On a breezy Friday morning in June, there’s enough chicken smoking in Katina Parker’s backyard to feed a crowd—enough, to be specific, to feed 1,750.
The scent hits you even before you spot the smokers and towers of aluminum foil pans, the industrial-sized bags of onions, or the vats of spices. Surveying the operation is one thing; biting into a leg of chicken—succulent, fragrant, barely clinging to the bone—is another. Katina Parker’s chicken tastes like the whole world in one piece of meat.
Parker—a filmmaker, photographer, and artist—is the organizer of Feed Durham, a “no-contact cook-out” initiative that she began in April when it became evident that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere soon. The meals that the collective cooks go to local shelters and nonprofits. Durham, like other cities around the country, has seen a rise in food scarcity as unemployment numbers have spiked. Cooking for people helps bridge the gaps that nonprofits are facing.
Parker’s commitment to nourishment, flavor, and low-waste cooking connects material needs, social change, and the kitchen. It’s a model for direct crisis activism, but it also feels like a glimpse of reimagined foodways.
“I think this is just beginning, in terms of the protests and COVID,” Parker says. “We already knew 2020 was going to be messy because of the election. There’s rumors of white supremacists trying to build a race war. Doing this feels good. Protesting and getting social change takes years. This is something we can get in the immediate that is also revolutionary because it’s feeding hungry people. When people are really hungry, it’s hard for them to think about their basic rights—education and safety, all those sorts of things. It also gives us hope. We’re serving hope, but we’re also getting hope.”
Parker comes from a family that loves to cook, but her artistic background is in activist filmmaking. She coproduced and filmed the documentary Ferguson: A Report from Occupied Territory, and says that she has been moved by watching the way that people feed and take care of each other during crises.
In Ferguson, the person cooking was a woman named “Momma” Cat Daniels, who served heaping Sunday meals to demonstrators. When Parker went to Standing Rock to protest, it was Winona Kasto, a Lakota cook, who fed hundreds of demonstrators daily out of her community mess hall.
“When you do these protests and these encampments, you gotta eat,” Parker says. “Food keeps people going in hard times.”
So far, Feed Durham has done two massive cook-outs, and Parker says she plans to continue them indefinitely. The next one will be in mid-July. At the first cook-off, in April, Parker and a crew of volunteers cooked 1,000 meals, delivering them to places like the Durham Rescue Mission, Helping Hand Mission, Food Not Bombs, and other community partners.
It might go without saying but cooking for 1,000 is no walk in the park. Parker had to raise several thousand dollars through GoFundMe, source the ingredients (initially from the restaurant depot; now, she’s working with local farms as she’s able), find enough volunteers to make it happen, and then organize them in a way that minimizes the risk of infection.
Fundraising has allowed her to pay some volunteers who are without work and provide the families she is feeding with extra shelf staples and meals between cook-outs. She also believes in minimizing waste: the wax cardboard from boxes of chicken becomes kindling, collard stems get grilled in butter, peels and husks are turned into compost.
Volunteers have responded in kind. Stephanie Baker, who coordinated the last round of volunteer cooks, says that people are eager to be useful right now. She has a young child and elderly parents and has been isolating diligently. Coming out to sort spices and chop onions has been a way to use her isolation for good.
“Food is something so basic,” she says, as she refills containers of spices. “I can do that.”
Nearby in the yard, a volunteer named Joseph Naffan is rinsing out buckets. Naffan moved to Durham from Boston two months ago to take a cooking job at Duke University. But then Duke instituted a hiring freeze and Naffan’s background check got stuck in the system. His catering supplies were in storage until he saw Parker’s call on Facebook.
“Instead of sitting at home, I can do something and meet the community,” Naffan says. “Also, she’s a heck of a cook.”
Caleb Buchbinder, a volunteer with a knot of hair tucked beneath a baseball cap, discovered that he and Parker had both protested at Standing Rock. He’s worked in kitchens before, he says, but this feels different.
“I find the restaurant industry distasteful,” Buchbinder says. “But I love the ritual. This feels like an expression of what cooking can and should be.”
Parker started the cook-offs to meet the local food shortages caused by COVID-19, and in anticipation of the coming crises. This week’s cook-off, the weekend of June 6, came a week deep into the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the nation. The bedrock of institutions like policing is quaking. The world feels like it’s on fire, and 2020 isn’t even halfway over.
But Parker’s menu, written on a whiteboard above a blazing cooker in her carport, offers some grounding elements: smoked chicken and chicken dogs, BBQ baked beans and brown beans, savory rice and citrus carrots.
“I definitely put love into this food,” Parker says. “Every time I cook and I’m not present, the food just doesn’t taste right. When I cook for people I want them to feel that love, that hope, that light, that energy, so they can keep going and keep fighting for the world we want to create for our kids.”
Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at email@example.com.
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