Johns Island gardener aims to heal racial divisions with food

A raw vegan meal at Singleton's Kabul compound (Provided)

A former international development worker says organizing cross-cultural meals at which participants from different backgrounds “have conversations about race, and things in the news, and just about their families” is more difficult in Charleston than Kabul.

“It’s a little bit of a harder audience here,” says Tina Singleton, a new Johns Island resident and aspiring farmer who’s launched Transformation Table in response to racial, ethnic and religious discord. “In Afghanistan, you kind of have a built-in community of people from all over the world who are just willing to be open. I’m trying to figure out how to replicate that experience and bring African-Americans and whites together for a meal.”

Eventually, Singleton says, Transformation Table will encompass a set of raw vegan cooking classes; workshops and supper events. For now, though, she’s focusing on giving community talks “so people understand who I am and where I’m coming from.” She’s scheduled to speak at the Johns Island Regional Library on July 30 at 11 a.m. about her time in Afghanistan.

“Food brought all these different people to just sit and be with somebody (they) wouldn’t otherwise talk to,” she says. “It was a way to be together in calm in a war zone.”

Singleton first moved to Afghanistan in 2006, then returned in 2010, staying for a cumulative six years. Although she wasn’t a gardener when she arrived, her nostalgia for greens prompted her to plant crops which served as the basis for monthly vegan pop-ups. In addition to inviting people over for eggplants, tomatoes, carrots and spinach, she also tried to eat in Afghans’ homes whenever she could.

“They were very curious about the United States,” she says. “With Barack Obama as president, that kind of raised the profile of black people in America. People would ask ‘are you related to him?’ or ‘Do you know the president?’ It was really interesting, because before that, it was always, ‘you’re not American because you’re not white.’”

At the dinners hosted by Afghans, Singleton ate naan, briyani, mantoo, watermelon and cucumber salad. In Charleston, she envisions serving a menu of black-eyed peas; Carolina gold rice; greens with Afghan spices; red slaw and raw vegan chocolate cake, which she’ll demo at the library.

“(It’s) made in honor of Kamel Hamade, the owner of the Taverna du Liban, my favorite Lebanese restaurant in Kabul,” Singleton says. “Kamel was killed in a suicide attack on his restaurant along with 21 other patrons in the restaurant. At the end of every meal, Kamel used to give everyone a free slice of chocolate cake with a scoop of ice cream. It was like receiving a little slice of love. Through that little act, he taught me about generosity and building community through food.”

To learn more about Singleton’s programs, e-mail tina@transformationtable.com.