hugs n’ gumbo

At last Saturday’s Shadow Art Fair, my friends Melissa, Jennifer and I unveiled a new enterprise called Hugs n’ Gumbo. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but, for those of you who can’t figure it out, we sold hugs, along with gumbo. For $5 you got a bowl of vegan gumbo, a Hugs n’ Gumbo zine, a sticker saying that you’ve been hugged and gumboed, and, of course, a hug.

We sold 61 bowls of Gumbo, and ladled out 61 toasty warm hugs. Melissa and I were tied at 26 hugs each, and Jennifer, who did all the serving, was responsible for bestowing 9. (Jennifer’s hugs are rare and valuable.)

Since the very first Shadow, I’d had this idea for a booth where people could hold and comfort a “trembling artist.” The plan was to build a booth, and hire a skinny, male suffering artist-type to sit inside and mope. Then, for a dollar, I’d let people go in, tell him that things are going to be alright, and pat him on the back. I thought it was a brilliant idea for an art show, but I lacked the follow though… Anyway, that was kind of the genesis of the hugging part of Hugs n’ Gumbo.

During a Shadow Art Fair planning meeting, Jennifer, who is originally from Louisiana gumbo country, mentioned that she was considering selling vegan gumbo, and I suggested that, along with the gumbo, she hug people. Actually, I think that I said that I’d hug people. Then, things escalated, as they often do during our notoriously freewheeling meetings. Before either one of us could back out, Melissa had jumped in, bringing her ideas for zines, t-shirts and stickers. And the rest, as the say, is history.

So, we hugged a lot of people.

I’m not a natural-born hugger. My hugs, I’m sorry to say, aren’t, for the most part, genuine. They aren’t like the spontaneous ones you see on television between actors pretending to be friends. Mine are over-thought. I think I say, in the little zine that we gave away, that hugging me is like being thrown into the arms of a cadaver. My hugs are cold, awkward and devoid of affection. There are, of course, exceptions, but they’re few and far between. So, part of me, as this idea began to take shape, thought that it might be therapeutic. I thought that, over the course of the 12 hours that I’d be hugging people, I might get better at it. And I did. It was weird. I enjoyed it. And I wasn’t just hugging people for a few seconds — they were big, warm, genuine hugs. I’m not sure what I was expecting at first. Maybe I just thought that it was a funny idea. But, over time, it occurred to me that it was actually a meaningful kind of thing – serving hot, nourishing food, and making physical contact with people. And my experiences the day of the Shadow really verified that. Some of the people that we were hugging, I got the distinct impression, hadn’t been hugged in a long time, and I got the sense that it meant something to them. It wasn’t just silliness.

There was something really beautiful about Hugs n’ Gumbo, but I’m not sure if we’ll do it again. I’ve suggested that we do Slaps n’ Grilled Cheese over the summer, but it wouldn’t be the same. I mean, it works on the jokey level, but there’s nothing beyond that. Here, I think, there was an underlying statement about isolation and the need of human beings to connect… For what it’s worth, I’m really proud of this project.

In a general sense, this is probably a good place to mention that we, the planners of the Shadow Art Fair, would like to encourage more work that’s experiential in nature. We love our vendors who sell photos, zines, artwork and clothing, and we intend to keep them, but we’d like to encourage more participants who, maybe while they incorporate commerce, also kind of offer something more. We want to engage our Shadow guests- not just take their money. That’s what this has been about from the beginning. If we just wanted to make a buck, we’d raise the price of tables, and take the national sponsorship money that’s been offered to us. That’s not what we want, though. We want to get creative people in the same room together, talking about making stuff… And the occasional hug wouldn’t hurt.

And I should add that the gumbo kicked ass!

[All photos are by Melissa Dettloff. The middle one is of my hugging a local NPR celebrity. The bottom one is of Jennifer.]

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  1. mark
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    FYI… It was Melissa that added the heart to that one photo, not me.

  2. not one of the cool kids
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Love the post and idea.
    Hate the styrofoam cups! Not only are they bad for the environment, but some people like me are allergic to the crap it’s made of…makes my lips puffy and gives me soars in my mouth.
    Hug the earth too!

  3. Sierra
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Looking at stock markets around the world today, hugs may be becomming a part of every transaction from here on out.

  4. CKL
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    I loved this post.



  5. Posted December 12, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry for the styrofoam cups and your allergic reaction.

    There was reason behind the decision: It doesn’t melt when you add hot liquid – I assume no one wants to ingest melted plastic; the outside stays cool while the inside stays warm, so you can hold the container; it can be recycled (not so for the plastics available in the same serving size); we could get lids to prevent spills and to keep heat inside the cup.

    If you have better container ideas, please let me/us know! We’ll work on finding a better, more suitable option for you.

    Jennifer (Gumbo server)

  6. UBU
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    It was $10 without the hug from Mark…

  7. Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as a customer, the gumbo was excellent [1], and the hug wasn’t bad either.

    [1]: And I’m not just saying that because aside from the gumbo the only thing I had to eat that Saturday was a PB&Jagel from the Ugly Mug.

  8. brokenmelody
    Posted December 14, 2008 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Having been vegetarian my whole life, I wonder what vegan gumbo would taste like…

    Sounds like a winning idea though, sorry to have missed it. :(

  9. Karen Gotzen
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I have yet to stop vomiting.

    From the hug. Not the gumbo.

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