Founder of Feisty Feast and advocate of communal cooking, Julia Khan Anselmo on the importance of embracing femininity, the power of food to open us up to difficult stories, and the benefits of looking back to discover lost traditions.
As we sat down, you began telling me that you think we're in the era of women: that it's our time to take a stand for what we believe in. Want to elaborate on that?
For sure. I feel like it is our time in the world to really step up in a new way and that women know what we face. I remember my mom in the 80's tried to do everything: she tired to look really good, work out, and provide for her children. I think that [type of mentality] has continued but there's more equality between the sexes now. We also just don't need men in the same way that we did before. So both gender roles are changing and we need to be sensitive to both, but it is an exciting time to be a women I think. I'm very much into the feminism that is embracing the feminine power, femininity, and working collectively. I find that there's a magic and a power when women come together to collaborate, listen, and story tell. So that's what I'm interested in cultivating amongst women.
Which is what your Feisty Feast gatherings are all about. So tell me about the history and mission of these events.
I started Feisty Feast about a year and a half ago after I was laid off of my dream job which was working in an international art consultancy. After I was laid off I asked myself what it was that I really loved to do, and what I was doing with my spare time. I thought about how I'm always meeting people, and how a lot of these people tend to be women. I also love to cook food from all over the world. Both of my parents are immigrants; my mom is from Trinidad and my dad is from Portugal so they made sure that my sister and I grew up exposed to all different types of foods, especially a lot of Portuguese food. So cooking and world food have both been big passions of mine along with bringing people together and hosting. I was always having dinners at my house and so I decided to combine them all together and hold events.
The first one started with you hosting it at your own home?
I started it at my house yes, and the first one was small - it was just 12 women. I only did four courses and there wasn't a guest speaker at the first one, but it was a really special energy to have happen. I had some of my friends there and some others came because they heard about what I was doing. From there, the second one grew to have a guest speaker and was about 16 people. I had Tori Holmes who started Nectar Juicery share her story which was a really powerful one about why she decided to study aruvedic medicine and why she started a juice company.
How do you choose who you want to come speak at your dinners? Are most of the women more of the entrepreneurial type?
I chose women who really speak to me or who have really inspired me in my own life, and I try to choose women who are also in the beginning stages of what they are doing. I naturally seek successful women who I feel were the underdogs but who are coming up and sharing issues that people might not necessarily want to talk about. People who just really speak to my interests of sharing, and in turn I want to share their philosophies. So I've had some interesting talks. Even though Feisty Feast is very much about the food and the collective gathering of women I do focus a lot on healing. I actually envision it evolving into workshops. My dream is to one day do retreats and take this internationally.
What type of workshops would you hope to offer? Ones that are more personal or self-discovery focused?
I'd include all types of workshops - ceremonies as well. I had the opportunity recently to go to Spirit Weavers which is a women's gathering started by Amy Woodruff from California. She lives in Hawaii now and has this incredible gathering that is about weaving together different ceremonies: songs, tea ceremonies, and also ones to do with things we create. The focus is on looking back and creating or making tools with your hands in a traditional way to try to bring back what has been lost in our culture. For example there could be peyote earning stitch-making, or a cacao ceremony. It's really amazing.
Unfortunately in our commerce focused society, a big problem is precisely that: there's so much culture that has been lost - like making things with our hands rather than buying the cheap version. Also, as you mentioned, cooking what's traditional to our own cultural background - and cooking it ourselves.
And also community living. She really brings focus to the idea of community or village living. It was in Mendocino County in California - in the Redwood Forest - and there were 500 of us there. We would camp with breakfast and dinner both provided. Teachers come from all over the world and you can sign up for their individual workshops. So I would love to bring something like that to Canada. I feel like there's still much work to do to get to that point: I want to cultivate myself and learn more from women. Through doing these different types of workshops, I'd love to learn more about the philosophy of village life and creating a community with connectivity between people. [The last] Feisty Feast I [did] was a step in that direction. Instead of just a dinner, I [had] an indigo dying workshop where a really good friend of mine Sophena Kwon taught. Her and her mom own Maiwa on Granville Island which is a really incredible textile import shop. They work directly with artists from India who are doing block-print textile making in these villages to help invigorate their own culture. The work aims to revitalize things that are starting to get lost in India. The work uses natural dies and organic fabrics; they also buy directly from the artist so there's no middle man. Sophena has been to India over 20 times and her mom has been over 60 times, so they're really inspiring to work with. As a mother and a daughter relationship working together they really interest me because I think that type of partnership is really beautiful and inspiring.
Because of how rare it is to continue a family business with the same passion, or because of the dynamic between a mother and daughter?
Both. Something that is incredibly inspiring to me is taking over your family's business; there seems to be a sort of stigma with that - which I think Sophena defies entirely. She isn't just inheriting her families hard work, she is really out there working hard and doing it. This whole fixation we have on this individualized success, where you have to start something on your own to be an entrepreneur just doesn't apply to every picture. They both bring something to it, and neither of them can take more of the credit.
Which is a theme that comes up a lot in these interviews - our society's obsession with individualism. We're loosing the connection to each other and our partnerships that are so much more rewarding than individual recognition. So I'll present to you a question I've asked before, but which there are so many answers for. Why is community so important?
Community is so important because people all over the world are their happiest when they have a strong network of friends and others they can depend on. I really don't believe that we're meant to be living so separated from one another - from our families, from our communities. So many people are lonely and that's something I just can't believe is natural. I grew up in a small family with only my mom, my sister, and I (my dad was around but he wasn't a massive part of the picture), yet I've always been drawn to big, big families and big gatherings. It's just something that I really love to be around, that I feel good around, and I know others do too. So I wanted to create that for myself. Another thing is that I think everyone in the family and in the community has a purpose. But now, look at what we do with our elders: we put them away in buildings with only each other. As soon as they get older it seems as though we just think, "No, you can't be with the rest of us, you have to go be old somewhere segregated away from us." I just think that's really wrong. I've also been really inspired by Dr. Gabor Mate who talks a lot about that. And so we need to look back and realize everyone's purpose - old and young.
There is so much to be learned from them. I met this man who was 85 who had served in WWII, which I think is fascinating to read about, let alone hear first-hand stories about. I had no connection to that period other than from a text book. So why are we putting these people and these stories behind closed doors? We're missing out on that history through real life story-telling, and these inter-generational lessons that come along with it.
Yeah it gets lost because that's what the elders are there for - to teach us lessons so that we don't make short-sighted mistakes. The whole thing just seems so sad to me. Another area of interest for me is our First Nations' elders. I'd like to learn a lot more about what they have to teach - what they traditionally taught their youth and what they have to offer spirituality. I see myself very much as an ally to the First Nations community, and as a guest here on their land.
It's nice to see this swing towards that in our generation. Now that all the history is coming out and many First Nations and Indigenous Peoples are getting a chance to speak, we're recognizing our connection to nature, to land, to lost traditions. As soon as organized religion fizzled in our generation, we ran so far in the opposite direction that we lost our spirituality and mindfulness. A lot of us are coming to terms with the fact that our country oppressed and committed a genocide against this incredibly valuable culture - and that it needs to be resuscitated.
Totally - you're exactly right. Speaking back to your point on religion, I very much think that food is the new religion. It's a new moral standard that people measure themselves up against. With all of these people posting pictures of smashed avocado and toast on their instagram it's a moral standard of saying, "Yes, I can afford to eat this way, I'm educated, and I know that this is healthy for me." It's our new religion. With food you're a disciple of health, you hold faith in what you eat. People talk about it all the time and we measure ourselves up against what other people are eating. Are they eating gluten-free? Are they not eating quinoa because it's unfair to the original populations that relied on it? So I think that's the new religion of our generation.
On your mention of being educated about food, it's interesting that those who are not eating in an informed way are seen as ignorant or less educated. I admit my own guilt in that assumption. You also said you love cooking. How can bringing ourselves back into the kitchen help empower our generation?
For myself, I use food as a teacher and to open people up. Connecting in a meaningful way can be rare, but it's why I want to have people share their stories. Some of them might be difficult or uncomfortable to listen to, or really beautiful and inspiring, but after you've shared a beautiful meal with people that you don't know - made with love from me myself - I think that it can be a beautiful vehicle for opening up.
By saying stories that are difficult or uncomfortable, how so? Do you mean that they're sharing their inner struggles?
Yeah I have people that share struggles. One of the things I've wanted to do with Feisty Feast is confront vulnerability. I've seen that when people make themselves very vulnerable, or when a speaker makes themselves very vulnerable in a group of people, it creates a safe space for anyone else to do the same, and that's when the real, raw connection happens. So that's what I want to facilitate. Yet I want to make it as beautiful, magical, and as delicious as I can for people to do that. That's what I'm after. I don't believe it should just be done for women either, so I'm actually going to start up another event for men and women as well, which is going to be called "No Stranger".
Reminding people of genuine connection is so important. I find there are too many people who seem to have done everything 'right': they have their own apartment, their high-paying job, they are powerful and admired. So they have all these things that we're told means happiness, but yet they go home and they feel empty. They're lonely because they don't have a family, they don't have roommates, or they may have lost their close friendships while fixating on work.
Yeah because their career is everything to them. Studies have shown that roughly 50% of your ability to be happy in the world is genetic, only 10% is made up from things that we put the most emphasis on in our society - status, wealth, power, your job, the clothes you have, etc. And then the other 40% is what they know comes from community, friends, and family. So being together with neighbours or joining in on other types of social settings. Those are the things that really, really matter in life, and we seem easy to forget that, yet nostalgic over it from back in our youth.
You mentioned Dr. Gabor Mate. To your point of genetic determinants of happiness, Mate talks about how he no longer finds substantial evidence for the genetic debate. He highlights the research into the developmental years of the child's brain and how its environment plays the most important role. Obviously childhood trauma [abuse or neglect] is a crucial factor because those events store in the nervous system, or lymbic system, until the adult years. So it's more so subconscious, coming up in the form of fear, anxiety, despondency etc. On the contrary, if these years have been conducive to proper development - eye contact, affection, security, etc. then the child's brains will develop properly and they'll interact with the world feeling confident - happy not anxious. Human connectedness releases those 'feel good' endorphins from the cradle to the grave.
That's really interesting - I really believe that. And Feisty Feast is very much a platform for that connection to take place. I want to grow it so that it has more healing aspects - to talk abut that trauma even - and especially for women to connect with each other, and with themselves. It would be nice for us to just slow down and really look within, to be more in-tune with one another. I'd also like to incorporate a meditation before I start the next Feisty Feast just to honour that we're going into a different portal - a slower process - and that we're all entering into something really special and often avoided in normal day-to-day life.
Do you meditate yourself?
I've been trying to meditate. It's something that's relatively new to me. I was really inspired at Spirit Weavers because there was a lot of meditation, and mantra, and singing. I never expected singing to be something that would jump out to me, but coming together to chant and sing as a whole was really powerful and cathartic for me. So yes I'd love to introduce aspects like meditation into Feisty Feast as well. It's a tough practise, but the more you do it, the better the outcome for yourself and for others. I think a meditation workshop could add a lot of power to the overall feminine connection.
We started out talking about feminine power and of course feminism. I like what you said about embracing femininity because there's a lot of push for women to drop their femininity in order to be successful, powerful, or entrepreneurial. In the spotlight are these 'successful' women like Hilary Clinton, or Janet Yellen, but to me the CEOs and the female politicians are all side-stepping their feminine side - their softness, their emotional side, (and in some cases even their ability to wear a dress rather than a pant-suit). A perfect term my good friend called this, was 'Patriarchal Bargaining'. So women saying, "I'm going to take on what I perceive to be your male characteristics: I'll wear the pant-suit, be bossy, argue and debate, be cold and thick-skinned, not have kids, and do all of this so I can make it in this capitalist world." To me that's not feminism. Femininity exists for a reason and shouldn't be ostracized. If someone wants to be a mom who is loving, who enjoys cooking, who feels soft and affectionate, why should she be shunned or seen as 'unsuccessful'? Frankly this is also a form of patriarchy to me.
Yeah to me that is not feminism, I'm very much on the same page about that because we need to embrace the feminine. I think that there are some people out there who feel that their only value is in being like a man, or being among the powerful men, or that to be successful you have to abandon that soft side of you. So I very much don't believe that - I want women to know that there's so much more power in being just who you are, and feeling emotionally connected to who you are, and listening to yourself. We need to all stop and just take a minute to actually just listen to ourselves. Maybe for some of these more hard-line women it takes a major life event, or a health risk, or whatever it is to be able to just look at what's real, what matters - maybe they need something to catalyze that. But yes I think that men and women both need to stop and take a look at what's really important - not what we need to do or what we are expected to become in order to be 'successful' because you'll lose out on the things in life that make us happy. And talking about getting in touch with things that make us happy and that are really important, another one that comes along with that is being more in tune with nature.
Want to talk a bit about why that is? How does nature play into the bigger picture of really enjoying life for you?
Well I've always loved to be outdoors; I've been physically active since I was a child spending that time in nature (as opposed to indoors) so to me it seems like life itself. With being outside there's an aspect of nirvana - not that a backyard is going to be sublime, but nature in its entirety is sublime. Going into the mountains and hiking up to a waterfall is just something that can elate anyone. Being more in touch with our surroundings can make us feel so small and finite in the world because we really are, and nature just adds that element of wonder and glory.
I read a study that was published back in February on how an overlooked stress reliever is simply the advent of awe: Being awe-inspired by the mass of a mountain, or a beautiful turquoise lake, or the emerald glow of a forest covered in moss. This 'awe' is said to affect our brain in a exponentially positive way.
Yeah I think that you are so right about that. We need to remind ourselves that it is awe-inspiring because so many of us are just sucked right in to our iPhones, and so those natural tendencies can essentially be dulled. A way to combat that, or break away from that is to go on retreats or take breaks from our computers by going into the wilderness for a night or two. That was something that was so beautiful about Spirit Weavers - I wasn't on my phone once while I was there; just five days in the redwoods with no computers or desks. And these redwoods are so magnificent - to be in their presence is exactly what you're talking about with awe.
So then at Feisty Feast do you discourage phone use, or just hope that it comes naturally to be off your phone at such a cozy gathering?
Yeah I haven't gone there yet - to specifically restrict them. I have always thought that it's rude to have your phone out at a dinner party, or to be looking at your phone during a conversation. But then on the other side, it's also lovely to have people sharing their experiences on social media as well. Something that I did think about at first was that maybe I should say no texting, but then I don't want to be telling people what to do or not to do. If in the future there is some sort of ceremony or meditation then I would hope that people wouldn't be engulfed by their phones during it, and perhaps just suggest no phone use. But definitely I think that the type of women that are drawn to events like Feisty Feast are also of the mind-set that with traditional meals and gatherings around a table with homemade food - made with love - they wouldn't want to be on their phones the whole time anyway.
Were your parents a big influence in your passion for food?
My Dad definitely was yes, but both my parents were really into food. My mom was very into health food especially, so we were raised on the slow-food movement; we were always eating that way. In Calgary where I grew up there weren't too many others doing that though; you're mostly going to get steak and potatoes and boiled greens. But we had a garden growing up and I remember having lots of fun in there being around vegetables. My mom was always entertaining and hosting people as well, as I'm sure is fitting to her culture. My Dad is from Portugal and he always had a passion for food, for cooking for people, and for having parties, so that made a good fit and meant we had a lot of parties growing up. An interesting thing is that I always struggled with finding my 'path', or to find something that felt right in my heart, and usually when you find it, you see that it's something you've been doing for a long time - you just need to recognize it. Looking at it in hindsight, I've always been in love with that type of life. I was surrounded by food, parties, and gatherings when I was growing up and so I really enjoy that kind of company.
It feels cozy even just thinking about it - the gathering of food, of souls, of ideas. It really speaks to me about you. Well thank you so much for taking the time to discuss this warm and inspiring event Julia; I hope that many others discover what you're doing and join the Feast!
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Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.