Just as Pasadena is a distinct community within and reflective of greater LA, so is the food community positioned in Pasadena. The enterprising women of that community, and its cultural diversity and their stories, will be the topic of conversation at “Women in Food — The Common Table” during a panel featuring “The Urban Forager” cookbook author Elisa Callow, inspirational cook Mary Aghoian, Semolina Artisinal Pasta owner Leah Ferrazzani, McDonald’s Urban Farm owner and purveyor Amelia McDonald, and chef Masako Yatabe Thomsen.
Moderated by Armory Center for the Arts Executive Director Leslie Ito, the event will be followed by a Q&A session, a cookbook signing by Callow, and a celebration with plenty of food tonight, Sept. 26, at the Central Library in Pasadena.
According to Callow, the idea for the panel arose from research for her illuminating book, which focuses on cooking, chefs, culinary stores, farmers markets and ingredients in greater Pasadena and LA’s Eastside.
“I was interviewing Minh Phan, who owns porridge + puffs [in Filipinotown], and noticed that a lot of Minh’s strength comes from her relationships with other women in food,” Callow says. “There’s a real desire on her part to be supportive of other women who are moving into food as professionals. The great irony is that women have always cooked, but men have been described as chefs, and it irritates her. Through her I met Na Young Ma at Proof Bakery, a young woman who grew up in Pasadena as an incredible baker. When Minh Phan was starting out, Na Young Ma actually stood side by side with her and helped her with bread and toasts and puffs and gave her dough to use in her restaurant. When Minh first opened porridge + puffs, Na Young Ma was there helping her, even though she’s running her own business. Minh also purchases rice, one of the core ingredients for her restaurant, from Koda Farms, Robin Koda, who is also a woman.
“So there was this relationship, and harkening back to how people learned to cook from Grandma and Mom and Auntie. Why not honor that? I was looking around this community and these women who are quite professional in food. I’m not leaving out men on purpose; I just think it’s time to talk about women who are really doing beautiful work in food,” says Callow.
The men she knows in the food world are “just as caring and soft and delightful about their food,” but, she allows, “there’s less feeling of competition between the women, and more of collaboration.”
Sitting in her gracious Altadena kitchen, Callow scrolls through her website until she reaches a 2018 entry with a photo of McDonald’s hands holding a small pair of clippers; they had belonged to her grandfather, a seasonal citrus picker. Callow then flips to a page midway through her book and reads: “When a family’s history is one of displacement and immigration, what can be carried is memory … these memories take their most tangible form in its love of food.” That opens a page-long profile of Jack Aghoian, who inherited his father Abraham’s Pasadena restaurant, Aghoian’s Dining Room (which he renamed Jack’s Kasbah and later sold to Alta Eats chef Paul Ragan). Abraham and Jack’s mother Mary, who’s speaking on the panel, were Armenian refugees, and their family’s story is emblematic of how local culture has made LA the country’s most imaginative food capital.
“Tahini tacos are one of their favorite things,” Callow says with a chuckle. “Mary grew up in Syria and her husband grew up in Cuba; their parents fled Armenia because of the genocide. So Mary was the carrier of the food culture in the family. Her stories of food scarcity are not about ‘poor me’; they’re about, ‘and then we ground our own wheat and then we milked our own this.’ Jack wrote quite a bit about the Armenian kitchen as the ultimate center of family, and Mary is the absolute apex of that. She was working at PUSD as their immigration support person, but her husband decided to open a restaurant so she’d be up until three in the morning, teaching him how to cook.”
Ito, who just celebrated her one-year anniversary as executive director at the Armory (where Callow was founding director), previously served as president of the Japanese-American Cultural & Community Center in downtown LA, where she launched a culinary program. Now, she says, she is “looking closely” at how family units and communities connect “through culture and specifically the culinary arts.” She anticipates the panel pivoting to ways in which food abundance and scarcity shape how we think about, present and consume food. Local food conversation usually centers on restaurants, but “the procurement of food and the life of food before it gets to the table” is interesting too, Ito says, and food can be locally sourced here.
“We think about women, and we think about recipes, cooking techniques, growing food,” Ito says. “A lot of that gets passed down from generation to generation through the women. We’re naturally the cultural bearers of our families and our communities.”
Callow cites a supportive local “ecosystem,” exemplified by Minh Phan supporting a quality farm purveyor’s ingredients with her business, and McDonald honoring a fellow urban farmer with a special dinner when he harvests beautiful heirloom corn. On no day is the food business anything short of challenging, but locally it’s less competitive than one might expect.
“Pasadena is for me one of these rare cities that is based on the quality of relationships and community. It is one of the most civically minded places I’ve ever been,” Callow says. “So I want to really celebrate the resources in this community that have to do with food, and some of the leaders happen to be some very strong women.”
“Women in Food — The Common Table: Stories of Community” takes place at the Central Library, 285 E. Walnut St., Pasadena, 6:30-9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26; free admission. Info: (626) 744-4066. theurbanforager.co, cityofpasadena.net/library