Wednesday, March 20

Women Who Rock: A Peek At Our "Women, Work & Food" Oral History Project in Richmond, VA

Ida MaMasu of Africanne on Main. Photo by Sara Wood.

Sara Wood, who interned with us last summer, spent the last handful of months gathering the stories behind the food from women who work in and around Richmond, Virginia. Here, Sara offers reflections on her time in the field and a hint of what’s to come.

Early last fall, I got a call from the one and only Amy Evans, the SFA's lead oral historian. She asked me if I'd like to collect interviews for a new oral history project about women, work, and food in Richmond, Virginia. All I've ever wanted to do with my life is work for the Works Progress Administration, documenting the lives of others, but that project wrapped up long ago. The idea of collecting oral histories in Richmond sent me straight into my old, reliable car and up Interstate 95. Six months and fifteen interviews later, I realize that this project could go on forever.

In Richmond, women grabbed the reins of entrepreneurship in food and paved their own way. Most of the women I interviewed work day and night; they've created culinary kingdoms but refuse the credit. Their presence is felt both on and off the plate, from the kitchen, the farm, the river, the back office.

Tanya Cauthen of Belmont Butchery. Photo by Sara Wood.

They've opened butcher shops from scratch because the community didn't have one. They teach men how to break down pigs. They spent years saving tips from waitressing to buy paint for their first restaurant. The blood, sweat, and tears from that first restaurant become the foundation for three more.

Argentina Ortega of La Sabrosita Bakery. Photo by Sara Wood.

They are spinning twine around your boxed lunch, frosting your cupcakes upside-down, starting their day at five in the morning to maintain a Richmond legacy almost a century old. They've opened restaurants and bakeries after fleeing other countries to escape dangerous and traumatic conditions. They've worked to bring their children and parents to safety. They've worked for decades to buy a house that is solely their own. They monitor the plates of their customers to make sure everyone's eating enough vegetables.

Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Photo by Sara Wood.

They're on the Rappahannock River at sunrise, dropping peeler pots, catching blue crabs, working side-by-side with their sister. They're shucking oysters, something they swore they'd never, ever do. Years later, those oysters take them around the world and put them in glossy magazines and atop parade floats. They are teaching communities how to plant heirloom seeds with stories spanning decades, cultures, and traditions.

Katrina Giavos (L) and Stella Dikos (R) of Stella's (and for Katrina, many other restaurants). Photo by Sara Wood.

Some have spent the night at the restaurant because they've worked more than fifteen hours, and they're too tired to drive home. They blazed paths for their daughters who follow in their footsteps. They purchased catering vans and quit their jobs as deputy sheriffs, all in the same day, in order to feed a neighborhood trying to build itself back up again. They lay white linens on the table not to exclude others but to allow everyone—black or white, rich or poor—the opportunity to experience a meal with love.

Velma Johnson of Mama J's. Photo by Sara Wood.

They are gracious, bossy, patient, fierce, and kind. They elude the spotlight. They are busy, and they have to get back to work. Their stories will be added to the SFA’s online archive soon, and many of them will be a part of the SFA's Summer Symposium in Richmond. I'm terribly excited for you to meet them.

Sara Wood
Wilmington, NC