On the Menu: Social Activism

How Judy Wicks has combined the culinary world and social action.

By Sabrina Emms

Judy Wicks knows to carry a wet cloth if there’s a chance she will be teargased. Wicks, who turns 70 in the new year, can easily list the times she’s been arrested for direct action. She may not be a, “professional troublemaker” but she isn’t one to back down from a fight.

She looks as far from troublesome as you can look, with her long curly white hair and simple knit sweater. She’s warm and a little brusque, the way you’d expect a successful businesswoman and skilled people person to be. But Wicks is more than a businesswoman, she’s an activist, and an effective one. She causes change, first in herself and her business ventures and then for her community.

She’s best know for the White Dog Cafe, and more recently for her tireless work here and abroad. She’s stealthy changing the food economy of Philadelphia, a little bit at a time.

Just as artists have mediums, so do activists.

Wicks, formerly the owner of the White Dog Cafe, is certainly an activist, and often, her medium is food. When Wicks says, “I use good food to lure innocent customers into social action” she isn’t lying.

The White Dog was transformative. In Philadelphia it popularized the trend of locally sourced, really good food begun in California by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Wicks draws a clear line.“I don’t compare myself to Alice Waters. She’s a world-renowned chef. She started to create the wave that I and many others rode, in terms of just the right moment to have a restaurant that featured local food.” Wicks says.

Wicks is no chef, and White Dog certainly doesn’t have the acclaim of Chez Panisse, but it has become a Philadelphia institution and a cornerstone of the local food movement, with Wicks as its fearless leader and champion.WEhite Dog Cafe

In 2009 Wicks sold the cafe. In 2014 she wrote, “Good Morning Beautiful Business”, which won a Nautilus Award for Business/Leadership in 2014. Now she focusses on BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, which she cofounded in 2001 to combat decentralization and globalization in our economies and supply chains. If that’s not enough, she’s working on a campaign to solarize center city.

Her own home runs on solar-produced electricity from her roof and renewable energy bought from Lancaster County. Wicks can’t stop. She’s been showing movies and inviting speakers to help convince her neighbors to convert to solar too. But even as her interests have broadened and branched out, she does acknowledge, “most of my work since then [selling the Café and starting BALLE] all sprung from the White Dog”

Back in the days of the White Dog Café, one of the first things Judy did was get rid of pork.

“In particular I was really interested in humanely raised meat.” she explains. “I just made a commitment I would not be part of the evil cruel inhumane system.”

Wicks had become aware of the plight of the meat she was serving, and immediately worked to change it. Pork did return to the White Dog, but this time it came from her free range chicken and egg farmers. White Dog got two whole humanely raised pigs a week. Then she did the same with beef. She worked to create a network of local farms.

“After many years I got to the point where I thought, ‘now we’ve finally done it, we have a menu that’s humane, all of our meat comes from small family farms where the animals are treated with respect and so on’. And that was going to be our market niche. We were the only restaurant that was doing it.”

But Wicks shared this network with her competitors. She realized that if she really cared about the animals, the meat, the consumers, and the farmers, then she would share that list, and try to make all the meat in the area humane and local. A food system, Wicks explains, can’t just be one person or one restaurant. Alone we can’t change the entire global economy, but together, we do stand a chance.

Judy Wicks

Judy Wicks

Wicks attributes her compulsion to share and her love of local food to her experiences as a girl and young woman. She grew up in a rural part of Pennsylvania with a mother and grandmother who were both excellent cooks. As an VISTA ((Volunteers In Service To America) volunteer she spent time with Eskimo and saw the value and necessity of sharing. “In Alaska, I lived in an Eskimo village for a year that really helped me form my own world view based on sharing, sharing, and caring.” she explained. “I credit that experience for a lot in my life. I witnessed a society based on cooperation compared to our society that’s based on competition and consumerism. The Indigenous Peoples have a very different world view than those of us that are settlers from other lands.”

She also cites the Zapatistas of Chiapas, in southern Mexico who were fighting for local culture and local self-reliance, rebelling against globalization. They wanted to keep their culture and avoid being sucked into the giant whirlpool of consumer mono-culture.

Wicks adamantly champions rebelling against consumer culture and corporations. Thinking about the Zapatistas and their struggle, “led to understanding that we had lost our self-reliance. All over the world people had become dependent on large corporations to bring our basic needs — our food, our clothing, our energy — long distances. We no longer had local self-reliance.” Wicks wants to see this change.

Wicks explained this at the linen-covered dining room table of her Philadelphia brownstone. There was folk art on some walls, antiques on others. Upstairs, velvet chairs and couches sat in a semicircle by the windows, and a patinaed gymnast balanced a plate on her feet. The kitchen was wide open, next to the front door, beautiful honeyed wood reminiscent of a barn, and a huge hulking white and chrome fridge. Wicks lives there with Jack and JoJo, her two delightful terriers.

During our interview, her daughter, Grace, a professional gardener, brought her some leftover Kale salad. Where Wicks does not necessarily look like a rabble-rouser or a business genius, Grace Wicks looks the part of a gardener, with cherry, wind-chapped cheeks and an outdoorsy tan, even in December.

She’s clearly learned from her mother, about the value of community. She does both small local window boxes and large penthouse jobs. She did Wicks’ window boxes and often does mini herb or food gardens as well as decorative plantings. Grace Wicks bringing her mother food doesn’t seem unusual, Wicks admits she is no cook.

“My mother always said when I had kids, I’d have to learn to cook, but I lived above a restaurant. I either marched the kids down or the food up.” she said.

Wicks never did have to learn to cook, as she started the White Dog Cafe in 1983. When Wicks explains the idea behind the cafe, she talks a lot about her growing up.

Now, Wicks is a city woman, but she can’t shake her love of western Pennsylvania and the woods. She splits her time between Philadelphia and a cabin she bought 20 years ago in the mountains. The woods center her, but she has the of a city person, and can’t imagine living in a small town. That doesn’t mean she isn’t nostalgic for her childhood, and the home cooked, local food she grew up eating.

“When I started, it was just my longing for my childhood.” she said of the White Dog. Wicks grew up near Pittsburg, but in a rural part of Pennsylvania, “I was raised in a small town on the edge of farm land, so my parents had a very large vegetable garden.” Like many rural kids she didn’t eat much that wasn’t local. “My mother would go to farm stands, and then my mother and my grandmother would preserve food for the winter, make stewed tomatoes and frozen vegetables, and all that stuff,” she reminiscences.

Creating the White Dog was as simple as just trying to pass on that food. “I grew up being used to fresh local food, my mother’s good cooking…I wanted to start one [a restaurant] based on the food I’d grown up with, which is just fresh local food.”

Ten years after it opened, Conde Nast’s Traveler magazine named it in a list of, “50 American restaurants worth the journey”. The success was a surprise to Wicks. “I had no idea that was going to become a fad or a not even a fad but a new direction for eating,” she says.

Of course, all of this comes at a price. In terms of food that price might be forgoing spring berries in the winter and paying a little more for your local pork. This might not be a bad thing, it will certainly be less convenient, but there’s something nostalgically lovely about it. “It wasn’t that long ago, within my life time, that we didn’t have that. I can remember when a crate of oranges would arrive at our house in the middle of winter. We didn’t even have oranges in the grocery store in the wintertime. It was a big deal to have a whole lot of oranges. They used to smell like Florida.”

“There’s no reason you can’t trade globally for things you don’t have. The problem is corporations wanting to control. They’ve destroyed diversified food economies. They’ve created monocultures. They control instead of diversified economies that provide everything a community needs” but of course this isn’t the kind of thing you can do overnight.

The White Dog’s first activist program was the sister restaurants, inspired by sister cities. Wicks picked Nicaragua, and then amazingly, she visited. “I was actually very fearful, because, you know, there was a civil war going on.” Wicks said. “At first I was going to have it be a pen pal relationship where we exchanged recipes or something.” Wicks said, then a friend suggested she visit. “I said, ‘oh no, I go downstairs to my restaurant, upstairs to my house, sometimes I don’t even go out of the building,’ I have two little kids and there’s a civil war going on. I’m not going,” But of course she did.

Food is still a large part of her activism. This November, Wicks and her crew, the Wopila Brigade, joined forces with other volunteers to cook a dinner for 2000 people at the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota.

Wopila is a Lakota word that means thank you, which is appropriate for thanks giving, and also for Wicks’ mission. The Woplia brigade wanted to support the water protectors and Native Peoples at Standing Rock. The Wopila brigade is small, just 35 people, including a professional chef with his crew of five. But they are mighty – they served dinner to over 10 times their number. “Originally it was going to be 200. Then 500,” she says. It ended up being 2,000 people. The chef alone spit-roasted 30 turkeys outside, and an additional 100 were rustled up. “We spent two days peeling onions and potatoes and carrots,” says Wicks.

Dinner was served in the gym to 500 people at a time and they also got a hot shower. When Wicks’ group and another joined together they had enough food and manpower to talk on a proper Thanksgiving feast for 2,000 people. While there had been plans for a dinner, it certainly couldn’t have been the scale it was, without some help from the Woplia brigade.

“They said that wanted to thank those who put on the dinner and formed a line and came by and shook our hand as they came by us. It brought me to tears, just person after person thanking me, and shaking my hand all Indigenous peoples,” Wicks says.

Thanksgiving for Indigenous Peoples, is obviously not uncontroversial.

While activism often involves being controversial or offensive for attention, there are certain lines that should not be crossed. The press from Standing Rock thanksgiving got them the front page of the Philadelphia Enquirer, but Wicks wanted to make sure that the price for that media coverage would not be too high. So she did seek advice before suggesting a Standing Rock thanksgiving, given the rocky history behind thanksgiving. She’d hosted Thanksgiving dinner before for at the White Dog, and it wasn’t a decision she made alone, she consulted Indigenous Peoples she knew. Many of them cooked turkeys and celebrated the holiday, and ultimately, the gesture was both appreciated and news worthy.

Wicks also had advice for us all. For all her success, Wicks believes that any of us have the potential to move our communities toward local self-reliance. The dream of The White Dog Cafe, the dream at the heart of Wicks’ entrepreneurial activism is simple; we all need to move towards a more local, less central system.

“Start where you are,” she says. “It starts with what you care about the most. The local food scene is just the start of an economy that’s relationship-based and transparent.” Change really does start with us. It isn’t easy, even Wicks isn’t perfect, but the first step is putting your money towards what you think matters and not just towards what’s convenient.

At Standing Rock, Wicks and a woman’s march went to pray in front of the armed police. They were afraid of being pepper-sprayed but they held their ground. The battle for local food and for the environment will be uphill but with some bravery, and love, and willingness to share, we just might get there.