Cooking culture

A discussion about food sovereignty at Aquinnah Town Hall.


Food sovereignty is a term that might not be as familiar to the wider public as national sovereignty or state sovereignty. The principle, however, is similar. In national sovereignty, there is the right for the nation to exist without other nations interfering. Food sovereignty is the right for people to have access to food that’s healthy and culturally appropriate, which is produced sustainably and with an ecologically sound method. They have the right to “define their own food and agriculture systems,” according to the Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007, written after the Forum on Food Sovereignty in Mali. Basically, people have the right to food and to control production of their food, without other groups interfering.

A panel discussion was held last Saturday night at the Aquinnah Town Hall to discuss food sovereignty and indigenous and sustainable food practices. On the panel were Professor Elizabeth Hoover, Mohawk, author of “The River Is in Us”; Noli Taylor, community food education director at Island Grown Initiative; Chef Sherry Pocknett, Mashpee Wampanoag and owner of Sly Fox Den catering; Cassius Spears, Narragansett and of the Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative; and Julie Vanderhoop, Aquinnah Wampanoag, owner of Orange Peel Bakery, and an Aquinnah selectman.

The discussion was wide-ranging, touching on the panelists’ relationship with food and their work surrounding it. Each gave a 10-minute talk.

Spears kicked off the panel talking about his work with the Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative. The initiative is based at Crandall “Minacommuck” Farm in Westerly, R.I. Minacommuck is the Narragansett name for the land. The land is owned by the Narragansett tribe, and the initiative’s goal is to make Crandall a working farm using traditional methods, build a bond between the Crandall community and their neighbors, and maintain food security. The farm isn’t limited to tools that were available a few hundred years ago. Tools like a solar-powered well and weather station help the farm maximize its operation. “We’re going to take our ways and incorporate the best of new technology to make something better,” Spears said.

Pocknett continued, talking about her heritage and how cooking was an integral part of her childhood, which she described as “growing up by the season.” She explained that the tribe has many thanksgivings, and their new year is in spring. This is to celebrate the return of the local fish, game, and plants after the winter. She emphasized the importance of being in touch with nature. “We are the keepers of the Earth,” she said. “It takes care of us and we take care of it.” She has a vast knowledge of foraging and plant uses, which she credits to oral tradition passed down from her mother. She said this kind of education, however, has changed, “Parents are trying to make a living, and they’re not teaching their kids.”

Vanderhoop was the next to speak. She talked about her childhood on Martha’s Vineyard. “I was raised on the Cliffs of Aquinnah,” she said. “I was out for 10 hours a day, and if I didn’t know what to eat, I didn’t have the energy to get home.” She still gets her food from the outdoors, but in a different way. Her outdoor oven, in which she bakes all the bread for her bakery, “has brought me a knowledge of the outdoor world.” She also advocated for building industry in Aquinnah, using the vast open spaces the town has for growing. “I want to use this open space to create industry to sustain this town,” she said.

Taylor was the next to rise. She discussed some of the programs Island Grown Initiative has created and facilitated to promote education around food and how it’s produced. These include the Seed Bank at the West Tisbury library, where people can get seeds, plant them, and bring back more at the end of the season. There is also the school garden initiative, in which IGI has helped Island schools cultivate gardens whose produce is used in school lunches. “There’s nothing more amazing than seeing a kid’s pride and joy at seeing something they’ve grown,” she said. There is also the mobile farmers market, which comes to six neighborhoods all over the Island and sells veggies at wholesale prices, and the community lunches that produced around 3,000 meals this summer.

Hoover concluded the lineup of panelists, discussing her work studying food sovereignty. She traveled to 40 different communities in the summer of 2014 to learn how they produced their food, and what challenges and breakthroughs they had. It’s important to document where people’s food comes from because, she said, “you can’t say you’re sovereign if you can’t feed yourself.”