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Imagine Otherwise: Aileen Suzara on Filipino Food Activism and Eco-Education
What role does food play in building sustainable communities? How might cultural traditions challenge us to think differently about the environment and public health interventions? What roles do cooking and culinary entrepreneurship play in social justice work?
In Episode 51 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews chef and eco-educator Aileen Suzara about her journey into professional cooking, the familial stories she has uncovered connecting land to community and memory, the important role of Filipino farmers in the sustainability movement, and how Filipino cooks and farmers across the diaspora are creating some tasty ways to imagine otherwise.
Guest: Aileen Suzara
- Aileen Suzara is a land-based educator, eco-advocate, and cook. Aileen’s path in food began in childhood, as she began to retrace her family’s migration stories from the Philippines to the US through recipes. She builds on a decade as an eco-educator, environmental justice advocate, and as public health nutritionist to explore the chronic disease epidemic and the regenerative possibilities of cultural food practices. Teaching and cooking have taken her to De Anza College, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Hawai’i, as well as to organizations including Filipino Advocates for Justice and the Sama Sama Cooperative. Her writing has been published by Kitchen Kwento, the Center for Art and Thought, and Hella Pinay. Aileen is the founder of the food business Sariwa (which means “fresh” in Tagalog), whose goal is to reimagine ancestral food traditions and share vibrant, seasonal foods with the local community. Sariwa is also a member of the San Francisco based La Cocina incubator kitchen.
We chatted about:
- Aileen’s food company Sariwa (1:56)
- The connections between food, health, and social justice (8:40)
- How stories help us connect food and culture (14:46)
- Familial Filipino recipes and Aileen’s connection to her mother (18:20)
- The entangled relationships between academic training, cooking, and community activism (21:06)
- Imagining Otherwise (24:59)
- On Sariwa’s mission: “Sariwa is something of a question for me. It came about when I was beginning to explore the ways that cultural foods can both build community and build health. One of my guiding points has been trying to create a sense of home through food as someone who finds home in different places. And also it’s trying to carve out a place that feels welcome and inclusive to people who come from different cultures as well. Through the business, I’ve been finding ways to bridge food stories, recipes, and take guidance from small growers regarding sourcing. Through this I’ve been trying to get to this question of how can a small scale business go beyond the transactional nature of how businesses often work?”
- What being an “eco-educator” means: “It’s just simply about lifting up the connections all of us have with land. Whether we’re living in the city or a rural area, it’s there. It’s about bringing forward these connections to water, air, to human and non-human life. I’ve worked for several years in schools and community gardens, I’ve worked in farm based education, and also been a part of different educational settings. What I began to get really focused on was that there’s this idea of environmental education that I think that a lot of young people might get exposed to which is great. We all need to learn about the science and history around environmentalism in this country. I didn’t often see curriculum that connected a sense of culture with the environment.”
- On her beginnings as a Filipino food justice advocate: “When I was 8, I remember just kind of going through this dusty bookshelf in my family’s house…I remember tucked away between these cookbooks that we didn’t really use like French cookbooks and American style dining ones, there was this slim, falling-apart paper volume that didn’t have a lot of pictures. It was a Filipino cookbook that my parents had brought over when they migrated [in the 1960s]. I remember pulling it out and it was like finding this book of spells. There were ingredients that I didn’t understand and dishes I didn’t know about. As a young person who had grown up with pressure to assimilate around language, the things we ate, and the way we presented ourselves while out, finding this cookbook was kind of like this magical passport into another realm of understand my family but also this bigger history and culture that we are apart of.”
- On the connections between recipes and familial memory: “One of the most surprising secrets I’ve learned through a recipe or dish was within my own immediate family, specifically with my parents. For my mom, the kitchen wasn’t always her favorite place. I remember one day coming and visiting and how she had begun cooking something on the stove. I didn’t really know what possessed her. There were these amazing smells coming from the pot on the stove and inside of it there was ginger, lemongrass, mushrooms, baby coconut meat, and baby coconut water. All these beautiful things and I was like ‘where did this recipe come from? How did I live my whole life and where did this dish come from?’ She said ‘Well I just thought about it today and thought I could make it.’ And literally she couldn’t have eaten that or cooked it for many decades at that point. Just seeing that in our own home showed me there are recipes that we hold from each other or that are just kind of dormant. There are day-to-day ways that recipes affirm the story of who we are but there are also untold stories and untold recipes that might just be waiting to come to the surface.”
- On supplementing her activist work with academic training: “There was always a reciprocal relationship between cooking, community-based activism, and academia. For me, it was ultimately always about building bridges. I remember when I had applied to this public health masters program at Berkeley, there was this excruciating feeling that maybe I wasn’t supposed to go to graduate school. Or maybe I didn’t know how to write a paper anymore. All of this self-doubt started creeping in, but I remembered that what really drove me to go in that direction was wanting to further ground the story that I had been seeing around chronic disease, the loss of traditional foods, and also the regenerative possibilities of cultural foods. I thought ‘How could I harness that and put that into an application?’ When I was at Berkeley, I was on a mission to access all the different resources and research, anything that could help answer this question of how we can revitalize cultural foods and use Filipino American foods to bring greater health to the community.”
- On Imagining Otherwise: “We’re in a political climate that’s looking favorably around communities of color and immigrant communities. We’re in a moment that asking for us to all come together. The world that I’m working towards is one that’s based on relationships, on understanding and building reverence for land and people. I want to live in a world where we can celebrate and pass down cultures that shape our future. I want to live in a world that’s rooted to place and to land, so we can have a healthier future now and for future generations.”
More from Aileen:
Projects and people discussed:
- La Cocina Incubator Kitchen
- “Searching for the Land of Salt” on Center for Art and Thought
- Hella Pinay
- Bahay Kubo Garden Project, by Filipino Advocates for Justice
- UC Berkeley Public Health Nutrition program
- Filipino Advocates for Justice
- Sama Sama Cooperative
About Imagine Otherwise:
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/episodes. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.