The Food of Liberation: A Dinner Series With a Mission

A food market in Bali, Cameroon
A food market in Bali, Cameroon
Melissa Banigan

There was a time in New York City’s history when the idea of going to a stranger’s apartment for a meal — along with other people you’ve never met — would've made you think twice. Now such “underground” supper clubs happen every day in our city’s trend-happy food scene. The latest version of these dinners not only boasts the allure of a secret setting, but offers a feminist, social-justice mission.

The Advice Project’s Food of Liberation series will feature a monthly dinner, serving favorite recipes from a woman who has lived under oppression, taking place in a private location to be disclosed only the week before. The first dinner is on February 26, featuring Consolee Nishimwe, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Next up is Chi Yvonne Leina, a Cameroonian journalist and activist.

Melissa Banigan, founder and managing editor of The Advice Project, explains, “I look for guests who have not only been through extremely difficult circumstances, but who have risen above. The women on my shortlist are strong feminists. Some of them are refugees; others have dealt with adversity right here on U.S. soil. But they're all amazing, and they each know how to partner some of life's biggest problems with remarkable solutions.”

Banigan, a single mom, used to host weekly salon-style dinners in her home. Her daughter, now fourteen, asked Banigan to revive those Friday-night suppers, and with that, the idea for Food of Liberation was born. Banigan says she’d “already been thinking of creating a series of events that would partner storytelling with cuisines from around the world,” and this was just the impetus she needed.

The other, more unlikely, source of inspiration came from Japanese culture. In her early twenties, Banigan read The Gourmet Club by Junichiro Tanizaki and was introduced to the concept of nyotaimori, in which sushi is served on the body of a nude woman. “I found this art to be inherently sexist and often wondered if such a meal could be made more feminist,” she reflects. The Food of Liberation project is her attempt at that: “Instead of serving meals off the bodies of women,” she explains, “I would serve them from the minds of empowered women from around the world.”

This isn’t the first pop-up to offer meals in people’s homes to be enjoyed with strangers. But it does offer a rare opportunity to shine a light on women who have experienced oppression, allowing them to share their stories and cuisines in an intimate setting. Each featured guest will provide at least one recipe, which will be the centerpiece of the evening. Banigan and a few volunteers will cook that recipe, as well as a few other dishes to go with it.

For the first dinner, Nishimwe selected a Rwandan dish called ugali, a maize-based porridge. She says she chose it “because it’s very special, it’s kind of unique, and it’s traditional.” Banigan and her volunteers will also serve Rwandan appetizers including ibiharage (white bean paste) with sweet Rwandan honey bread and are planning to prepare a surprise dish for Nishimwe. After the meal, guests can enjoy tea from Rwanda (“We love to drink tea a lot,” she explains) while Nishimwe reads from her memoir.

Nishimwe doesn’t consider herself a cook, but she’s looking forward to good conversation over what is, for her, comfort food. “My expectation is to be able to share a little more of my culture,” she says. “We love to socialize and sit down, especially when you have a meal together. We are oral-storyteller people, so we don’t write as much, but we like to talk about different things.”

Banigan envisions the meal serving as a kind of Proustian madeleine, a jumping-off point for memories and discussion. “People have such a strong connection to food,” she says. “It’s my hope that as Consolee takes her first bite of delicious ugali, she’s transported back to some of her earliest memories of Rwanda that she will want to share with the rest of our guests.”

Proceeds from the dinner will go to support the Advice Project, which brings free media and writing classes to teen girls in the U.S.A., Cameroon, and Guadeloupe. Banigan hopes to raise enough money to provide five Cameroonian girls and women with a trip to attend the annual Advice Project Global Leadership Summit, happening this year in Ireland. Reserve a space here.

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