“Food is a way to explore identity and trace back lineage,” explains Portland poet and event curator Stacey Tran. Since February 2017, Tran has invited women-identified and gender-nonbinary people of color to share stories at the intersections of family, food and tradition with her event series, Tender Table. Unlike The Moth-style storytelling events, oral histories at Tender Table events are delivered in an array of styles, and often with little practice. Best of all, attendees enjoy small samples of foods prepared by presenters to accompany their tales. An event might include bites of spicy Jamaican curry, fried Nigerian puff puff and Filipino ginataang bilo bilo (sticky rice balls).
With an ever-expanding list of past presenters and unorthodox venues (including People’s Food Co-Op and the Independent Publishing Resource Center), these pop-up events are always unique. Take, for instance, a fundraising dinner hosted by Tender Table for women of color-led UNA Gallery. At the event, multimedia artist Zeloszelos Marchandt dove into a vivid account of the hours of labor that preclude African coffee ceremonies like the one prepared that evening. As Marchandt shared childhood memories of preparing the coffee alongside family, guests timidly stirred spoonfuls of clarified butter and dashes of salt into cups of hot, dark coffee before consuming.
The Origin of Tender Table
Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest to Vietnamese refugee parents, Tran grew up eating Vietnamese cuisine prepared by her mother. Years after moving to Portland, Tran found herself increasingly connected with people of color who also enjoyed talking about the links between food and culture.
“I don’t remember the exact moment when Tender Table started,” she says, “But I had just started discovering what it means [for me] to identify as a person of color. It hadn’t really occurred to me what it meant to connect with my heritage and ancestors, or how to cook the food I grew up eating.” Through discussions with new friends, she saw a pattern of cooking as a method for cultural preservation.
In Tender Table’s first year, nearly 50 presenters shared their stories. “At the first event, there were maybe 20 people. Now it’s grown,” Tran explains. With the added interest, she’s had to consider new aspects of event planning.
“Attendance has risen to about 60 people over the last few events, so I need to [think about] how I can help serve food in a way that’s environmentally friendly,” she says. “The idea was that we’d serve Costco-size samples, but Costco produces a ton of waste. That’s not sustainable.”
The value of Tender Table
For Portland visitors and residents alike, Tender Table offers a rare, authentic glimpse into the direct impact of food on community. When Tran began the project, she wasn’t sure what to expect, but she felt a need to contribute to the mounting conversations about cultural sensitivity within the food scene by creating spaces for those dialogues to thrive.
“Hosting Tender Table has definitely taught me to have a sharper eye on [those issues],” she says. “Before, I didn’t have as much vocabulary to even start thinking about that. Now I’ve been able to open myself up to constructive criticism [and] positive feedback, and [have gotten] access to resources in order to have these conversations.”
When considering the significance of Tender Table from a traveler’s perspective, Tran looks to her own neighborhood: “Whenever I travel to another city, I’m not aware of how the establishment I’ve chosen to patronize has affected the community that it’s in (or has pushed out),” she says. “I live on Williams [Street in North Portland] and I see a lot of restaurants that people enjoy. Some of them are [people of color]-owned, but they’re all mostly new. Businesses on this street are able to operate by way of gentrification, one way or another. That induces a lot of pain for people who are directly affected by this street changing so quickly. I think about that when I go to different cities.”
Expanding the Tender Table community
As it grows in popularity, Tender Table remains grassroots and community-oriented both in ethos and practice. Tran offers presenters a small stipend to help cover their time, labor and the cost of supplies. Attendees are asked to purchase tickets on a sliding scale basis (typically $5–20). In late 2017, Tran was awarded a project grant from Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council. The financial support has allowed Tran to expand the project’s reach to new cities.
“A few months ago, I brought Tender Table to Seattle and that went really well,” she says. “I’m in the process of planning Tender Table in New York City too, so I’m hoping that I can bring it to many more places over time … It’s been a very healing, creative and regenerative space.”
Tran hopes that the vital conversations Tender Table inspires do not remain insular and, instead, carry beyond the spaces that host them. While she’s excited to continue hosting Tender Table events, she’s especially looking forward to creating and fostering more connections within Portland’s food scene.