I love the Skyline Room at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The gold elevators you must take to get there and the spectacular view of Center City from the balcony are the hidden gems of the library. I have enjoyed every event I have attended in that space. From a One Book, One Philadelphia poetry reading by our Youth Poet Laureate to the First Person Arts Festival event Hungry Live on 9 November, every event has taught me something about myself and challenged my perception of the world.
Hungry Live was a live broadcast of the Hungry podcast with Otis Gray. This unique night featured 5 chefs, 5 dishes, and 5 stories. The event offered an unusual opportunity to pair food and storytelling in a conscious way. Each chef served a dish and told their story. In keeping with the First Person Arts story slam format, all 5 chefs told first-person accounts without notes or props. For some chefs, this experience was their first time in front of a microphone. (They all did great, btw).
Their food stories challenged my perceptions of class, gender, sexuality, race, and disability. The first challenge came as I chose my seat. Right above the dinner plate sat an ominous note:
“Tell us a story about a time you overcame adversity.”
Improv storytelling is tough. My table mates were stumped. When most us failed to write a story, one woman noted, “We are just too privileged to have overcome any adversity.”
As I looked around the table, I realized that was probably true.
My mind went blank until I remembered that time in 5th grade when I won Outstanding Runner. A few short sentences later, and I had a decent story.
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Tonight at Hungry Live for @firstpersonarts, we were given a slip of paper to write a story about a time we overcame adversity. The host, Otis Gray, read them out loud anonymously. This was mine. — I have cerebral palsy. In 5th grade, we had to run a mile every day. When I started, it took me 15 minutes. By the end of the year, I ran a 7-minute mile. That year, I won the Outstanding Runner award. —— This is the plaque, one of the few childhood mementos I have after moving so much. When he read we ran a mile every day, Otis asked, “what kind of school was this?” Catholic school. Incarnation in Tampa, Florida.
But, part of me hated it. After all, inspiration porn is lazy storytelling. But did my story qualify as inspiration porn?
I can see I’ve lost you. You came here to read about food, and I’m talking about porn—and not even the good kind. Maybe you’ve never heard of inspiration porn.
Inspiration porn is storytelling about disabled people that reduces those people to objects without agency or makes their lives seem exceptional simply because they are disabled. Watch Stella Young’s explanation here.
Often, the focus in these stories is on how an abled person helped the disabled person. For example, that story about the Walmart employee who helped the disabled woman paint her nails after she was illegally denied service at the nail salon. The entire story was about the employee who helped, not the woman who was discriminated against. The employee was depicted as a hero. Yes, she did a nice thing, and yes, that was so sweet. But the act itself should never have been necessary. The real story about discrimination was lost in all the “aw, bless her heart, she’s so sweet” of the inspiration porn.
Otis collected our stories and read them between courses. When I heard the reaction to my story that night, I knew I had struck a chord. But, would my story have had the same impact if it had not begun with the sentence, “I have cerebral palsy”? For me, and my journey, it was important to write those words. To hear them read aloud, even anonymously, was powerful. I decided later to make that story public and post it on Facebook and Instagram, where it received a similar response. One friend said, “You are a badass.” Maybe I am.
But, the question I often ask myself about that award is would I have won it without the CP? Usually, only one girl from each class won the award. But that year, 2 of us won: the fastest runner in my class—and me. The goal was an 8-minute mile. If we beat that time, we could take the next day as a rest day. If we didn’t, then we ran every day. The incentive to run fast was high! I was a consistent runner, but I wasn’t the fastest. Other kids also ran consistently well. What made me outstanding? My disability. My teacher saw my disability as weakness. Overcoming that weakness was laudable. So laudable that I was literally lauded with an award. The whole story smacks of ableism, but I was too young to understand that.
Some might argue my story isn’t inspiration porn because I have agency. It’s my story, not someone else’s. My story does not center on the abled person’s contribution. There wasn’t any. My story was all me. Some might also argue that my disability is material to the story. Part of the story people didn’t hear that night was that I had worn leg braces until the summer before 5th grade. Finally freed from that constraint, I could compete with the other “normal” kids.
Even that language is itself ableist. I was “freed” and “normal.” If I had deleted that first sentence, what impact would my story have had on those listening? On you reading?
Let’s try using a food-related story to illustrate the difference.
I love breakfast. One of my earliest memories is “making breakfast” at my Great Aunt Mary’s and Uncle Lou’s house. My mother had gone upstairs to visit my Nana, who was bedridden. In the few minutes my mom was upstairs, I had pulled a dozen eggs out of the refrigerator and cracked them on the kitchen floor.
Voilà Breakfast! Who cared if it was after noon?
Despite my love for breakfast, however, I have never learned to fry an egg.
You see, I am like Julia Roberts. I don’t look like Julia Roberts, of course, but I resemble her character in Runaway Bride. In that movie, the character—whose name I’ve forgotten because it’s Julia not her characters we remember—gets engaged and breaks multiple engagements. There’s a running joke where she doesn’t know how she likes her eggs. Her answer changes with her fiancé. If he likes scrambled, so does she. If the next guy likes Eggs Benedict, so does she. Finally, after leaving Richard Gere at the altar, she decides to figure out how she likes her eggs.
When I returned to the US after separating from my husband, I did the same thing. I tried so many eggs. Poached, scrambled, fried, and soft-boiled. You name it. I realized that I love poached eggs, but I hate to make them. I enjoy soft-boiled eggs, but peeling the shell is a pain. Eggs Benedict are my favorite, but I can’t imagine attempting to make Hollandaise sauce, and they are so calorie heavy. Hardly a daily egg option. I would rather go out.
Finally, I settled on fried eggs as my favorite at-home egg solution. But I had a problem. I didn’t know how to fry an egg. Properly. With the flip. Without breaking it. After more than four decades on this earth, I had never learned. Instead, the men in my life, first my father then my husband, had always made fried eggs for me.
I decided to learn, and I failed. Again and again. The reasons were many. The pan wasn’t hot enough. The egg stuck to the pan. The yolk broke as I cracked the egg. The egg broke when I flipped it. This last reason happened a lot. The spatula size and composition were important, especially to a newbie like me. Naturally, I captured this process online. The eggs looked terrible—but only for a few weeks. Then, finally, one day, I made a perfect over medium egg. I did it again the next day and the next. Then, I messed up the egg again and had to recalibrate my method.
Today, a year later, I can fry my own damn eggs. Yes, sometimes they come out looking less than Instagram-perfect, but that’s OK. The process is what matters. I worked through the obstacles and achieved my goal.
Voilà breakfast! That’s perseverance. That’s overcoming adversity.
But did you notice how my story didn’t involve my disability? My CP doesn’t affect my ability to make eggs. Sure, I have fine motor control issues. Hand-eye coordination is not my strength because of it. But, that does not prevent me from making eggs. Adding my disability to the egg story isn’t relevant in the same way it’s relevant to my running story.
Yet, it’s exactly in its irrelevance to my egg story where it might be helpful to normalize disability. There’s a tendency in personal narratives to tell extraordinary tales about disabled people, to tell the stories of the people who overcome the disability. These stories sell. They make great books, TV shows, and movies.
But, what these stories often fail to recognize is the daily lived experience of disabled people. Not everyone overcomes every obstacle. That’s why it’s so important for groups like First Person Arts to spotlight the voices of disabled people.
People like Chef Eli Kulp of High Street on Market. His story was the last one I heard that night, and the story I most needed to hear. He began his story with the food on our plates: his award-winning Roast Pork and Fermented Broccoli Rabe Sandwich.
- Pulled Pork and Fermented Broccoli Rabe sandwich at High Street on Market. Also pictured tomato and sweet potato soup and carrot cake toddy
Chef Eli spent the first 2 minutes talking about the sandwich and how he came up with the idea to ferment the broccoli rabe. The core of his story was about his relationship with food. In May 2015, that relationship changed when he was in a train accident that severed his spinal cord. The second half of Eli’s story talked about that change—the good and the bad. In the end, Eli’s story had the depth and complexity of one of his dishes. Disability is part of his story, but it isn’t the only part. More importantly, his story didn’t leave me inspired in that stereotypical way you expect. The typical narrative for a story like this would be “I was a chef, and then I became disabled, but I overcame that to remain a chef.” Instead, his story left me thinking, “That’s real. That’s how change feels.”
The more we hear stories like Eli’s, the more we will accept that disability isn’t bad or exceptional. It just is.
You can learn more about First Person Arts here: https://firstpersonarts.org/
You can learn more about the Hungry podcast here: http://www.hungryradio.org/