How Activist Feminista Jones Addresses Food Insecurity

"I wanted to write, and I wanted to help people."

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Michelle Taylor, known professionally as Feminista Jones, is a social worker and writer whose work focuses on intersectionality, Black American culture, and women’s health. (Last year, she published a book called Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World From the Tweets to the Streets.) At home in Philadelphia, where she focuses much of her work as an activist, she showed us how to make pork chops.

I was a latchkey kid, so I had to learn to cook early if I wanted to eat, because there were a lot of times I'd get home before my mom. She taught me a few basics when I was very young.

I think I started cooking around age 7. My mom taught me about using fresh herbs. I love to eat. I love food. I'm fat. I love it. I make no apologies about it.

I'm fat. I love it. I make no apologies about it.

I've just always loved the experimentation of cooking. That might be the artist in me, too. And then, over time, it has honestly become something that’s a passion of mine. It’s therapeutic. I can think of things I cooked that I didn't even eat, just because I wanted to be in the kitchen and zone out. That's how I really came to love it.

I love feeding people. It's my love language. Culturally, I know for Black folks in particular, we tend to communicate emotionally through food. When people have new babies, we bring food. When people pass away, we have these repasts with tons of food. After church, there's always food. We go to barbecues and cookouts and it's like, "Well, who made the potato salad? Who did this?" We all just have this connection to food as a part of our cultural soul.

I know for Black folks in particular, we tend to communicate emotionally through food. 

My son and I have already started cooking together. When he was 6, I had him in the kitchen. I started teaching my son early because I always felt like it didn't matter what gender you are — you have to be self-sufficient. You have to be able to cook so you can eat. And I wanted him to learn early. 

Now he's 13 and he can go in there and make himself some bacon and eggs. I taught him how to make cheeseburgers, and I'm like, "If you’re hungry, you need to go in there and figure it out, buddy." My son is actually the only person in the world that has my macaroni-and-cheese recipe. I won't share it with anybody. 

For years on my blog, I would post recipes because there are a lot of people out there who simply don't know how to cook. Recipes can feel really complicated; the average person doesn't know what it means to blanch broccoli rabe. They don't even know what broccoli rabe is.

The average person doesn't know what it means to blanch broccoli rabe.

I started making recipes that anybody could read, with ingredients that are right in your cabinet. There are people who specifically subscribe to my newsletter and pay every month because I give them recipes.

When I was little, there were two things I wanted to do: I wanted to write, and I wanted to help people. And I've done both of those things simultaneously throughout my life. I became a social worker, and I did that for 17 years, and I retired in December of 2018. But during that time, I was still writing and still pursuing my writing career. I started blogging in 2004, and that was the first time I was really putting my writing out there in the public. It'll be almost 16 years this year that I've been publicly writing.

Being a social worker brings a level of compassion and empathy to my writing. When I'm talking about issues related to oppression, like poverty and hunger and mental health issues and feminism and race, it all comes from personal experience. I’m about to launch a podcast called Black Girl Missing. And it's kind of like a true-crime podcast; we're going to be examining cases in which Black girls have gone missing. The idea is that Black girls, when they go missing, they don't get the same attention as white girls do.

Being a social worker brings a level of compassion and empathy to my writing. 

I'm also on the board for the Hope Center. I think it's super important to acknowledge that the students that are going to schools in Philadelphia have food insecurity. When I was invited to join the Hope Center board, I was like, "This is something I really care about." Because when I was in school, I remember going hungry. Affording that meal plan was just not what life was about. And there were many times when I had to choose between food and other things that I may have needed, like books.

When you have a school like Temple that's right in the middle of North Philadelphia, and you have the University of Pennsylvania expanding into West Philly, they do important work in areas that were historically poor in dealing with generational poverty. I grew up in New York and went to Penn, and that’s when I started getting familiar with the issues.

I try to get people to think about consumption. Growing up poor, you just don't waste food. If you're a single person cooking for yourself, don't overconsume. We think, Oh, poverty in Philadelphia is 26 percent. What can I do about that? There are really small ways to make a big impact.
For this shoot, I made chuletas, or pork chops. I refer to them as chuletas because I did make them in a Latin style. I make a lot of paella, rice and beans, arroz con pollo. I also made some maduros — what people call plantains, platanos. And I made some fried maduros, and that was really good and it came out great with a little bit of garlic. Ah, fantastic.
I always improvise. The only time I have recipes is when I have to make them for other people to read. One of the lesser known ingredients is browning sauce, which is often used for oxtail. It's burnt sugar, basically. It’s popular in West Indian dishes and Caribbean dishes.

I browned the pork chop on both sides and took it out, added some beef broth, added a little bit of tomato paste, put the vegetables in, and let those simmer a little bit. Then I put the pork chop back in and closed the lid and let it cook through. And then I was frying the maduros at the same time. It took not even 20 minutes to make.
Photos by Neal Santos

Wherever you are in this country, there is a local organization that is feeding hungry people. You don't have to just wait for the holidays to get involved.