Black Mountain Institute presents a food forum lecture with Kim Foster

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Kim Foster talks about nutrition during her “The Dysfunction of Food” forum lecture. (Scarlet & Gray Free Press/Angelica Dator)

“Cooking is one way to bind people together and that’s why we probably have all these food cliches in our lexicon, ” expressed Kim Foster, author of “The Meth Lunches: Food and Longing in an American City.”

“The Dysfunction of Food: On Food That Isn’t Beautiful or Comforting or Delicious,” a university forum lecture by Foster, was held at the Beverly Rogers Literature and Law Building on April 18. The event was hosted and co-sponsored by UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute and was partially funded by the Nevada Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Drew Cohen, one of the co-owners of The Writer’s Block, began the night by first expressing his gratitude towards numerous individuals and organizations, including UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts, for making this program and other programs possible. Cohen then continued by sharing about Foster, such as that she is a James Beard Award-winning author who writes about food and intersectionality, how she looks at food as a way of getting at the deeper schisms that lie within, and proclaimed that she is a big fan of Stephen King. 

Upon being introduced to the podium, Foster expressed her desire to have the event lean more towards being a dinner theater type of arrangement and not to be “like a stuffy weird thing.”

The lecture was generally structured as being composed of different chapters, which included “Chapter One: Food As The Way In,” “Chapter Two: Food As a Weapon” and “Chapter Three: Food As Politics.” 

She began the first chapter by initially sharing that when her family and her came from New York City to Las Vegas, they had moved into an “unloved 1940s bungalow.” Around this time, she expressed that it was their first summer here as well as that the weather hit 117 degrees. Foster shared that through moving here, she was able to meet Charlie, someone who worked on their house and frequently had lunches with them. “That’s how we got to learn Charlie, through lunches,” she added. 

When asked about the full names of the people in her stories, Foster expressed, “It’s funny about the names. My publishers, St. Martin’s, was very meticulous about names and identifying information. So even people who said, ‘please use my real name,’ the lawyers sometimes balked. Like Colorado is Montana in the book. Charlie and Tessie are Chris and Jess.”

She continued, saying, “I always tried to capture the spirit of the person, the magic of who they are, without saying anything that could identify them. Any kids in the book who weren’t mine, had their names changed. For a couple people, I purposely changed their identities and descriptions to protect them. But yes, I do give people some privacy because backlash on the internet is always a possibility and I don’t want that for anyone I write about.” 

During one lunch, Charlie talked about his wife Tessie, his contracting business and that they had moved to Vegas from Texas for a new life. With her impression that their life was doing well prior to moving, Foster had expressed that she “couldn’t figure out why he left Texas.” It was not until long after they had shared the meal in which Foster had found Charlie “slumped in the backyard,” and he had revealed that “everything he said in the lunch was a lie.” Charlie and his wife were actually far from well off as they were facing numerous struggles including that they were both full-blown meth addicts.

Through sharing this story, Foster presents the realization that food has the ability to slow people down and that it “gets to the real complicated feelings that people are having.” With Charlie, she expressed that “eating with us had to make him think of his kids,” which was both painful and hard for him to do.

In consideration of the struggles being faced, Foster shared that “he worked on the house until he couldn’t” and that she had made Charlie lunches until she couldn’t. Knowing that the rate of getting off meth was about 37%, she admitted that at one point she had stopped seeing Charlie as a human and started to view him as being a ghost. 

Within recent years, Charlie has been working on overcoming his addiction and uses cooking as a way to help face his struggles. There was one moment Foster shared in which Charlie had asked for her fried rice recipe and later on sent her a picture of his fried rice, which she found as being a “full circle moment.” As Foster expressed, “When you’re making food, you’re not a meth addict; you’re a part of the world.”

In the next part of the lecture, “Chapter Two: Food As a Weapon,” she mentioned a Smith’s location in which she described as having “a lot of socioeconomic diversity.” She also shared that she loves hugging in the supermarket and began to tell about Johnnie, who is a person who works at Smiths. 

Foster shared that Johnnie told her once that she had been locked in the closet and starved when she was younger, and this had formed a foundational aspect in their friendship. Johnnie had grown up with having to constantly deal with the delusions of her mother who had personal struggles and also had many moments in which she would be in the closet with her dog. During these moments in the closet, Foster shared that Johnnie would always share whatever food she had with her dog and would make it a point to always give her dog the bigger half, which allowed for her to show that “food is love.”

Foster then brought to light that “hunger isn’t just about one person, it’s about a generation” and discussed the importance of supporting the children and young families in our society. 

She later expressed that a “connection to a brand is very important” and shared that Johnnie works at a supermarket to be surrounded by food. Foster continued to share that Johnnie has a continual struggle when it comes to food and eats as a means to survive. “Being safe in the world is directly connected to food,” said Foster.

As for the next section, “Chapter Three: Food As Politics,” Foster began by saying she has been a part of the Sweeney Pantry, which is a fridge and pantry that provides food for others. The pantry initially involved Foster and her kids contributing their time and work, with it later growing to have the involvement of a Facebook group and many neighbors offering donations and government checks in support. 

She then presented on a slide the words “Charity is no Justice” and proceeded to express that “charity is ‘I’m going to feed you’ while justice is about social change.” Foster then brought up the topic of hunger and how it is a problem and a byproduct of poverty, which involves a more complex fix. 

In her last story, Foster began to talk about Ms. B, who is a Korean American woman who she had met at the pantry. She shared that Ms. B wants to be a part of the community and that she also wants equity. Foster was able to get to know Ms. B more through getting to eat food together, and she expressed that food allows us to get through the door, but the meaning can be found within the connections no matter how hard things may be. 

Foster shared that there was one time when Ms. B had expressed that she really wanted scallions along with other foods, as it connects her to Korea. Ms. B shared with her that she grew up with her father in their farm in Korea, and she was not able to inherit it when she had gotten older. Her father had to adopt a male cousin, and she eventually ended up losing the farm. Despite losing her father’s farm, Ms. B told Foster that she was able to get freedom in exchange as she ended up moving to the United States and that she is grateful to have the opportunity to live her dream.

After concluding the lecture, Foster also held a book signing for her book “The Meth Lunches: Food and Longing in an American City” and took a moment to have small chats with attendees.

When asked about what she would like for her audience to take away from her lecture, Foster expressed, “I hope that people are inspired to be more thoughtful of other people, particularly people who are in crisis. I think we are culturally dismissive of people who are experiencing poverty, or mental illness and active addictions. We can be very dismissive of people who are unhoused.”

She continued, saying, “I hope that talking about these folks I met and wrote about in the book, that people might be inspired to advocate for them in public, to judge less and turn the tides of public opinion, and vote in the people who will do right by the most vulnerable in our communities. This is the hope I have.”
To learn more about Kim Foster, you can visit her website at https://www.kiminthewest.com/. “The Meth Lunches: Food and Longing in an American City” is available for purchase at The Writer’s Block and Barnes and Noble.

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