MOORHEAD, Minn. — With a light visible for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are eager to once again get back together and gather around a table for a meal.
When they do that, Su Legatt hopes they not only eat, but talk and — just as importantly — listen.
Since 2016, the Moorhead, Minn., artist has been working on a project called Dish that moved around Minnesota, inviting communities for a potluck. They were instructed to bring a family or ancestral dish, but really the goal was to get them to share their experiences.
“It’s about creating opportunities for storytelling. They are like micromoments for empathy, sharing individual experiences,” Legatt says.
She recently published the result of the four-year project, “Dish: An Artistic Cook Book.”
A native of rural Minnesota, she knew that no matter the demographic, food and conversation were powerful components in creating community.
“Food brings people in,” she says. “Asking someone, ‘What did you bring and why?’ allows them to open up.”
The book features recipes from the potlucks and Legatt photographed the edible entrees, creating a portrait that reflected the giver but never showed their face. She considers those who brought the food, as well as those who helped organize the potlucks, her collaborators and credits them in the book.
Shooting just the food allowed for conversations over the meals to be more free-flowing, without the invasiveness of a camera at the table.
Offerings ranged from Chex Mix and cheeseballs to mojakka (a Finish fish or beef soup), chicken adobo (a Filipino stew) and an Indonesian vegetable curry.
One of her favorites was the college student in Mankato, Minn., who brought her mom’s chocolate chip cookies.
“What’s more comforting for a kid than a warm chocolate chip cookie? And the Ziploc was so telling of a college student who is probably more focused on school and not kitchenware.”
Legatt photographed the cookies in the bag.
She kept the potlucks in the Land of 10,000 Lakes to better understand the Minnesota experience.
"I’m a social practice artist. I work with my own community,” she says. “It’s dangerous to impose in a community you weren’t invited to.”
That was important as Legatt tried to invite as broad a group of guests as possible, with living in Minnesota being the common connector.
“Once we sat down and started eating, the conversation shifted to Minnesota culture,” she says.
While the Dish potlucks finished before George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, racism was a regular topic at the events.
“Racism did come up quite a few times. People of color talked about the challenges they had and whether 'Minnesota nice' was a real thing,” she says.
Legatt grew up the fifth or sixth generation of farmers from Stearns County, Minn. Her ancestors came from Slovenia and settled the land. As an adult, Legatt realizes the land was likely previously home to Native Americans and her ancestors got the property in part because they were white.
“For me, there’s a conflict between pride in my ancestors and guilt and shame,” she says.
She hopes that the Dish project helps share individuals’ experiences and creates a fuller view of all that life in Minnesota encompasses.
“Through the course of the project, I’ve focused more on my own personal growth in my region and my community,” she says. “I want to do more to celebrate our history and the difficult aspects of our history.”
She’s also learned about herself and how she interacts with others.
“I’ve learned a lot about listening and not interjecting a personal experience after someone shares their personal experience. Don’t make it about you all of the time,” she says.