Experiencing an Urban Food Shoot: Stories & Recipes

As we get ready to release our new Urban Food films over the coming holiday season, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value in a recipe.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot for both work and pleasure over the past few years and have had the opportunity to taste some incredible food in places around the globe. Those sensory memories will remain along with the avid documentation (thank you instagram) of every meal.

But it took visiting Oakland and Salt Lake City for me to fully understand that there’s often a battle behind a recipe. Not the kind that comes from being too lazy to cook (often my excuse) or not having the right ingredients in your refrigerator at any given moment, but the kind that a food desert creates.

international rescue committee

In West Oakland, I had the pleasure of staying with the inimitable Jacqueline Thomas, upcoming GLP star and owner of her very own catering company, “Ghetto Girl’s Fresh Eats” specializing in healthy soul food. An incomparable hostess, I woke up one morning to giant slices of green heirloom tomatoes frying in corn meal. Mouth watering, I asked the question that has lately become the bane of my existence; “there’s no way that’s gluten-free, right?” As a recently diagnosed Celiac, I’m now used to the endless granola bars on the road. Jacqueline turned to me, spatula on her hip, “nobody needs gluten in their life.”

Jacqueline Thomas demonstrates how to cook healthy in West Oakland

It struck me that Jacqueline knew more recipes slated to my nutritional needs than I did. It also struck me, as I was eating the best gluten-free breakfast of my life, that what this woman could do with ingredients from her backyard garden in a place that’s crawling with liquor stores and fast food joints was the kind of culinary creativity that could solve a lot of problems in this country.

Jacqueline used to cater at the Bay Side Community Fellowship Church in West Oakland. The Reverend knew she was a chef at heart and asked her to create dishes for the free meals the church hosts every week. I’d like to see the contestants on “Top Chef” or one of its various incarnations, prepare hundreds of meals a day for a population sustained on McDonald’s with whatever ingredients got dropped off by the food bank that week. That’s serious culinary creativity and that’s the kind of recipe I’m talking about.

green living project photos

This was no less evident in Salt Lake City. GLP had the opportunity to work with the International Rescue Committee to tell the story behind their New Roots program. The program allows recent refugees who have been relocated to Salt Lake to work on anything from a plot in a community garden to starting a farm business selling crops to local restaurants and markets.


In Salt Lake, we were treated to another homemade, garden-fresh, meal by the lovely Ahmed and Thuria and their family, newly arrived refugees from Sudan. Having only been in the United States for 6-7 months, both Ahmed and Thuria still speak mostly Arabic and very little English. Their son Musa, who unbelievably seems to have picked up English in under a year, translated for us how each dish was made. At one point, Rob asked him “which one is your favorite?” He turned with a half grin and said while pointing, “this one, because I know how to make it.”


Newly resettled Sudanese refugees, Ahmed and Thuria & their son Musa

For many new refugees, it’s the children who do the grocery shopping and are often that bridge between Americans and their parents who usually don’t acclimate quite as quickly to their new home. To see that Musa was equally enthusiastic about mac and cheese as he was about his mother’s Sudanese dishes brought to mind again what it took for that recipe to make it to our meal that night.

After I returned to Washington, DC, I pulled out the notebook I had with me in Salt Lake. Musa wrote down some of the recipes for me so I could re-create them at home.

A few nights later I diligently stewed tomatoes in peanut butter and creamed eggplant in my blender, two kitchen activities I had previously never tried, and considered how these recipes from Musa, as well as the ones from Jacqueline, were so specific to each of their personal histories but also symptomatic of the issues they deal with each day.

In both South Salt Lake and West Oakland, places rife with fast food chains and a lack of grocery stores, organizations like the International Rescue Committee and People’s Grocery are supporting people like Musa and Jacqueline as they capitalize on their unique talents to solve problems in their communities. To me, that’s what makes these stories unique and what defines the films we made in these places.

You can find other recipes from New Roots participants here: http://www.rescue.org/new-roots/recipes

And stay tuned for the premiere of our Salt Lake City film in 2 weeks! Check out the trailer here: Urban Food Teaser Trailer

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