In this third installment of interviews with anthropologists about their work on food, David Sutton talks with Joelle Bahloul, whose work on food and memory has inspired many other anthropologists. Family history, Jewishness in France, the influence of Maurice Halbwachs and her return to Algeria. Domestic memories of Jewish and Muslim communities that remain highly relevant today. But also connections between French citizenship and learning about food. And, of course, ham, imaginary and real. Watch and learn!
Category Archives: food history
“What counts is the imagination of ham, rather than its actual existence,” An Interview with Joelle Bahloul
Here is the second in my series of video interviews with food anthropologists. This one is with Dr. Carole Counihan, who probably needs no introduction. In it she reflects on her career, her research in Italy and southern Colorado, and her role as editor of Food and Foodways. This interview was conducted at her summer home in Antonito, Colorado, and was followed by a delicious Tuscan soup that Carole prepared, which unfortunately I cannot share here. See also Carole’s “Proust Questionaire.”
More interviews to follow soon.
These grants are a great opportunity for SAFN members seeking support for their research!
CULINARY HISTORIANS OF NEW YORK ACCEPTING APPLICATIONS FOR 2019 SCHOLARS’ GRANTS
APPLICATION DEADLINE FRIDAY, MAY 24, 2019
Culinary Historians of New York invites submissions for the 2019 CHNY Scholar’s Grant in support of research and scholarship in the field of culinary history. Since 2012, the CHNY Scholar’s Grant has been recognized by the Julia Child Foundation with generous financial support. We are pleased to announce that the support has been given again this year, allowing CHNY to award three grants in the amounts of $3,500, $2,500, and $1,500, respectively. The grants are open to all individuals age 18 and older and are merit-based. Further details and application requirements and forms can be found at http://www.culinaryhistorians ny.org by clicking on the “Scholar’s Grant” link in the Scholarships tab. The awards will be announced in July.
The CHNY Scholar’s Grant promotes research and scholarship in the field of culinary history and is awarded annually to individuals seeking financial support for a current, well-developed project that will culminate in a book, article, paper, film, or other scholarly endeavor, including ephemera. The grants are unrestricted and can be used to defray research expenses, attend conferences, or engage in other activities related to the applicant’s project. The CHNY Scholar’s Grant is merit-based and blind judged; financial need is not considered in making the award.
Previous CHNY Scholar’s Grant winners include:
2018: Valerio Farris – Culinary Culture of the Spanish Roma ($3500); Aleksandra Bajka-Kopacz, – ‘Old Polish’ Cuisine, Foodways of Rural Poland ($2500); Kathryn Crossley, Butlers and Common Room Men: Wine, Class, and Conviviality in 19th Century Oxford Colleges. ($1500)
2017: Claire Alsup – Colatura di Alici: How One Town on the Amalfi Coast Preserved Ancient Roman Fish Sauce ($3500); Elizabeth Zanoni – Flight Fuel: Pan Am and the Creation of Inflight Cuisines, 1930-1980 ($2500); and Tove Danovich – When Kosher Isn’t Kosher: 100 Years of Murder, Crime, and Fraud ($1500)
Oregon State University
I am a product of the Upper Midwest with its (waning) Scandinavian and German influences. I am entangled in “milk culture,” as Andrea Wiley might put it. I am a subject shaped by the dairy industry and its powerful lobby. I know all of these things without really knowing them. What I want to say is milk forms a part of the habitus I swim in but, by definition, never think about. That is until the other day when I came across a propaganda poster on milk (more about that in a minute). The shock of (mis) recognition caused me to begin to take an inventory of my interactions with milk. My whole life has been spent drowning in the white drink. Maybe not drowning, but certainly milk has been a constant foodstuff friend. Have I ever gone more than a day or two in my whole life without ingesting some form of dairy? I am no Michael Pollan and so I don’t claim to be exploring in depth the intertwined history and sociocultural context that binds milk and North Americans. I only thought to provide to the SAFN blog a quick day-in-the-life diary of dairy, using myself as subject. Here goes:
My earliest milk memory comes from growing up (b. 1953) in Webster City, Iowa where a couple of times a week Don the milkman would leave glass bottles of milk in a metal carrier at the back door and pick up the returnables set out for him. We would pester him in the summer until he stopped the truck, opened up the back door and carved off some ice chunks for us to suck on. Graham’s Dairy, his employer, was on Highway 20 going out of town to the west. We would ride our bikes out there on hot days and order ice cream cones from the retail shop at the front. I loved the black raspberry and vanilla combo. It was hard ice cream. Not the soft, whipped kind sold at the A&W root beer stand.
Milk was present in practically every day of my young life. We five children all had cold cereal and milk for breakfast every morning of my life. I think of those little pint cartons of milk given out in cafeteria lunchrooms during my K-12 years (the result of dairy price supports). Regular milk or chocolate milk; there was a choice. One was sweeter but didn’t taste as good with regular food, especially hot lunches.
My mother said that milk built bones and teeth. She also said that milk caused zits and was hard to digest. She forbade the drinking of milk whenever I had an upset stomach. I could only drink 7-up and eat saltines.
Once after football practice in junior high, I came home and drank half a gallon of milk without taking a breath. Coaches didn’t believe in hydration in those days, so they never provided anything to drink during sports practices.
I first left the USA at age eighteen to wander about Europe. I remember the first time I bought a carton of room-temperature milk off the store shelf. I wondered how they could preserve it without refrigeration. I opened it and tasted it. I spit it out. It was awful. That was my introduction to UHT. Whenever I met other Americans in youth hostels we would all long for good old American milk. The European stuff was undrinkable. There was one exception. I went to work that autumn for a winemaker in St. Emilion, France doing the vendange. We had a choice at breakfast every day of either café au lait or wine. Nothing else to drink. Being a corn-fed boy from Iowa, I had never drunk a cup of coffee in my life. But I had gotten drunk on bad sweet wines often enough in high school that the smell of any wine made me nauseous, especially at breakfast. I learned to make do with a bowl of café au lait that was 90% heated milk and 10% coffee. I slowly worked the ratio down over time to something closer to 50-50. To this day I love instant coffee dissolved in a cup of hot milk, UHT or otherwise. I have yet to drink wine for breakfast.
In my college dorm room I used one of those portable immersion heaters to make instant coffee. I made it palatable by pouring in a large dollop of Carnation sweetened and condensed milk. What a rush. I finally broke that habit, though it took me decades. Now when I am home I drink only good coffee with raw cream in it. No sugar. However, when I travel, I find that I can’t stomach airline coffee or truck stop coffee without diluting it with lots of cream and sugar.
I went on a junior-year-abroad to the American University of Beirut in 1974-75. I found that the Eastern Mediterranean peoples are not big milk drinkers. I did, however, learn a wonderful breakfast treat from my Jordanian dorm roommate. He taught me how to pour yoghurt into a pillow case, add some salt, tie it to the shower head in the bath tub to let it drain and then unwrap it in the morning, put it on a shallow plate, carve out a little well and fill it with olive oil and then sprinkle zaatar over the whole thing. We would sit out on our dorm room balcony in the morning, drink tea or coffee and dip pita bread into our lebneh. It was a very refreshing breakfast.
I also spent a few years in Morocco carrying out dissertation research. My wife had our older son while we were living there. Fortunately, she was breastfeeding him, because it was the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Eastern Europe. We noticed in the months afterwards that the market in the city where we were staying was flooded with powdered infant formula, as well as canned and powdered milk products from Europe. Had they been contaminated and thus banned for consumption in Europe and so dumped on the markets in Africa?
Moroccans and North Africans in general are not big milk drinkers, except during Ramadan. Some dairies exist but production is low. Dairy cows imported from Europe invariably succumb to the heat or to various diseases. We did, however, live across the street from a “milk bar.” A deliveryman would come in from the country every couple of days with his wagon full of big, five-gallon milk containers. He would take one down and pour out the quantity requested by the milk barman. The milk barman would in turn fill up smaller containers brought to him by younger members of neighborhood households. The most amusing scene for me, the foreigner from an alcohol-soaked culture, was when, on a Saturday night, grown men would walk into the milk bar, order a big glass of leben, put one hand on the bar and then throw their heads back, drink the whole glass in one go, wipe their mouths clean and saunter out the door and into the awaiting night.
Today, I often have kefir and granola for breakfast. I’ve given up on milk and cereal. My wife is a kefir missionary. She talks up the ease of raising and maintaining the grains and then tries to give samples to anyone who shows the slightest interest. We are awash in kefir. We only eat it at breakfast time, though. If it doesn’t go on granola, it goes into the making of orange, banana and kefir smoothies. Delicious.
To feed her kefir, my wife signed us up for a herd-share CSA. I volunteered our carport as a drop-off spot. Now we only have to walk out the back door to get our raw milk. Life has come full circle. The cow lady, Aimee, and her partner milk about 5 cows on a rented farm 20 minutes outside of Corvallis. She often stops to talk when she makes the CSA drop-off. The other day she told me that they are confounded by their surplus of skim milk. They centrifuge off the cream in order to make butter, etc., but then don’t have good ways to market what’s left over. I volunteered to take three gallons off of her hands to see if I could find something to do with them. I made skim milk paneer, which turned out okay, but I hit a wall after that. I ended up cheating and just adding cream back into the other gallons to make kefir yogurt with one gallon and mozzarella and ricotta with the other.
When Aimee brought the three gallons, we got to talking about dairies along the coast. She said that the Tillamook Cheese Co. had grown enormously in the last decade. It had to stop increasing its herds around the town of Tillamook because the area had become too touristy and tourists didn’t want to smell cow shit while vacationing there and visiting the cheese factory. Instead, the company started buying milk from the mega dairies set up in Eastern Oregon along the Columbia River. “But that zone is practically a desert,” I said. “It couldn’t possibly produce hay for big numbers of cattle.”
“It doesn’t,” she said. “But it’s near a dam and so near a power plant and what they need more than hay is a source of cheap electricity.”
I wished I’d asked her why.
Ground zero for the mega dairies and milk factories is the small town of Boardman, Oregon. She said there are over a hundred thousand cows spread across a couple of operations in the vicinity. One of them, Lost Valley Farm, is being forced to close by the state of Oregon, because of its polluting practices. Is Tillamook still buying milk from them? Inquiring minds want to know.
I was thumbing through the latest issue of The Baffler at breakfast the other day. There on the back cover was a copy of an old Cold War propaganda poster that said “Milk…new weapon of democracy!” It showed a young girl smiling while she received countless glasses of milk pouring down from an American bomber. I thought it was pretty funny and would make a good present for Aimee, though I had no idea about its provenance. I googled the phrase and found that it dates from the 1948-49 siege of Berlin. The Americans launched the Berlin Airlift at that time in order to break the Soviet siege of the city. The poster was part of the propaganda created around the conflict.
Quite by accident my google search led me to the latest milk craze. Turns out that milk is the preferred drink of the goon squads of the alt-right. I was shocked, though I probably shouldn’t have been. Milk is “white,” which is their favorite color, and it is very common among Northern European cultures, where, I believe, the lactase enzyme is present in the gut well into adulthood. (Of course the alt-right ignores the fact that there are groups of people throughout Mongolia, East Africa and down into South Africa, inter alia, who also enjoy lactase persistence into adulthood. Most all of them are, or have been, associated with animal husbandry.) Both of those aspects make milk appealing to this new breed of lactose lushes. This latest “Got milk?” campaign was launched back in February of 2017 when the actor Shia LaBeouf opened an art exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC. The exhibit was a protest against the election of Donald Trump. A bunch of youthful, shirtless, pro-Nazi male demonstrators showed up at the opening to perform their own counter protest by stomping and yelling and…chugging milk from plastic quart bottles! Billy Bronson, a reporter covering the demo, put it succinctly: “Apparently, the white liquid that comes out of cows’ udders is the new, creamy symbol of white racial purity in Donald Trump’s America.”
As you can imagine, over the next year PETA had a field day with the connection between milk and “lactose tolerant racists.”
In the evening of my life as I look back, I am surprised to see that my existence was saturated in milk. How could I have missed the many different cultural connections I had made with different milk practices? Why had I never thought about the extraordinary number of forms milk takes as foodstuffs and as commodities and how it is interwoven with so many aspects of my personal life? How could I have been so blind to the politics of milk?
That last one really bugs me. Though I don’t have a milk cross to bear, I am surprised to feel affronted by the symbolic manipulation of a foodstuff that has formed such a central, if unconscious, part of me. That includes both moments of appropriation by forces on the left and the right. It is uncomfortable to admit that the American government’s manipulation of milk for Cold War propaganda purposes leaves me amused, but not outraged. The manipulation by the alt-right leaves a worse taste in my mouth. Why have I not even mentioned the worst of them all: Big Dairy and the national shame of milk overproduction? I still have blinders, apparently.
I am not a soldier in the battle against these kinds of symbolic appropriation; nor am I engaged in resistance to the dairy industry and its lobby. However, I think I know some who are: Aimee as a proud, self-exploited producer of milk, and my wife as a conscientious consumer working to enhance milk’s healthy characteristics both strike me as small, disgruntled producers and consumers united in their search for healthy alternatives to Big Dairy and its massive reach into every aspect of our everyday lives. I don’t want to get too Pollyanna-ish about this, but the tiny circles of raw milk producers and consumers struggling quietly around the country to keep alive a healthy, less exploitative milk tradition may be a likely ally in various attempts by middle-class consumers to leave behind the industrial milk marketplace via the creation of alternative forms of provisioning. And who knows, maybe in the process they can help neutralize the shady symbolic politics surrounding milk today?
University of Turin
With her book Authentic Italian (2018), author Dina M. Di Maio aims to disseminate The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, as the subtitle explains, among American readers (and, presumably, also diners). She wants to dispel the prejudices and biases about Italian immigrants and their food by demonstrating and reclaiming the authentic Italian identity of the dishes prepared and cooked in the kitchens of Americans of Italian descent—as she calls them. The chapters’ titles (What is “Italian” Food?: The Italy They Left; Is Cucina Moderna the True Food of Italy?; They Came to America; Spaghetti and Meatballs; Italian Food in America; Pizza; Italian Food Around the World; Italian Food in Italy; The Legacy of Italian Food) well describe the ample itinerary undertaken by the author. For Di Maio, the story of food and foodways of Americans of Italian descent cannot but intertwine with the history of the Italian South and its people, the emigration of millions of Southerners to escape poverty and lack of prospects in their homeland, the exclusion and prejudices suffered by those who landed in the United States (and that are still suffered by their descendants, according to Di Maio). It also includes the cultural resilience and creativity they practiced by succeeding in making their cuisine popular and highly appreciated by Americans. Thus, though she warns readers that “Italian history is convoluted,” and reminds them that the unification of Italy was achieved only in 1861, Di Maio thought it necessary to go into it in order to give “an understanding of how this history pertains to the food history of the early Italian immigrants”. Most of her references are the works of English authors, since not many Italian texts about the history of Southern Italy or Italian foodways are translated in English: her decision seems unavoidable, but I think that the contributions of Italian historians to the study of the post-unification conditions of the South would have been very valuable.
With regard to immigrants’ foodways, they brought them to the new land, as Di Maio documents, and initially they kept their cooking traditions within the family and neighborhood circles. Immigrants also grew their own vegetables and fruits (a habit some of them still maintained in 1974, when – to my surprise – I was able to buy some Roman chicory from an old man in New Haven). Furthermore, accustomed as they were to olive oil for cooking, they started to import it from Sicily as early as 1907, together with other specialties. Later the production of American made Italian food was launched, and restaurants and pizzerie were opened. Most of the enterprises were family based, capable of making and distributing products of high quality, and of impacting positively on the food industry in the United States, until “the local Italian-American business became corporations or died because of competition from corporations and quality subsequently degraded”. Many of those newly arrived to American shores shared the cooking and eating traditions of the South. Yet the Italian immigrants were a diverse group, both in terms of social status and specific history, as is testified by Di Maio’s research among the descendants of the Waldensian immigrants. The latter – as the Author explains – came from the steep valleys of Piedmont where they, as an Italian religious minority, had settled in the XIII century. The dishes that the descendants of the early immigrants still prepare testify of the strong relationship with the Piedmontese food traditions, notwithstanding their long exclusion from the surrounding Catholic society. And it is with a communal lunch, after a religious ceremony, that every year, on February 17, in the valley “capital” Torre Pellice, the Italian Waldensians celebrate the civic and political rights (Lettere Patenti), granted to them by the Savoia Carlo Alberto in 1848.
Di Maio’s commitment to attest that “spaghetti and meatballs make up the story of the Italian people in the United States” is inaugurated by asking if such a dish, as well as pizza or eggplant parmesan, are perceived as authentic Italian, rather than as Italian American. The latter is a mistaken perception many Italians run into (especially if they are from the North) and it is due – as she explains – to the characteristics of the Italian cuisine that is divided by North and South, is regional, and characterized by important variations in produce and recipes, engendering a certain confusion with regard to the authentic origin of the dish. In fact, I can testify that, as a Northern Italian student in the United States in the early 1970s, I shared that confusion. It ended only when, in 1976, the Arberësh family from which I rented a room during fieldwork in Calabria decided to prepare a special treat – to wit: spaghetti and meatballs. Thus, that meal was not only tasty, but it also gave the ethnographer the opportunity to learn about the diversity of Italian food and the limited familiarity many Italians had with dishes prepared and eaten in other Italian regions.
However, things are changing, as Di Maio notices, and the concern of the Italian government to validate “authentic products” underlines how the Italian food identity (or authenticity) is transmitted not only by recipes or internationally popular dishes such as pizza. This also happens now through the DOC and DOP designations (as well as those of the Slow Food Presidia) of local or regional products that thus become known and appreciated both at the national and international level. Pizza is one such dish, and the pages the author devotes to it and to its diffusion are quite interesting, though her claim that “the Southern Italians brought it to the United States who in turn brought it back to Italy” does not do justice, in my view, to the many Neapolitan families who introduced pizza and pizzerie in the towns – big and small – of Northern Italy.
Di Maio’s aims, in short, “to prove that the cuisine of Americans of Italian descent in the United States is indeed Italian cuisine based on real dishes from Italy”. And further, “to show that classifying and interpreting the cuisine of Americans of Italian descent in any other way but as ‘Italian’ is discriminatory”. This goal required not only research among the food habits of those Italian Americans, but also an exploration of Italian food cultures, cooking and eating practices, and of the changes they and the Italians have undergone in Italy. Her research places the topic of Italian American foodways and their authenticity in a wide perspective that comprises not only the past but also the present of Italy, and provokes memories as well as questions in Italian readers. While her efforts are devoted to establish the authenticity of the food of Americans of Italian descent, an Italian reader would point out that immigrants from all parts of the world are now part of the Italian population. Many of them collect tomatoes and oranges in the South (and the padrone system the Author mentions is remindful of the caporalato and of the heavy toll it takes from the field laborers), so that traditional food such as pasta al pomodoro or other dishes requiring fresh or processed tomatoes are now maintained also thanks to them. It is possible – as happens in the oldest pizzeria of Padova (in the Northeast of Italy) – that pizza is made to its usual perfection by a young Indian immigrant, or that Bangladeshi sellers of fruits and vegetables extol the freshness of the radicchio varieties, the tastiness of the fondi di carciofo (artichoke bottoms) as ably and convincingly as the next stalls’ local vendors who celebrate their goods in local dialect. With very few exceptions, neither grow the vegetables and fruits they sell as was often common in the 1960s and 1970s, however the immigrants too have learned to shave the artichokes and keep them in fresh water for the satisfaction of the customers. If the authenticity of the pizza or of the fondi di carciofo cannot be questioned when they reach the table, regardless of who cooked or prepared or sold them, will the meaning of “authentic” widen or, on the contrary, remain exclusively defined by historic origins? In my view, the etymology of “authentic” (from late Latin authenticus, and from the Greek authentikós, derived from authéntës, author, doer, master, cfr. Devoto 1968, Onions 1966) suggests that what is proved as true, genuine, or not false, implies the recognition of a maker, and of his/her activity, who relates to the original source in terms of inspiration and creativity rather than of respectful replication.
Devoto G. (1968), Avviamento alla Etimologia Italiana. Dizionario Etimologico, Firenze: Le Monnier.
Onions C. T. ed. (1966), The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
A call for papers that could be of particular interest to SAFN members and FoodAnthropology readers who study festivals, fairs, and other events.
Call for Papers: Special Issue on Food at the Fair
This special issue of Food, Culture & Society will examine how fairs and expositions – at local, regional, national, and international levels anytime from the nineteenth century to the present – reflect and shape perceptions of food production and consumption for mass audiences. It will consider the perspectives of fair organizers, publicists, exhibitors, concessionaires, restaurateurs, and consumers in constructing and experiencing the diversity of food cultures on the fairgrounds. Articles might consider questions like: how did (or does) the exhibition of food reflect transformations in food manufacturing or production over time? What impact did factors like audience, location, funding, or managerial oversight have on the exhibition of food? What techniques did food exhibitors use to attract the attention of visitors and how did these techniques shape fairgoers’ experiences? Were there any significant differences in the food experiences of local vs. international tourists or of visitors of different gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, etc.? How did food exhibits function to reinforce or challenge ideas about progress, technology, agriculture, industrialization, race, region, class, nationality, ethnicity, or gender? What was the relationship between corporate and government food messages at the fair? How did fair exhibits and concessions strive to shape perceptions of the palatability and edibility of foods from around the country or the world and were they successful? How did the concessions and amusement areas of fairs represent food in comparison to more formal exhibition halls? How did physical space within exhibition halls or of the fairgrounds as a whole impact depictions of food at the fair and its potential appeal to consumers? How did expositions allow for a more diverse, multicultural food experience for fairgoers while also replicating stereotypical and ethnocentric conceptions of specific cuisines? In answering these questions, this special issue invites authors who might take a comparative approach to the study of fairs and expositions, crossing regional or national boundaries or considering fairs of varying audiences and historical periods.
This special issue welcomes papers that place the scholarship on food and on expositions in conversation in order to demonstrate the importance of these mass cultural events as sites where local, regional, national, and corporate food identities were simultaneously made and unmade.
Submitted articles are usually between 8000-9000 words (including all notes, references, etc.) and must not exceed 9000 words in total.
Special Issue Publication Schedule:
Essay abstracts due: March 15, 2019
Notification of preliminary acceptance (pending peer review): April 1, 2019
Full drafts due: November 1, 2019
Peer review process (4-6 months to review, revise and review again): up through June 2020
Copyediting: Early 2021
Published: Mid-2021 (April or June issue)
If you are interested in submitting a paper to the special issue, please send a 300-word abstract to guest editor, Bonnie M. Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org), by March 15, 2019.
A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s start with a cheery report that argues, as we often do here, that whatever you are doing to improve the planet is probably not enough. Sorry. In this article, from The New Republic, Emily Atkin looks into companies (Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce) who send out boxes of damaged produce directly to consumers, as an alternative to the produce being destroyed or left in the field. This seems like a great way to prevent waste in our food system, which is a huge problem. Atkin, drawing on her own research and on analyses from a few food activists, shows that these companies may not actually be helping. This is not a simple story, however, so read it before you drop your subscription to one of these services.
Apparently many citizens of rich countries are worried about getting enough protein. Which seems truly weird, given the amounts of meat people consume, but what do I know? In this article from the Guardian, Bee Wilson writes that “anxiety about protein is one of the things that drives a person to drink a flask of vitamin-padded beige slurry and call it lunch.” Gah! Seriously, however, Wilson’s article explores this situation from a lot of angles, from debates about faddish nutritionism, to the dietary needs of athletes, to people with protein obsessions, and even a strange store called Protein Haus. This could be a really useful article to spark a fad diet discussion in a class!
As something of a corrective to the above fad, the medical journal the Lancet has recently published an article that looks at food systems and healthy diets around the world. They note that “unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined.” Which is impressive. By the way, this article is a product of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, whose web site you should visit for a lot more interesting content of this sort.
The debate about cultural appropriation and food has been raging for a long time now, on multiple fronts, at least in the U.S. In this intriguing blog posting, food historian Ken Albala raises some questions about the relationship between ancestry and the right to cook particular foods. If you are keeping a list of relevant public debate pieces on this topic, then this is another one to include. The big question, which is not addressed here, is what the debates about food and cultural appropriation are actually about. Probably not food, really.
But wait, there is more. Writing in Eater, Sara Kay draws on her studies of thousands of Yelp reviews to argue that those who comment on the authenticity of restaurants are often writing in support of white supremacy. She writes that “the word ‘authentic’ in food reviews supports white supremacism, and Yelp reviews prove it.” She is pointing to a wide range of expectations that focus mostly on restaurants associated with immigrants or with specific ethnicities (Mexican, Chinese, other Asian cuisines), that build on stereotypes about food and people and that reinforce a kind of casual racism. She is also pointing to a hierarchy of cuisines (with Euro cuisines at the top) that reflects U.S. social structure. This is an important observation and worth making. However, I wonder if the term “white supremacy” is what we should be using to describe this. I admit to having used it myself to describe the massive system that has kept structural racism in place in the U.S. for centuries. But in a moment in our history when the far right—people who explicitly call for and support white supremacy—is resurgent, perhaps we want to be more careful. It is one thing to call attention to and even denounce structural racism (the hierarchy of cuisines) and those who support it (perhaps these Yelp reviewers), it is quite another to associate those reviewers with the people who marched in Charlottesville. Unless you believe that the only ideological positions possible are “woke anti-racist” and “Nazi,” maybe we should use slightly more nuanced language.
Or perhaps invoking white supremacy requires building a more detailed argument. Writing in Civil Eats, Megan Horst looks into the reasons why farmers of color seem dramatically underrepresented in agriculture today. She explores the history of farming and land access in the U.S., discusses policies supporting different kinds of farming, notes the history of slavery and other forms of exploitation, and puts this into the broader context of the challenges faced by farmers today. Horst considers all of the history and policies together to form a kind of actually-existing white supremacy, which seems distinct from the far-right ideologues in the media of late. Perhaps juxtaposing these two uses of the concept would generate an interesting debate.
Returning, briefly, to those Yelp reviews: the stereotypes that associate the foods of certain non-European groups with both cheapness and a problematic “authenticity” have been the object of a lot of criticism recently. In scholarly work, Krishnendu Ray’s writing has contributed significantly to focusing the debate. Diep Tran’s piece on NPR raised the question of cheapness in 2017. And this has had an impact, I think, on the discourse about food. In the Washington Post, food writer Tim Carman has recently announced that he is dropping the title (“the $20 diner”) because it does a disservice to the restaurants he writes about.
Switching topics: Airport food is generally awful. It helps, when traveling (at least in the U.S.) to have low expectations. I don’t know if Tortas Frontera, a chain of restaurants owned by Rick Bayless, located mostly in O’Hare Airport in Chicago, is any good, but the story of the pork they use is itself quite interesting. Writing for Fooditor, Michael Gebert describes the steps that turn pig into sandwich, most of which occur on a farm owned by Greg Gunthorp, in Indiana. This is not only farm-to-table airport food, but also a very inspiring story of challenging the industrial food system. Maybe the story makes the food taste better too. Let us know if you happen to go through O’Hare and try it.
We toss around theories of race, class, and gender in the social sciences and often forget, I think, that non-academics do not think about these things in the same way. Take, for instance, this very odd yet alluring article on Waffle House “rockstar” short order cooks. The author, Theodore Ross, appears to be an experienced, thoughtful, veteran journalist and, also, a white guy (he says so in the article). The article is a meditation, often laced with pop psychology references, about masculinity, race, and class, all while observing and talking about (and somewhat with) Waffle House short order cooks in Atlanta. Ross really does not understand academic discussions of gender, as this quote demonstrates: “Yet men do exist — or they don’t, and masculinity is “socially constructed,” as is more generally thought these days, which is likely true but has no bearing on the embedded concepts about manliness that sway my perceptions — and these ideas about ourselves exist, if not intellectually then emotionally.” Ross may have some insights into the contradictory nature of work in places like Waffle House. Students could have great fun critiquing this piece, I think. Also, if Mr. Ross should read this: yes, the “embedded concepts about manliness” you refer to are socially constructed and that does in fact matter for your analysis. Socially constructed is not the opposite of real. Trust me on this.
Let’s finish this opinionated digest with a drink. If you have been to Louisiana, you may have been astonished by the garish neon slushy drinks available all over Bourbon Street, as well as the drive-through versions of the same that we have elsewhere in the state. My late lamented colleague, historian Michael Mizell-Nelson, wrote a rather amusing history of these drinks, which may have been invented at the Wilmart (that is not a typo) Liquor Store in Ruston, Louisiana, which is closer to Arkansas then to New Orleans. The complete story of this invention, which Mizell-Nelson (a Louisiana native) referred to as an example of “the less well-documented genius of Louisiana” will amuse and delight you, probably more than the drinks themselves. You can read the first part here and the second one here. I recommend drinking something else, maybe a Sazerac, after you are done.