The Art of Creating Community Around a Queer Iranian Immigrant's Table.

This past Saturday, I hosted the second installment of a pop-up dinner party series at my home in Los Angeles.  I was meeting and greeting all the dinner guests when one of them, who was a friend of a friend, asked me what the purpose of my dinner party was.

That question took me by surprise.  I guess I just assumed everyone who had signed up to come to this gathering was looking to have a delicious culinary experience and maybe meet some new people.  As I took a minute to gather my thoughts and respond to his question, I had to dig deep and ask myself what exactly the purpose of these dinner parties are.

A photo of me taken before guests began arriving on Saturday....the calm before the (awesome) storm of hostessing a dinner party!  Photo credit:  Tina June

Although I have made my living for the past 20 years as a fashion/ lifestyle designer and visual artist, cooking and feeding people has been a recurring theme in my life for as long as I can remember.  As with many immigrant families, sharing a communal meal of large platters of food has been a part of my upbringing. It is one of the most significant and accessible ways for friends and family to experience a sense of abundance, even during the most difficult of times. 

In my early childhood, my parents had lost all their wealth and possessions during the Iranian Revolution and had to start over in Arizona with only their talent and determination. I remember the joy of gathering around the dinner table for large platters of buttery, fluffy basmati rice and slow-cooked braised eggplant to ease and comfort us in our somewhat hostile and foreign environment (where our white Republican neighbors were both suspicious of and slightly fearful of us.)

Khoreshteh Bademjaan (Eggplant Braise) I made for my recent pop-up dinner.  Photo credit: Tina June

Later in my young adult life, when I had moved to New York City in the mid 90's to study fashion at Parsons School of Design, I came out to my parents over the phone while stirring a pot of Ghormeh Sabzi to feed a couple of queer Iranian friends who were visiting me from San Francisco. 

Ironically, I had been told that when a woman has mastered cooking this national dish, that she was ready for marriage. In my case, mastering Ghormeh Sabzi gave me the courage to come out as queer.

Ghormeh Sabzi (Persian Green Herb Stew)  Photo and recipe at: Maman's Kitchen

Breaking bread and sharing the dishes of our motherlands became a big part of the underground queer Arab/Middle-Eastern/Iranian/SWANA scene back in the 90's and early 2000's as well.  Long before we had social media to connect us, those of us who were part of these diasporas that had denied our queer/trans existence, were hosting dinner parties and potlucks in our humble apartments and walk-ups in Brooklyn, Queens, San Francisco, Oakland, and many cities in between.  We shared stories of both the positive and sometimes devastating effects of our coming out to our respective families, as well as held space for those of us who were still living in the shadows that we called the closet.

Every dinner party starts with "breaking bread"-- in this case, with the delicious sourdough flat bread of Iran called "sangak".

I moved around a bunch in my twenties and thirties for my fashion/design career: from New York to Minneapolis and back to Brooklyn before moving West and spending some time in the Bay Area before making Los Angeles my home seven years ago.  Every time I start over in a new town, my first impulse has been to build community by inviting folks over to my home for an authentic Persian/Iranian meal.

One of the dill & fava bean rice dishes I made for last Saturday's dinner.  The crust is made with saffron, yogurt and potatoes embedded in the crunchy rice. In Farsi, this is called "Tahdig" which means "bottom of the pot".  Photo credit: Tina June

Building community in LA has proven to be a completely different animal than what I have experienced in any other city I have lived in.  Folks here are over-scheduled, over-worked, over-committed and have to factor in commutes, parking and geography every time they want to make a social commitment. People tend to congregate mostly with others who work in the same field as they do (read entertainment/movie industry).  That organic way in which I have met and built friendships in other towns has proven to be rather ineffective in LaLa Land. 

Table setting I designed for the SAVAGE MUSE pop-up dinner series.  Pictured on the table are some of the "mezze" style appetizers: Naan'o'Panir (the Persian cheese and herb plate along with Sangak bread). Photo credit:  Tina June

For me, creating these SAVAGE MUSE pop-up dinner parties is partly a way to bring together other folks who fall under the intersectional umbrella of mixed cultures, heritages, sexual and gender orientations, occupations and creative interests to come together and break bread together in a visually inviting, comfortable space. 

Guests enjoying the "mezze" style appetizers in the outdoor garden area. Photo credit: Tina June

Later in the evening as the guests enjoy the main feast under the mid-summer night sky.  Photo credit: Tina June

It is also partly a way for me to more fully express my potential as a lifestyle/brand designer, event creator, visual artist and creative director who can create a seamless brand from the menu design to the social media marketing to the table setting to who I staff and what food I cook and serve.  Every aspect of these dinner parties is part of the "Savage Muse" philosophy and aesthetic.

Table setting I designed for the SAVAGE MUSE Pop-Up Dinners.  Pattern-mixing, bold colors and textile prints from around the world are essential to the SAVAGE MUSE style.  Photo credit: Tina June

The menu I designed for the SAVAGE MUSE Pop-Up Dinner series.  I love playing with colors and taking visual design risks!

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