When the world went on lockdown for COVID-19 and people began to pull the cooking genes out of their bones again, I wondered how I could support the resurrection of homemade food, starting with something as simple as Cajun Shrimp and Wild Rice.
What the coronavirus made clear was that our society could no longer rely on thin, nameless, global supply chains. As someone who has devoted my career to tracing the source of ingredients, for unearthing the hardworking hands and stories behind food, I felt I had something to offer.
Starting with Wild For Salmon, I want to help my readers not only rediscover the joy of cooking, but also to recall the most basic human skill: hunting for food. Real food. I want to show how anyone can shop for quality ingredients that represent a healthier, more equitable food system. I want to show how intentional spending can help fuel a growing web of family farmers, fishermen, and foragers devoted to stewarding, not raping, the land for generations to come. I want to help build local and sustainable distribution networks that serve every community across the country, eliminating food deserts across America.
And I want to use food as a universal megaphone for changemakers leading the way to a more beautiful world.
So let’s begin.
My recipes are always inspired by a person, and the inspiration for Cajun Shrimp came from an unlikely place: my online Stand-Up Comedy Class presented by Hughie Stone Fish. When I first met my teacher, Mirage Thrams, I instantly liked her. She was warm and bold at once, and had a directness softened by motherly compassion and humor. Her intuition was uncanny. She had me pinned within seconds; “you seem like someone who I would trust to tell me what I should and shouldn’t eat.”
She said, “Being a good comedian means embracing your faults and flaws. Vulnerability is your superpower. I’m going to help you find your voice, instead of conforming to what you think other people want you to be.” As someone who has spent my life desperately trying to fit in, I was immediately onboard.
As is usually the case when I meet a trailblazing woman and mother, I was itching to get to know Mirage. A small window opened when I learned that Mirage was raised in Alaska, where Wild For Salmon harvests the majority of their seafood and for which I was about to create a recipe using their wild shrimp (one of the few products sourced from the Louisiana Gulf).
Amidst the insanity of our lives as working moms, without childcare, we managed to find a time to connect by phone. I asked if she had a favorite shrimp recipe. Her response was not what I expected.
“Well, I didn’t try my first shrimp until I was a grown-up, living in the Lower 48!” Mirage was raised Seventh Day Adventist, a mashup of Christian religion and Jewish practices, which banned shrimp and pork from their diet. She would always ask her friends what shrimp tasted like, until one day, free from the religious buckles of her childhood, she tried Shrimp Cocktail.
“It sounded elegant, and it was ok. But then I discovered Cajun Shrimp and fell in love with it!” For a period of her life, Mirage ordered takeout Cajun Shrimp every day, while her girls ate something else for dinner. I laughed, all too familiar with the experience of eating something I found insatiably good (like anchovies on pizza), that my daughters wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Food is a portal into the human soul, and our conversation about Cajun Shrimp quickly rewound into Mirage’s powerful life story, a convergence of comedy and activism, beginning in Alaska.
“Growing up in Alaska, I learned you can’t rely on consistency. In the summer, it was daytime all day. We picked wild raspberries, built forts and rode our bikes until 10:30 at night. In the winter we burrowed through tunnels of snow to school. We didn’t look at someone else’s backyard and wish we had that. Our family had a river and woods, my friend’s family had grass. In Alaska, I learned you can’t try to change the way things are. It taught me to be centered in myself. Now, living in L.A. is constantly busy, and there’s upheaval, like forest fires. But my girls and I are centered in ourselves. We know that whatever happens, change is expected, and it’s cool.”
Fighting for Justice
Mirage was one of six children born in Fairbanks, Alaska, and one of two black kids in her class. As a young couple, her parents had moved there for her father, Rick, to work on the Purdhoe Bay Pipeline. He would spend one month away and one month home. In his spare time, he worked as a comedian, traveling to Chicago to study with Second City, the historic improv theater and training program. Mirage remembered, “he’d come back home and teach us improv games and other funny stuff.” He went on to win Funniest Person in Alaska.
When Mirage was in middle school, her dad returned to his hometown of Gary, Indiana, a post-industrial city with pervasive poverty and segregation. He was caring for his mother, who was diabetic and facing an amputation.
One night while driving his cousin home, Rick was pulled over by a police offer for a broken taillight. He was asked to get out of the car and his cousin was told to go home. The police handcuffed Rick and shot him twice in the back and once in the head, with witnesses at the scene of his murder.
From that point on, Mirage spent her life defending her dad’s character in court and trying to make sense of his case. Her father had been sloppily framed with a gun and drugs, and court witnesses were either too scared to testify or discredited on the stand. After heartbreaking years seeking justice, the police officer was released from custody with an apology from the judge to him and his family for having to endure the case. He went on to be a character on the show Cops. Mirage and her family were left crushed, without an apology or a father. As if being black in Alaska wasn’t already isolating, Mirage said that “when your dad is considered a bad guy, and the other family gets to keep their dad, you just feel as if you’re not as good as everyone else.” Except deep down, Mirage knew that she was, and she wouldn’t stay quiet.
Comedy meets Activism
“Comedy and activism are in my DNA. It just turned out that way.” Even in the short time I’ve known Mirage, I can’t think of a more compassionate, brazen, and inclusive visionary to combine what seem like vastly different tools for conversation and change.
Rick’s death was devastating and traumatic for Mirage and her family, and after they lost his case they attempted to move forward with their lives in the Lower 48. Mirage became a mother to three daughters, a performer, and a teacher, training with prestigious programs like Second City and CBS’s Diversity Program. But Mirage could not ignore the pain that haunted her family.
Comedy and activism were written into Mirage’s DNA at an early age, and the Alaskan clock prepared her for the on-stage career she would embark on while mothering three daughters and fighting for justice for her family and community.
Mirage began to write sketches that shed light on the pervasive injustices in our country and within her own family’s world. She featured topics like the Revolutionary War and wrote an intentionally provocative show, It’s Not Funny, where she invited the audience into her family’s trauma, as she revisited documents from her father’s court case and imagined his last moments alive. She was committed to using her talent and art as a vehicle for change.
The current wave of anti-racism, Black Lives Matter and “I Can’t Breathe” is not new for Mirage. She dedicated her life to challenging the status quo, leading with a unique perspective and this foundational belief: Hollywood, like most white-dominated institutions, has a proprietary outlook that claims art as its own, such as comedy “belonging” to white men. However, the people who are left out are the ones who want to share. There are so many unheard voices. Mirage has always advocated to create something more beautiful than we could possibly imagine, together.
Mirage learned early on that good things come from working together. Having felt isolated in Alaska and choosing a career in comedy, where comedians often feel estranged and are pitted against each other, Mirage chose a different approach to building rapport with colleagues and students.
When Mirage was accepted into CBS’s Diversity Program, she began to understand why so many alumni were irate about their experience. “A lot of the writers came from out of town, and L.A. is a hard place to live, even if you’re from here. We weren’t paid and expected to work full days in a damp, overheated basement. The company didn’t provide us with any food or water, and most of the writers couldn’t afford a place to live let alone get a ride to the studio.” What’s more, the program forced people of color to compete against each other, while also asking them to play up racial stereotypes.
Mirage worked from the inside out, first building solidarity amongst her cohort. She made small, obvious suggestions, like bringing food to share and giving each other rides instead of relying on expensive Ubers. (She eventually succeeded in implementing a permanent catering program for the writers.) Mirage also encouraged her group to support each other’s sketches; they were the first cohort to form a lasting bond.
She said, “once we weren’t mad or upset, we could be open to the comedy we were doing. I’m a funny person, and there’s no way I would sacrifice the funny.” Mirage’s work at CBS established her as a leader in Hollywood, and helped launch her career.
Hollywood Accountability (HA) Now
In response to recent uprisings and firsthand experience of racist practices and ideologies at institutions like Second City and CBS, Mirage helped launch the campaign, Hollywood Accountability (HA) Now, which builds on the work of her previous campaign Black is Beautiful (now HA’s slogan). Through this initiative, Mirage banded together with alums to hold these organizations accountable to their claims prioritizing opportunities for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ writers and performers. Their initial Town Hall Meeting included over 300 attendees, and has since been viewed by more than 5,000 people in the industry. The response from organizational leaders has largely been to quit or close their programs, claiming that they weren’t equipped to deal with the demands being made. Mirage holds that they weren’t asking people to quit their jobs. They were asking people for an apology and a conversation leading to change. “Closing an institution won’t stop talent from existing and speaking out.”
The response reflects a world increasingly experienced online and through social media, where we are afraid to have uncomfortable conversations. But it is through those very encounters that we can begin to understand and support one another.
HA is also seeking to raise funds for comedians in her community who need help. Many are facing housing issues, food scarcity and other emergencies, and have no one to turn to for support. “Comedians have an untouchable air about them. We are the only entertainers constantly seeking approval and asking if something is funny. We also get on stage, over and over again, which is a top three fear for people.” And on top of that, “comedians see the world and say the way we see it,” a shameless quality most people can’t uphold. Please consider making a donation to Hollywood Accountability:
It’s no coincidence to me that Mirage is a woman and a mother. Her nurturing insight, desire for collective wellness, ability to drive heartfelt change, and commitment to laughter are what we need to heal and create a future that will bring us to our knees with beauty.
Mirage Thrams, thank you. It’s an honor to be your student.
PS. If you’re interested in seeing my comedy bit from this class, leave a comment below. If I get enough interest, I may work up the courage to share it. After all, vulnerability is my superpower, right!?
Recipe coming soon…