Category Archives: racism

Review: Women on Food

Druckman, Charlotte + 115 Writers, Chefs, Critics, Television Stars, and Eaters (2019) Women On Food. New York: Abrams Press. 400 pp. ISBN 978 1 4197 3635 3; eISBN 978-1-68335 681 3.

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

The day before all the libraries closed down to reduce spread of COVID-19 infections, I happened upon this collection of Women on Food writings in my local Newton (MA) Free Library. This multi-colored, 400 heavy-weight-page volume assembles an extraordinary variety of women’s voices, which present themselves in multiple sizes and sexual orientations, livelihoods and lifestyles, and span multiple generations and racial/ethnic/ religious identities, priorities, and themes.  As Druckman indicates in her introduction:

What you’re getting into is an anthology about women in—and on—food. That means women who work in or around food in some capacity, and what they think about that…and what they think about what you expect them to think about that.

Her interview questions encourage these women to “speak the truth…completely…[to] be analytical, furious, funny, serious, sad, harsh, silly, challenging, old-fashioned, avant-garde, creative, macho, pensive, unforgiving, unforgivable, opinionated, neutral must plain weird…[to] talk about what it’s like, really, to work in the food industry or food media, to get a meal on the table, or feed a community…[to] write about that without having to match the format or adhere to a particular genre or style” (p.6).

The anthology collects original stories, told mostly in prose although occasionally in poetry or  in visual forms (drawings, photography, pictures of food, or food people or places). These single-authored pieces are mixed in or “up” with two-person “conversations” (Druckman interviewing respondents) and multiple short-responses to Druckman’s provocative queries on leading topics. Two early examples of this Q&A are:  “LEXICON. Are there any words or phrases you really wish people would stop using to describe WOMEN CHEFS (or really, women, period)?” (p.8) and  “COOK THIS, NOT THAT! What is a type of FOOD you wanted to cook  and were told you couldn’t—or are made to feel as though you couldn’t…and you’re pretty sure it’s because you’re a women?” (p.67).

Cross-cutting themes across formats include female chefs’, but also food writers’ and editors’ experiences with sexual harassment and gender discrimination, personal and professional relationships (negative and positive) with ethnic foods, identities, and heritages, and their reflections on the significance of their mothers (occasionally grandmothers, less often fathers) on their food-focused career choices and signature dishes.   Not one to steer clear of controversy, Druckman at the end of the volume also asks respondents to self-reflectively share their own personal experiences of complicity—“The C-word”—where they imagine how they, by acts of commission or omission, intentionally or incidentally contributed to women’s subjugation and harassment, particularly in the restaurant business, but also in media.

As in any collection of writings, readers will find some topics and narratives of greater interest than others.  Reflecting my interests in food, religion, and human rights, I found “A Conversation with Devita Davison” (interview format) (pp.144-152) profoundly moving because her responses to Druckman’s leading questions touched on the essential roles of institutionalized religion and faith in advancing her Detroit-based food activism.  In its most recent iteration, her activist problem-solving vision and skills for Detroit’s Food Lab, partnered with African American churches, whose underutilized kitchens facilitated and encouraged small-scale food-processing businesses by low-income women of color, helping them climb out of Detroit’s poverty and hunger while preserving traditional culinary knowledge and products, and contributing to the larger challenges of constructing healthy, sustainable, local food systems. Chief among Davison’s “pressing concerns” (Druckman’s final question to her) are the decline of Black churches and a growing awareness that “capitalism is going to destroy every single thing that these grassroots, community-based organizations were able to create.”  Whereas an earlier era saw church women and kitchens as drivers of community programs, civil rights, and philanthropy, “the churches in our community are losing their power…[as] the demographics of the church are getting older” and younger people do not affiliate, participate, or maintain their significant presence and power in Detroit’s communities.  Churches that used to fund social movements are in decline, and as a result, community organizers turn to foundations, but “foundations are not going to get us to freedom and liberation…I want to create an organization and then be able to share a model for other people to create an organization that’s funded by the people for the people.” (pp. 101-102).  This interview, in particular, captures the strengths of the interviewees and the many ways Druckman’s questions and directions, in these and other formats, bring forth the depth and passions of their experiences and reflections.

My second favorite entry was Tienlon Ho’s essay, “The  Months of Magical Eating” (pp. 80-92) which described her parent and grandparent generations’ traditional wisdom and medicinal arts as contributions to her “eating right” (birds’ nest soup, ginger) during the final months of her pregnancy and immediately following her successful childbirth. She ends by noting she still keeps a jar of this concentrated tonic in her refrigerator: “It is a jar filled with a family’s strength, a nascent wisdom, and the memories of ages that allowed me to bear the weight of this new life barely started.” (p.92). Her lyrical writing evoking visceral images and ideas substantively connect the individual female, through food, to cosmic forces and familial relationships beyond her present self or generation.

A third example that touched me particularly in these times of deep reflection on structural, racist violence in US society, was Von Diaz’ story, “Sitting Still.” Set in the South, it unveils the horrific legacy of lynchings through the telling lens of a simple recipe for “Bobbie Hart’s Banana Pudding” (pp.308-316).

As a collection of food writings by more than 100 female authors, the anthology includes interviews and essays with well-known food historians, cook-book authors, and essayists, including Betty Fussell, Jessica Harris, and Bee Wilson. Wilson’s sharply terse and topical piece on the advantages and disadvantages of evolving “Labor Saving” technology (pp.254-263) for getting essential food on the family table, accessibly touches on so many work-life dilemmas involving feeding and food preparation, offering practical advice without being preachy or pretentious.  The words and images of Kristina Gill, “A Fig by Any Other Name” (pp. 375-383), illustrated with luscious and colorful sexual food imagery, is a clever and subtle triumph for all to enjoy.  Some readers may savor the published volume’s bright color coding (strong to paler orangish to greenish yellows setting off two-person, multi-person interviews or Q&A, and essays). I found the varying hues bold, but also distracting, and wish the heavy paged book had weighed a bit less, to make it more physically comfortable to position and read.  These hard-copy features may or may not translate discernibly into on-line, tinted copy, where volume weight is not an issue.  As SAFN (and other) food-studies readers move in and out of quarantines, they might want to access and read the electronic version, and recommend various particular chapters to students and other colleagues and friends. In the meanwhile, now that my local library is allowing (scheduled, outdoor) book pick-up’s and returns, I hasten to review and return the hard copy for other potentially appreciative readers.

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Filed under anthropology, gender, racism, religion

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 26, 2019

David Beriss

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 dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

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.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, anthropology of food, food history, gender, racism