What is the identity of a city through residents favorite recipes? When you put these different people and dishes, side by side, what do you create? Those questions are being explored by documentary photographer Steven Casanova in a new project called “The Richmond Cookbook.” WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Learn More: Submit your recipe for The Richmond Cookbook online or at any branch of the Richmond Public Library. The project is ongoing, including an exhibit at the Anderson Gallery opening August 4, 2017.
On the corner of Kinney Street and West Leigh, photographer Steven Casanova steps inside Carver Community garden.
Steven Casanova: This is where it all began, this is where I fell in love with Richmond.
A few years ago, Casanova had several plots here. One’s been dismantled, but the mint he planted continues to grow.
Casanova: Spearmint, peppermint doesn’t too well here...
Casanova: By the second year I was growing food, I lived almost an entire summer off of only stuff from the garden and flour.
But some bigger happened. Casanova pitched in with garden improvements. He’d offer fresh strawberries to people passing by. He set up a big orange cooler with homemade, iced lemon mint green tea. A sign taped to it read: bring a cup and help yourself!
Casanova: And so people would come, fill up their cup and talk for a bit and the whole idea was based around, if we can people talking, something will happen. The problem is we’re not talking.
Casanova lived on this block too. He got to know longtime Carver residents. He took their portraits, printed them on vinyl and hung them on the garden’s fence. He says he wanted to create a platform for their stories and prompt interactions between neighbors who might not know each other yet.
Casanova: This is where I fell in love, this is where I genuinely fell in love with food because I saw it more than just subsistence, I saw food as a community builder, I saw food as a storyteller, I saw food as something I can give to someone and they’re so grateful for it.
Casanova’s experiences at the Carver Community Garden have blossomed into a new project, the Richmond Cookbook. Combining his passions for food, health, history and community, he’s collecting recipes and stories from residents across the city.
Casanova: I want to show somebody that is showing their lobster bisque and show it beautifully in their nice patio and then I also want to show somebody that that had to work with some ramen and some fried eggs and show that beautifully in their dining room that's also their living room, and to show those next to each other with the same type of pride. What I realized in talking to people about this and really running through this idea in my head: the goal is to bring Richmond together and not necessarily to force them in the same spot to be in the same spot, but to force them in the same spot to just talk to each other.
At farmers markets, festivals and random city streets, Casanova searches for contributors to the Richmond Cookbook. At the Birdhouse Market, Casanova approaches a woman he overheard chatting about avocados. She’s a bit hesitant - she says she’s just starting to learn, even taking cooking classes.
Casanova: I love it, what you learning right now?
Cooking student: We made kale salad…
Casanova: That speaks to my project because the question I’m trying to ask people is what do you want to give to your community? So what type of recipe might you give to other mothers to try to get their kids to eat healthy?
So far, Richmonders have submitted recipes on dumplings, gazpacho, hot sauce, and techniques for preparing vegetables.
Casanova: The questions are really simple, so it's just tell me a little bit about yourself, so it's just name or neighborhood, what should we know about you and then on the back side it's give me a recipe and give me what's special about your recipe. And so some people will tell you it's a low-calorie meal and other people will tell you that this is what their grandfather made on their deathbed or something very dramatic that is just a great story.
Casanova isn’t just collecting recipes and stories. He’s using the project to explore food access, migration and assimilation. A first generation Puerto Rican, he says it’s hard to find Caribbean ingredients to make the recipes his grandparents prepared.
Casanova: While I can find some Latino ingredients, I can't necessarily find Puerto Rican ingredients. For good reason, I shouldn’t be able to find breadfruit in Richmond very easily. But it results in me changing my cuisine to be Puerto Rican-Mexican type of food. The interesting thing for me is I don’t want to look at any of this as good or bad, but a reflection of right now. What you’ll get as populations migrate, they migrate for reasons, they deal with things, it’s great conversation and great things that we need to talk about. But I think it’s really interesting that you can make Latino food in Richmond, VA, but you probably couldn’t make it as well in West Virginia, so that speaks to who’s welcome, who’s not welcome, what opportunities may be in one place and what opportunities aren’t in other places.
Giselle Matz: Hello, welcome, make yourselves at home…
Graphic designer Giselle Matz is Cuban, Colombian and Jewish. The recipe she’s sharing is Venezuelan version of a dish she grew up with.
Matz: Today we’re eating arepas.
They’re hard to describe, she says, not quite a savory pancake, but close.
Matz: It’s made with a specific cornmeal, a pre-cooked corn meal and with queso blanco, a really delicious cheese.
Growing up in Miami, Matz would wake up on Saturdays to the smell of arepas.
Matz: And I would run into the kitchen and I would eat three or four and I would always burn my mouth eating them. So when I was thinking about what to cook for you guys, this was the thing that was closest to heart.
As Matz gets ready to make the arepas, the conversation moves from hard-to-find ingredients to transitioning from Miami to Richmond, where it was difficult to find Latino radio stations and she got funny looks when she spoke Spanish.
Matz: I never knew who I was or that I was any different from anybody until I got to Richmond. People have a certain expectations of what a Latino person should look like you know and if you don't look that certain way, I become this racially ambiguous person. Whereas I’ll visit home in Miami and I'll go to Walgreens and my pharmacist speaks to me in Spanish or I'll get in an Uber and the person instantly speaks to me in Spanish, there’s no hesitation. Because you can pass by a blonde haired, blue-eyed person in Miami and you bet they're going to be fluent and Venezuelan. So yeah, it was a pretty big shock and I definitely yearned for finding people with the same culture and it's always exciting when I do.
This is the first time Matz has made arepas in Richmond. When they’re done, she admires the golden crust, inhales the aroma and takes a bite.
Matz: Once I’ve come to Richmond, I feel a strong, almost protectiveness over my cultural heritage. I hold on to it, this is me, this is my own. But at the same time I also feel a responsibility to my community as well and any opportunity to reach out and let people know-- you know, that there are a lot of us, this is who I am and this is what I can make, tell me about you, tell me about your culture, your heritage.
Casanova: I love the idea of how complex it is because everybody story is so complex, and it's so hard to put a good or bad, black and white on any story at all because there's always going to be so many different perspectives to it that I want to make again a platform for people to tell their story so that they're just out there and so that people can just see them and look at them and think about them and take from them what they will, because there is no one story, there is no one story of food here because there's no one story of people here.
Casanova is collecting recipes at all of the Richmond Public Libraries. Some will be shared, along with portraits and short films, at an August exhibit at VCU’s Anderson Gallery. He’ll continue gathering recipes and stories throughout the year and aims to publish the Richmond Cookbook next summer. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.