(All images were taken by me, at Hedgebrook)
When I got accepted to Hedgebrook -a retreat for women writers- back in 2011, I was sent a series of forms to fill in. One particular section struck me: Applicants were supposed to tick a set of boxes pertaining to their dietary requirements, and in addition, provide a list of their comfort foods. It occurred to me that the organisation placed great importance on creating a space in which all of their writers' needs were taken of and in which food played an important part. As someone who abstains from meat in a culture where (non-religious) vegetarianism is still often looked upon as a lesser choice, I was moved by the effort at inclusivity. But it was not until I actually got to Hedgebrook that I understood the huge role food played in its culture of radical hospitality.
"Radical hospitality" can mean many different things and I've seen manifest in a variety of ways. A couple of years ago, when visiting my then-partner in Amsterdam, we were invited by an acquaintance to sit in on what he called an "anarchist meeting". The group was planning to squat a house in town and wanted to bring everyone up to date on the procedures. As part of this process, newcomers were made to fill in a form denoting their dietary requirements: Were they vegetarian? Vegan? Did they abstain from pork, beef or dairy? The forms were collated by a central person who would remain behind during the squat action. This way, if anyone was arrested, he could bring them food at the police station and make sure that they didn't go hungry. The detailed attention to each person's needs in the face of what seemed (to me) to be a very dramatic situation, spoke clearly to me of a particular sort of politics in which unity was key.
Another form of hospitality I consider radical, is the emerging acceptance of hospitality exchange as a means of allowing individuals to travel more affordably and possibly more authentically. Prior to a recent trip to Wellington, I was doing some homework and came across 128 Radical Community Social and Resource Centre, (an anti-oppression social/resource centre with the most awesome Safe Spaces policy ever). I was subsequently introduced to Rouge, one of its members, online. One of the first things Rouge did when I mentioned my soon-to-be visit, even though we'd never met, was offer their own home as lodging. And when my partner fell badly ill during the trip, Rouge offered to swing by our hotel, to bring us food and juice, to take us to the hospital if we needed it. All this from someone we'd never actually met.
These are just two of many examples. From my personal experiences, a sense of welcome and inclusivity is what I've always experienced when it comes to people and collectives that participate in progressive activism. So when I first saw the title of Hedgebrook's new cookbook, "Radical Hospitality" rang relevant and familiar. It was phrase that made me think of numerous encounters I'd had with individuals who'd so readily welcomed me into their homes, kitchens and conversations. And it described exactly what I'd experienced at Hedgebrook. Having the privilege of spending three weeks there changed my life as a writer. I've often mentioned the solitude, the woods and the lovely women I met. But perhaps one thing I've not mentioned enough, is the gift and value of being cooked for. Food, feminism and writing may seem like they have little in common, but I suspect that any woman who has had the privilege of being loved by Hedgebrook will tell you different.
One of the reasons Nancy Nordoff gives for founding Hedgebrook is her belief that women put off writing their own stories because they are often focused on others' needs. While I don't necessarily believe that women are "natural" caretakers (any more so than men are), I do agree that many times, because of societal norms/pressure, we do end up taking care of our parents, children and/or partners. During my time at Hedgebrook, I lived with women aged 31 to 70. Most were working, caretaking, trying to find time/energy to write and balancing it all with amazing finesse. The rest of us were carving out lives for ourselves in a world where women who choose to be single and/or childless are still looked upon as suspect. For all of us, being fed and taken care of for an extended period of time, was a luxury. The first time I brought my dishes to the sink, being told not to wash up (thrice, because I kept trying anyway!), was another way of reminding me what my purpose at Hedgebrook really was: To write.
Being cooked for and cared for was one part of a huge plan aimed at making sure that nothing came in between me and that task.
The gift of food at Hedgebrook went beyond customised meals, a kitchen/fridge consistently open to us, a jar perpetually topped up with freshly baked cookies, a corner shelved with fresh munchies of all sorts. It extended to the fact that fruits and vegetables were gathered fresh from the garden, that the meat was locally sourced from animals ethically raised, that the amazing women who cooked for us, did it with such tenderness and passion. From the table upon which food was served, sprung conversation, communion and care. In the 23 days I was there, I didn't have a single a meal that wasn't spectacular. And unless we begged (because it was so good), we never had the same meal twice. It was easy to go back to our cabins afterwards and engage introspectively with words. By my second day there, I understood what poet Suheir Hammad had meant when she spoke about her Hedgebook experience: “When you are served with so much love and nurturing, from the garden to the table to the cottages—someone believes that what you have to say is important.”
It's befitting that Hedgebrook should celebrate 25 years of nurturing women's bodies and voices, with a cookbook. And even more befitting that proceeds from sales should go towards supporting Hedgebrook’s mission to nurture a growing global community of women writers. Besides containing over 90 recipes (which I can safely say will lead to ubersuperdeliciousness!), it also contains 18 pieces of original writing from notable Hedgebrook alumnae such as Gloria Steinem, Monique Truong, Karen Joy Fowler and Thao Nguyen. I'm not sure how it's humanly possible fit so much yum into one book, but apparently it is :)
So, yes. If you believe in the radical hospitality that Hedgebrook provides, do consider pre-ordering the cookbook here. You will be helping support an awesome organisation that not only understands the importance of, but also actively nurtures women's voices.
If you'd like to find out more about Hedgebrook's writers-in-residence programme, click here.