Radio Ethnography, Restaurant Kitchens and #MeToo

Our SAFN president David Beriss has put out a call for blog posts on food workers, food service, restaurant kitchens and the #MeToo movement.

So my ears perked up during a long ice-bedeviled drive from Virginia to Connecticut when The Splendid Table’s February 2, 2018 program began to play over my car’s radio (always tuned to NPR), with a preamble introducing the issue of #MeToo. The featured theme was restaurant kitchens, their people, and their complicated communities, and the first guest was Amy Thielen, chef and author of the 2017 memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, about coming up through the ranks as a chef. (#649: Behind the Restaurant available at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/381444592/the-splendid-table).

The podcast will be of interest to our SAFN scholars, both for its content and as an example of ethnography. The longform interview explored sexual harassment, intimidation and quid pro quo sexual demands in food service settings. It reached a lot of people, conveyed the real-time process of thinking through and reflecting on this issue, and of course, the actual voices of the speakers, with their inflections, pauses, emphases. The same segment explored how restaurant kitchens are both high-stakes and “family,” but the speakers did not relate how those realities promote either an atmosphere in which quid pro quo sexual harassment flourishes—or in which targets of harassment can turn to resources and supports not available in other professional settings.

So, I am newly invigorated to think through and try radio ethnography again. In the 1990s, I co-developed and carried out the ethnography for a radio program series about “community” that was broadcast in southwestern Virginia by WVTF, the NPR affiliate. It was well-received and I hope to develop another on food justice and security movements and work in New England. I would love to hear other SAFN members’ thoughts and experiences with this ethnography medium, its shortcomings and strengths.

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