Around America’s Dinner Table — Merrell Hambleton

The New York Times Style Magazine , 04.10.2019

For a story in T’s Culture issue, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon invited 25 American (or working-in-America) guests to a series of imaginary dinner parties. We asked them to contemplate the country now, and in the future.

On a snowy morning in early February, the designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, of Kenzo and Opening Ceremony, were conjuring up a dinner party of sorts. For T’s 2019 Culture issue, themed around America in 2024, they had invited 25 American (or working-in-America) artists, writers, actors, chefs and others to join them, over the course of two days, at a studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan for an imagined feast that would be the subject of a series of photo shoots. The images, creative directed by Lim and Leon, appear in the magazine alongside Mona Mansour’s original play “Leave the Car,” which they helped inspire.

As people trickled in — the painter Wardell Milan and the ceramist Didi Rojas, the chefs Ignacio Mattos, of Estela, and Jeremiah Stone, of Contra, the playwrights Jackie Sibblies Drury and Lynn Nottage — the chef and food art director Angela Dimayuga, working with the artist Young Gun Lee, styled the tables for the shoot. The day before, Lee had taken a snaking route through New York City, starting at Food Bazaar in North Brooklyn, then south to the shops along Atlantic Avenue and eventually up through Chinatown and Koreatown to end at Kalustyan’s on Lexington Avenue, collecting ingredients for a meal both familiar and futuristic. Plates were piled high with young bamboo shoots, pan dulce and even live blue crabs, which skittered across the tablecloth. “I wanted it to be like a potluck,” she said. “As though everyone brought food.”

For many of the guests — now dressed in pieces by designers like Victor Glemaud, Tomo Koizumi, Maryam Nassir Zadeh and Maison Alma, and photographed by Azim Haidaryan with trays of sticky gulab jamun, clusters of enoki mushrooms and ripe dragon fruit — food was a natural place to begin a conversation about their complex relationships with America. When we spoke after the shoot, the artist Laila Gohar recalled making baklava to stave off homesickness after leaving Egypt, and Sibblies Drury, who is Jamaican-American, shared her delight at finding fresh callaloo greens — for years in New York she had only had canned — at a Korean market in Bed-Stuy. The musician Michelle Zauner, who is half Korean, began cooking as a way to connect with her heritage after her mother’s death. “I’ve been making my own kimchi,” she said. “It’s a therapeutic process.”

In America, the year 2024 is linked, inextricably, to politics, but for Lim and Leon, the shoot was as much about the personal. “Growing up in America, fitting in was really something we strived for,” said Leon, whose parents are Peruvian and Chinese. “Our idea of the future is the opposite of that: embracing everything that makes you different, everything that your family came from, going back to the roots of your heritage and recognizing that that’s what makes you American.” When asked about the future, the actor Ari’el Stachel replied, “I feel compelled to say something optimistic, but I’m not convinced that I’m optimistic.” Others were more hopeful: “As long as the planet’s here, we will still fall in love, have babies, make art in 2024,” said the poet Jericho Brown. “We can be sure of that.” Below, the participants share their thoughts on America — past, present and future.

What will America look like in 2024?

I have a show up at the Andy Warhol Museum, and we’ve made sure to have events geared toward black communities that have not always felt welcome. We hosted a conversation called “Shop Talk” where we talked about black male identity and queerness in barbershops. After, I had a conversation with one of the security guards, and he said it’s the first time he’s ever seen someone who looked like him show in the museum. So I’m hopeful.