed. You were right. I had met my match, and you had told me so. Is this what it’s like to have an older sister?

People's Kitchen Collective. STREETS! (2018); a free historic community meal for 500 people in celebration of resilience in West Oakland. Photo: Sana Javeri Kadri

On the way back from the retreat, I remember talking to you about how I was at a transition in my life and wasn’t sure if I wanted be a working artist. You seemed like a person who had things figured out. I asked you if you thought my fullest potential could be realized in food. People didn’t pay me to show up as an artist, but they did pay me to cook, so I had begun merging the two. I was in between teaching jobs. I was searching for anchors. It’s hard for me now to remember how I was feeling in that moment because so much has changed since then. But I do remember being frustrated, tired, and wanting to give myself some time to think about where to focus my life and work. I was thinking of staging at a restaurant or starting a catering business. I even had a sample menu and a logo and a failed food blog. How could I make money? What could I do that nobody else could do?

I had no idea that quite the opposite was about to happen. PKC made me realize how much I am and always will be an artist. A “Capital A Artist” as you know I like to say. On the car ride home, you listened patiently as I talked in circles about this latest crisis. Even though we were just getting to know each other, it was the first of many “real talk” sessions that you’ve had with me since then.

I learn so much from you. Because of you I have a new understanding for what it means to be accountable to communities and accountable to people. I thought I knew before, but I didn’t. You have shown me another way out of a finger-pointing corporate culture that I was so used to working in. My right eyebrow now raises when I hear someone placing blame. I couldn’t see those things before as clearly as I do now. You have a fierceness, a power with which you hold your peoples close. You think big and inspire me to do the same even though sometimes it can take me years to see what you have seen all along. I have always felt the power of what we do, but I honestly think that it has taken me until this week to see the possibility of PKC—of what our work can do and who it can reach in a way that I’m sure you saw even before we met. I’m grateful to you for being three steps ahead of the game.

I have heard you say this before, and I feel it. It is one of the great honors of my life that I get to do this work with you. It challenges me, holds me accountable, frees me up. Thank you.

With love and gratitude,

Sita
________

From: Saqib  Keval
To: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik

To Sita—

I like you. But listen,… before I knew you, I didn’t like you. Well, it’s not that I didn’t like you, it’s just that I learned about your work before I knew who you were. Your work was incredible, and it made me feel kinda jealous. You were so far ahead. Your spice walls and migration maps and turmeric and curry powder everything was genius. The kind of genius that I had wished I could be like. I was inspired by you. And jealous. I remember when I first saw your work in a magazine, a roommate had brought it home to show me and said, “You would do something like this.” I read and re-read that article and pored over the photos. I looked you up online and listened to your lectures and watched videos of you doing brown art things and I was so incredibly in awe. So, of course I didn’t like you. You were too cool, and I was too jealous of all that brilliance. I think the first time we met, I told you all of this, but what I haven’t told you is how excited I got when you wanted to be my friend! And then even more excited when you wanted to work with me! And when showed me all the cool projects you were working on and all the art schemes you had rattling around in your brain. I stopped being jealous as I got to know you. I saw first-hand your crazy brilliance and all the creativity and inspiration you draw from. I got inspired by you! I still feel inspired. Working with you is a dream come true.

That being said, you are absolutely crazy.

It’s perhaps your best quality, and I think it’s one of the things we bond over most. (That and Bob’s Burgers). I appreciate that you have never said my ideas are too wild. Often times, you one-up me with even wilder ideas. I love brainstorming and scheming and dreaming with you. I admire the depth of the research that you do and how you bring so much soul to the smallest details that seem so insignificant, but then when it all comes together, the genius is in all those tiny details.

People's Kitchen Collective. TO THE TABLE (2018); a meal in remembrance of the signing of Executive Order 9066. Photo: Sana Javeri Kadri

I like that we know each other so well. I like the types of hard conversations we have and how much back-and-forth and bickering we do. You said that I’m your political (and immoral compass) which I find hard to believe, but let’s go with it. I admire how you live your politics. You’re perpetually making me think about how to be a better person, how to talk to people more and build real relationships with my community. You are so incredibly generous with your time, energy, food, and friendship, while I often feel like a grumpy sack, too bitter and tired to try. It’s a gift you have. In my hardest moments with PKC (and there have been many) you have made me believe in myself, in our work, and in the greatness of what PKC can be.

You made me believe in the radical possibility of PKC.

Before we started working together, this project was chaos: equal parts love project and misguided magic. I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have plans for it, I was just trying to keep it moving. Often times I exhausted myself and crashed for days after an event, or would be filled with terrible doubt and fear about the choices I had made. And then we started working together, and everything changed. You and Jocelyn created order and depth and strategy. You made PKC make sense to me, and more than that, you made it make sense to other people. You taught me the magic of spreadsheets and planning. I am so grateful for that.

I can quite certainly say that you have changed my life, that you have made me a better person—a better organizer, a better chef, a better artist, a better man. Working with you has taught me how to be clearer in my hopes and dreams. I often can’t believe that you continue to be in this with me, that we can be in this together.

I would be happy if the rest of our friendship and collaboration was just watching reruns of Bob’s Burgers together and grumbling about things that annoy us (and I know a large part of it will definitely be that). I am really excited for what comes next. I am excited for what we will create, and organize, and dream. However, I am most excited for what we will learn together. I get so giddy when I see that wild glint in your eye, when you have found some fact or story in your research and all of a sudden, all the pieces start to fit together and our project starts to take shape in some miraculous way.

This past year with all the bullshit we have all been going through, I have felt so much more cautious and fearful. So much more tired. You keep pulling me out of my shell, and I appreciate the hell out of that. I feel like you are bringing PKC back to me, or bringing me back to PKC, or something like that. Like you’ve always done, you’re making me believe.

I love you and am so excited for what comes next.

Saqib

P.S. I’m sorry I was late to our radio interview cuz I went to get my eyebrows done. I think we can both agree that it was worth it.

P.P.S. Your letter was so personal and sweet and long! WE AGREED WE WERE JUST GOING TO SEND MEMES TO EACH OTHER AND CALL IT A DAY! Thanks for making me feel guilted into writing you a nice letter. Jerk.
________

From: Jocelyn Jackson
To: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik

Dear Saqib, Because you offered me an open hand of welcome and belonging over six years ago, TODAY, together, with our community, we stand with fist and fork in solidarity. We stand for our collective liberation. We stand for love. Jocelyn

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