Adiba Nelson samples “cultural soul food” at Tucson Meet Yourself
Video essays Adiba Nelson and Eryka Dellenbach
One thing about me is that I love to eat. More importantly, I love to eat cultural “soul food.” There is something incredibly divine and almost church-like about partaking in a meal that is rich in culture or harkens back to the chef’s childhood. It feels like a secret you’ve been made privy to or a privilege you’ve earned simply by being you.
This is why I was especially thrilled to be welcomed into the homes of not one, but two of the Tucson Meet Yourself, food vendors, for some pre-festival tasting. First I visited Alberta Chu, who brings Tawainese-style fried chicken to the festival for the first time. Then I visited the O’odham Ladies, who have been serving up fry bread in the Tohono O’odham tradition for decades.
Alberta Chu of Herculean Chicken fried up quite possibly the most delicious, mouth-watering fried chicken I’ve ever had IN. MY. LIFE. And my grandma was from South Carolina and could burn in the kitchen. But when I tell you that I happily lost a few taste buds because I tossed that Taiwanese popcorn chicken from the deep fryer right into my mouth, I’m not lying. Even the deep-fried basil she adds for extra flavor was delicious! Also, did you know you could deep fry basil? I texted Alberta the next morning telling her that I woke up craving her chicken, and I wanted just a little bag of it that I could carry around in my purse and snack on all day.
It really is that good, folks.
Then, because the good folks here at Borderlore care nothing about my favorite pair of jeans I just got back into, I headed on over to the home of Alice Juan, one of the eight members of O’Odham Ladies Fry Bread to take in the experience of making fry bread. And friends, let me tell you – it was just that – an experience.
This fry bread was not just fry bread. It was sitting around the table with my Nana and all my tias, laughing and joking about family stories, and then reliving those moments with Alice, her cousins Lorinda and Veronica (who are sisters), her granddaughter Jessica, and the 94-year-old matriarch of the family, Miss Lolita. It was my mom teaching me how to make Puerto Rican arepas when I was just five or six years old, and Jessica sharing with me that she has taught her now eight-year-old daughter how to carry on the family tradition of making fry bread. It was tasting the beans and chili straight from the pot and recalling how my Nana would chase us out of the kitchen as we tried to sneak spoonful after spoonful of sancocho. Again, I tell you, this isn’t just fry bread. This is food that you eat and do a little dance when the heat hits the back of your tongue, food that you know will always make you feel better when the world is falling down around you, food that is the equivalent of curling up in your grandma’s lap, even as a grown adult, and letting her tell you story after story that you’ve heard a million times before, and you’ll gladly hear a million times again because they’re stories filled with love and laughter and heart. This fry bread is soul food. And if you got a little emotional reading this, welcome to the club.
I got a little emotional eating it.
I was blessed enough to have the incredible Eryka Dellenbach with me to capture this tasting extravaganza on film, and I think even Eryka will tell you: these women and their food are something we’ll not soon forget. Take in the videos, experience the food at the festival, and appreciate the rich cultures and deep soul that makes up the whole of Tucson.
Adiba Nelson is the author of Ain’t That A Mother (Blackstone Publishing, 2022), an award-winning children’s book author, and the subject of the Emmy Award winning documentary, “The Full Nelson.” Adiba travels the country speaking about the importance of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility (DEIA) from a disability perspective.
Eryka Dellenbach (they/she) is a semi-nomadic artist and educator working between film, performance, and experimental, practice-based ethnography. Born in Chicago and now living in Tucson, they are a capoerista with UCA Tucson Quilombolas and work primarily as a freelance, devotional filmmaker. You can learn more about their work on their website: erykadellenbach.com