How Much Can Breaking Bread Help Bridge Our Cultural and Political Divides?

An ambitious program in Philadelphia is gathering groups in conflict around the dinner table to discuss some deep-seated issues. Drew Lazor reports from the front lines of sharing food for social understanding

By Drew Lazor

Published on July 18, 2017

“To listen,” Harris Sokoloff instructed the name-tagged onlookers stuffed around the stove, “is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”

That silky strand of page-a-day calendar wisdom, which originates with the spiritual writer Mark Nepo, was the perfect pleasantry to kick off a recent evening centered on cultivating common ground. Hosted inside Philadelphia's venerable Reading Terminal Market (RTM), "Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers" is an ongoing dinner series that encourages communities at odds to connect over food, using what's on the plate as an on-ramp toward shared understanding.

Made possible by a Knight Cities Challenge grant, "Breaking Bread" is built around a simple but powerful act: relying on the equalizing power of food to build bonds between people who don't see eye to eye. It's the perfect undertaking for the 125-year-old market space. In his study The Cosmopolitan Canopy, sociologist Elijah Anderson identifies the Terminal, a Center City destination trafficked by tourists and locals alike, as an "urban island of civility" free of segregation and discrimination.

"[There are] increasingly few spaces where strangers of completely different backgrounds—different ethnicities, different incomes, different races, different geography—come together, intermingle, build relationships," said RTM general manager Anuj Gupta. This makes his 80,000-square-foot office the ideal proving ground for a big-picture idea like "Breaking Bread." The goal is to learn directly from people different from you—first by watching (and often helping) them prepare their food, then by sitting down and eating it with them.

Organizers lean on contacts in the non-profit and community-organizing worlds to recruit diners of all stripes, especially those with documented histories of friction. Much of this conflict falls along racial lines. So far, they’ve tackled relations between Koreans and African-Americans coexisting along 52nd Street, and encouraged longtime South Philadelphia residents to chop it up with their Cambodian neighbors. African immigrants have shared meals and stories with their African-American counterparts. Another month, they welcomed a group of Syrian refugees to the Terminal.

Gupta says he’s heard positive feedback from within the participating communities so far—dinner is not an instantaneous solution to a complex problem, of course, but having real conversations through the prism of cooking is a good place to start.

“Breaking Bread” is built around a simple but powerful act: relying on the equalizing power of food to build bonds between people who don’t see eye to eye.

June's installment, the sixth in the series, brought together reps from three Philly communities: Chinese, Mexicans, and Mummers, who over the years have managed to piss off Chinese people, Mexican people, and pretty much anyone who isn't straight and white.

A practice that stretches back centuries, Mummery has its roots in old European folk performance: garishly dressed players recreating historical events to amuse and thrill a crowd. In Philadelphia, this plays out in the form of a city-sponsored parade that’s taken place every New Year’s Day since 1901. The Mummers, a mostly Caucasian, mostly male, and largely Italian-American affiliation numbering in the thousands, show off dance routines, amazing costumes, elaborate floats, and live musical numbers as they hit their signature struts up and down Broad Street. The parade seems to be an absolute blast for the performers, and it’s fun for spectators, too—as long as you don’t end up on the wrong end of a racist and/or homophobic sendup.

As Billy Penn puts it in their detailed timeline of January 1 misgivings, "the Mummers really do provide at least one WTF moment every year." Performances have featured buffoonish caricatures of Indians (both Native Americans and people from India), cringeworthy minstrel show tributes, children and adults in brownface, and Caitlyn Jenner-themed skits of highly questionable taste, with touches of blatant homophobia. There have been violent incidents, too. And that's just in the past couple years. Blackface was not officially banned from the parade until the 1960s, but some contemporary participants have decided to sidestep that longstanding decree.

It’s important to note right up front that most Mummers troupes are not this way. But basically, if you are a minority like me, it’s easy to witness the bad stuff, say “fuck the Mummers,” and leave it at that.

It’s this exact attitude “Breaking Bread” aims to address. The Mummers have a large presence in the city. We start our year with them. I’d love to watch the parade, an only-in-Philly undertaking I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else, thrive in perpetuity, as a welcoming event for everyone. But not every Mummer seems comfortable with the idea of change, or willing to hold their ranks accountable for what they put out there.

The Mummers' pork tenderloin stuffed with roasted peppers, spinach, and cheese.

Some Mummers bristle at any criticism, responding with a chorus of justifications: This is an important tradition, lighten up, you're too PC and sensitive, it's all in good fun, people are so easily offended these days. A more forward-thinking element, however, realizes that passing these practices on to the next generation means they must distance themselves from the exclusionary aspects of the culture. That's how this commingling came about.

Dr. Sokoloff, a University of Pennsylvania prof who directs the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, served as the emcee for the event, which started in the Terminal’s brightly lit open kitchen. Here, cooks representing each of the communities seated at the table demonstrated how to prepare their plato tipico, a dish that represents their culture and cuisine.

Alice Ye of Five Spice Philly talked the crowd through her pork and vegetable dumplings, yanking volunteers from the crowd to pinch dough with her. The audience involvement continued with Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez, the outspoken chefs behind South Philly Barbacoa, as they pressed tortillas from freshmade masa to go with their verdolagas con pollo, chicken legs cooked with purslane. The Mummers, meanwhile, were represented behind the burners by Steven Mastero and Rocco Gallelli, genial caterers who showed off their New Year's special pork tenderloin, stuffed with roasted peppers, spinach, and cheese, then rolled and tied porchetta-style before slow-roasting in the oven.

After the cooking demos, the food made its way into steam tables, and attendees made plates and found their seats, assigned randomly to guarantee intermingling. Each table was looked after by a moderator to lead the discussion. Ezekiel Mathur, a enthusiastic rep from the city's Commission on Human Relations, opened our 11-person table's discussion with a broad talking point: What do you like about culture?

"You might know what's outlined in a book, but when you talk to people, it's really, really interesting," answered John Pignotti, a loquacious full-blooded Italian Mummer from South Philly. "Keep an open mind…sometimes you bump heads and sometimes you don't." Jim Ervin, a member of the Avalon String Band, described how much he enjoyed discussing holiday and wedding traditions with coworkers of different nationalities.

This sentiment was echoed by Lorraine Lew, a Chinese-American librarian sitting across the from me: "The more you know about different people, the more you realize that people are basically the same." Lew went on to describe her childhood, growing up the only Asian kid in a nearly all-white Jersey town. I really related to this. This is cool, I thought. Maybe we can find some real common ground here, internalizing each other's experiences.

Pork and vegetable dumplings.

Then they all started talking about gravy.

Gravy is South Philly slang for red sauce, the stuff in a gently bubbling pot Italian cooks like to fuss over for hours before ladling it out to the Sunday dinner crowd. Every Mummer at the table had so much to say about gravy.

“When you walk down the street and you smell that garlic cooking in olive oil, you know somebody’s cooking gravy.”

“Some people make gravy and they put onions and peppers in it.”

"I went to Disney World and ate in Epcot and the waiter had no idea what gravy is!"

Lord, we talked about gravy for what felt like forever. Yes, “Breaking Bread” was meant to be an equal-opportunity exchange. I was very happy to learn about what Mummers love to eat. The problem was that none of the non-Mummers at our table could get their stories to stick the same way.

Yaroslava Camacho, a half-Mexican, half-Russian employee of Philly’s Mexican Cultural Center, offered up anecdotes about both sides of her clan, fondly remembering her abuela’s tamales and her babushka’s tendency to crush all house guests with huge spreads of food. Instead of asking her follow-up questions, the Mummers nodded and started talking to each other about their mothers.

Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez from South Philly Barbacoa.

I expressed how much I identified with Lew’s upbringing, as one of just a few minority kids in a mostly white town, recounting aloud how kids would leer at me for brown-bagging Tupperwares of Filipino food as they munched on Lunchables and Capri Suns.

"I remember Lunchables!" one Mummer replied, following it up with a tangent about meatballs.

Much of the discussion went this way—non-Mummers throwing personal stuff out there, Mummers pulling the conversation back to themselves. I’m not exactly sure how it went at other tables, but at mine, we didn’t seem to make much progress. Nearly an hour passed before I even got the chance to broach the topic of long-standing insensitivity among the ranks.

“Seeing those skits on Broad Street and sitting down to eat with you all are two very different things,” I said. “Are there misconceptions out there about Mummer culture?”

“Absolutely,” the Mummers responded nearly in unison, rattling off various ways they’re maligned in the public eye.

To be fair, many Mummers have been making sincere efforts to improve the parade in recent years, attending sensitivity trainings organized by the Philly HRC and encouraging the creation of diverse, non-traditional troupes, like the Vaudevillains. But the pervasive negativity hasn't left, and not everyone thinks this can just be fixed. "Are there some problems with the parade sometimes?" asked Bill Burke, vice president of the Philadelphia Mummers Brigade Association. "Yes. With people we have no control over."

That’s not good enough. I believe the Mummers I broke bread with are good people. I don’t believe they are racist. I know that the number of bigoted Mummers pales in comparison to those who work to keep it an inclusive, family-friendly event. But that doesn’t change the fact that very visible rotten element remains, and shrugging that off with a tired bad apple excuse is not helping. Failing to really hear people who are making an effort to explain how bigotry affects them is not helping, either.

“Breaking Bread” is an ambitious operation, and I’m thankful it exists. But after attending, I realized that the process is only as impactful as its participants permit. One Mummer, who was quiet during the table session, pulled me aside as everyone was packing up to leave. “There could be things that could be offensive,” he explained earnestly. “It’s not meant to hurt. It’s an attempt to be funny. Sometimes I’ll say something thinking I’m being funny and I’ll offend someone. It happens. That’s not what the parade’s about.”

Putting myself in his position, I can understand how he’d feel that way. So why can’t he do the same for me? This is the real problem, and no amount of chicken and dumplings is going to change that.

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