Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of postings by students in a graduate seminar on food justice at the University of New Orleans. You can read more about the class and find the syllabus here. The class is part of a new PhD program in Justice Studies at UNO.
University of New Orleans
As New Orleans finally began this week to cool off for Fall after another long, hot, sticky summer, a voice in my bones told me, “It’s time to make soup.” As fate would have it, I had already roasted a chicken earlier in the week; what was left of the carcass was sitting in the fridge, awaiting its new life. I pulled the remaining meat from the bones and set it aside to add to the soup later; tossed the skin and bones in a pot with some random vegetable stems, bay leaves from a neighbor’s tree, garlic, onions, spices, and whatever else my idle hands grabbed and tossed in the mix. I made a quick batter of matzoh meal, free range eggs and oil and set it in the fridge to chill. All that was left was to feign patience as the house filled with the smell of stock.
As my colleagues and I have spent the past few months studying notions of Food Justice, we have continued to stumble upon a set overlapping questions. One of the most basic is the question “what is just food?” As we have explored that question from various angles and perspectives, it is continually entangled with other ideals and ideas about food. Many of these are drawn from various food movements, and concepts such as ‘slow food’ and ‘local food’ in turn force us to ask the questions “what is local?” and “what is slow?” Both ‘slow’ and ‘local’ food have dual meanings; referring both to general ideas about food itself, as well as to movements surrounding these ideals (e.g., Slow Food International, led by Carlo Petrini). Determining what makes a food “slow” or “local” is inevitably a subjective task, but as my colleagues and I have made our way through writings on food justice, food security, and food sovereignty, we have repeatedly come up against an even more bizarre and obscure signifier, often repeated and almost never defined: that is, the notion that (just, secure, sovereign, and perhaps also local) food should be culturally appropriate.
For me these signifiers, aside from being subjective, are also interconnected, and most easily defined by their opposites. It is much harder for us to state what is culturally appropriate food than to define what is not: we can probably all agree that offering Big Macs to people in a village in India in who are Hindu and do not eat beef would not be culturally appropriate. Nor would it be culturally appropriate to bring a shrimp and andouille gumbo to a Hasidic seder. Defining what is ‘culturally appropriate’ is far more difficult; and in 2014 the question made its way to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, where member nations were gathered to draft guidelines for “responsible investment in agriculture and food systems” (Charles 2014). The FAO unsurprisingly opted for the neoliberal answer: “for the purposes of this document, consumers, through the free exercise of their choices and demand, determine what food is culturally acceptable,” a determination that, as Dan Charles (2014) notes in his coverage of the meeting for NPR, fell short for many present, especially those who saw it as blind to the needs and culture of native peoples whose relationship with food is based in tradition, not markets. It is worth noting that traditional native foodways, which by their very nature seem to me to be among the few foodways that can be easily understood as just, sustainable, local, AND ‘culturally appropriate’ are among the most threatened foodways on the planet (see Norgaard et al 2011).
If we can only agree that cultural appropriateness must be in the eye of the beholder, then perhaps it will be easier for us to define “local,” or “slow,” and move towards a more concrete understanding of what entails just food from one of these perspectives- or, perhaps not. In their article on local foodways in post-Katrina New Orleans, Pamela Broom and Yuki Kato (2020) explore tensions between new transplants to the city and older residents as they relate to urban gardening and ideas about local food. They explore the concept of gentrification in foodways and raise an implicit question of locality and identity: which is more ‘local,’ in the context of New Orleans, a holy trinity (bell pepper, onion, and celery; the base for many Creole dishes) purchased at the grocer (likely sourced from a variety of growers and locales), or microgreens grown on an inner-city plot by a recent transplant, destined for either their own avocado toast or a high end restaurant? For me, it is clear that there are compounding and overlapping meanings of locality in regard to food: at minimum there is a meaningful sense of ‘culturally local’ food, as well as one of ‘geographically local’ food, and that both have resonance with movements towards food justice. The transplant grower of the organic urban-gardened microgreens may be producing a food that is just for the consumer and the environment (it is healthy, and doesn’t rack up emissions and other environmental costs associated with long distance food distribution) but they also, as Broom and Kato (2020) point out, have a powerful ability to obscure and ‘whiten’ previously existing local foodways and conceptions of locality in food, effectively gentrifying local foodways. This effect surely is not an indication of justice.
My colleagues and I learned that the separation between ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ food was just as malleable as conceptions of locality and culture when we attempted to define ‘fast food’. We all agreed that McDonald’s qualified, but the distinctions blurred from there. Is a locally owned burger joint fast food? A sandwich shop? These places may serve us a meal quickly, yet they may also serve a meal made entirely in house, with locally sourced ingredients. What about a sit-down dinner at Red Lobster or Outback Steakhouse, where nationally uniform menus and service and globalized supply chains meet classic ‘slow dining’ presentation? Once again it seems there is far more grey area here than black and white.
My matzoh ball soup was certainly slow food. If you count the initial time taken to roast the chicken, it probably took over 6 hours to prepare. It was also certainly not local- neither geographically local (apart from the neighborhood bay leaves in the stock, and perhaps the onion, which I may have grabbed at the local coop) nor particularly culturally local here in southern Louisiana, where this time of year means gumbo (although it should be noted, New Orleans’ and southern Louisiana’s Jewish community and history do date back hundreds of years). A QR code on the side of my ‘free-range’ eggs promoted the claim that it would trace my eggs to the farm, but the code did not work. As a Jew, I like to think that my meal of matzoh ball soup was culturally appropriate. A text with my mother as I ate it, in which she referred to the dish as ‘a childhood comfort food’ and asked ‘what [I] do to [mine]’ indicated to me that she would agree. But surely not all Jewish people would agree- some would say that matzoh ball soup is a Passover food, from which we are months away, or perhaps that my ingredients or methods were insufficiently Kosher (I do not keep Kosher, but I did leave the bacon fat out of the soup- this time).
So, was my matzoh ball soup just? Or perhaps a better question yet, what does my matzoh ball soup have to do with justice? Do these questions of locality, culture, and fast/slowness matter for issues of justice more broadly? Michael Pollan is often scapegoated in food justice literature as focusing overly on individual solutions, which are often inaccessible to many and may have little impact on larger food systems (see Guthman 2011). Despite being a fan of Pollan’s work personally, I think this criticism certainly has some value: in questions relating to all kinds of justice we must realize that our individual actions can only carry us so far. How can we use questions about our personal lives or food habits (“Is my food local?” or “Is my food just?”) to help us understand bigger picture issues of justice? How can we use interrogations of our own lives and actions as a springboard to prepare us for broader institutional struggles and paradigm shifts, both in our food systems and beyond? In the belief that questions are often as powerful as answers, I leave you here. I have some leftover matzoh ball soup to go reheat.
Broom, Pamela Arnette, and Yuki Kato. 2020. “From the Holy Trinity to Microgreens: Gentrification Redefining Local Foodways in Post-Katrina New Orleans.” In A Recipe for Gentrification Food, Power, and Resistance in the City, edited by Alison Hope Alkon, Yuki Kato, and Joshua Sbicca, 111–31. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Charles, Dan. 2014. “Diplomats and Lawyers Try to Define ‘Culturally Acceptable Food’.” NPR.org. NPR. August 27. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/08/27/343693680/diplomats-and-lawyers-try-to-define-culturally-acceptable-food.
Guthman, Julie. 2011. “‘If Only They Knew’: The Unbearable Whiteness of Alternative Food.” In Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, 263–81. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Norgaard, Kari Marie, Ron Reed, and Carolina Van Horn. 2011. “A Continuing Legacy: Institutional Racism, Hunger, and Nutritional Justice on the Klamath.” In Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, 23–46. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.