Tag Archives: United States

On Food and Labor, Briefly

David Beriss

Andrew Puzder has decided to withdraw his name from consideration for Secretary of Labor in the Trump administration. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, nominating a fast-food executive who opposes raising the minimum wage and likes the idea of replacing workers with machines raises a lot of questions. Yet even without Puzder, most of those questions remain relevant, especially since Mr. Trump has, in his other cabinet picks, pursued an agenda that favors big corporations and their leaders over improving the lives of workers. As a consequence, the conditions faced by workers in the food industry need to be at the core of the food movement for the foreseeable future.

When I posted the weekly reading digest earlier this week, I forgot to include a link to an important editorial on immigration, restaurant work, and low wages. Written by Diep Tran, for the NPR food blog, the piece focuses on the problematic idea that foods associated with certain ethnicities and immigrants should be cheap. Tran, who runs Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles, points out that the expectation of cheap food in Vietnamese, Mexican, or other restaurants can only be met if workers in those restaurants are very poorly paid. His article is a call for better pay and working conditions in “ethnic” restaurants, linked to a willingness by consumers to pay a more reasonable price for the food they serve.

There are many reasons to call attention to the issues raised in this editorial. Questions of low pay and bad working conditions are critical in many parts of the food industry, not just in restaurants. A number of anthropologists have in fact written about these issues – Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, for instance (on undocumented Mexican workers in Chicago restaurants), or Steve Striffler (on workers in a chicken processing plant, mostly immigrants), or Seth Holmes (on migrant farm workers). As these authors (and others) all indicate, the struggle over wages and working conditions in the food industry is also related to debates around immigration in the United States.

Although many of us like to celebrate the idea of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, it is worth keeping in mind that it has long been a nation in which those immigrants are exploited and abused, especially if they are undocumented. People often seem to remember Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” for its depiction of the horrors of the meat packing industry in early twentieth century Chicago. Those horrors were inflicted mostly on immigrant workers. In fact, virtually every way in which those workers were exploited in the novel is still being practiced somewhere, either in the United States or elsewhere, today, as we have pointed out on this blog before. We should keep that in mind whenever we wonder about why food at the grocery store, the fast food restaurant, or “ethnic” eatery seems ridiculously cheap. Perhaps what we should be celebrating is that, historically, the U.S. has also been a nation of labor activists, in which workers have mostly received better wages and working conditions when they have successfully organized for them. That is happening now in much of the food industry and seems more necessary than ever.

Anthropologists will no doubt continue to do an excellent job of documenting the exploitation and dangerous conditions that workers—immigrant or not, documented or not—encounter in the food industry. We also need to remind people that if workers are going to have living wages and decent working conditions, all of us may have to pay more for our food. This points to a broader issue, since food industry workers are far from alone in being poorly paid. The struggle for a living wage for all workers, linked to access to affordable housing and health care, should be central to the food movement itself. And, of course, it remains the core issue confronting the future Labor Secretary, whoever that turns out to be.

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Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, labor, United States

Fear, Fire, and Solidarity in New Orleans

David Beriss

Someone tried to burn down the Flaming Torch restaurant last week. The restaurant, flaming-torch-menu-signlocated in my neighborhood in New Orleans, is a French bistro that has been in business since 2004. It is small and friendly, with good French food, a little bit fancy (they have tablecloths), but very much part of the neighborhood. It is a reliable place for locals seeking classic French dishes (they make a great coq au vin), not a tourist destination. I have eaten there many times, but I especially remember eating there soon after Hurricane Katrina. The Flaming Torch was one of the first restaurants in the neighborhood to reopen and although they were desperately short-staffed, their presence was deeply appreciated by those of us who had come back to the city, because they provided a much-needed place to reunite with neighbors around good food and wine.

The fire, according to news reports, was deliberately set. The owner, Zohreh Khalegi, says she was upstairs, doing inventory, when someone broke into the dining room, doused the place with gasoline, and set it on fire. At least some of this was recorded by a security camera. She escaped to the roof and was rescued by the fire department. The interior damage is apparently quite extensive, so the restaurant’s future is uncertain.

flaming-torch-doorThe arsonist’s motives are unclear, but suspicions have been raised that this may have been a hate crime. Zohreh Khalegi, who started the restaurant with her late husband Hassan Khalegi, is an American citizen who immigrated decades ago from Iran. Although their origins were no secret, until recently there was very little in the restaurant that might have indicated the owners had any ties to Iran. In the last few years, the restaurant had begun to feature occasional special menus with Persian food. Certainly, for many people, this only made the restaurant more attractive, since there are not many other places to eat Persian food in the area. But the current American political context seems to have encouraged and given legitimacy to prejudice against people from countries like Iran (one of the countries subject to President Trump’s immigration ban). Could such prejudice have motivated someone to act against the restaurant? As far as I know, nobody has claimed responsibility for this act. But there have been threats and incidents of violence against immigrants and minorities all over the country since the presidential election. All of this is of grave concern and if the fire at the Flaming Torch is any indication, such things must be taken very seriously.

We do not know if this crime was related to anti-immigrant prejudice. But the fact that people are ready to believe that it is suggests that the political climate in the United States has reached a point (not, of course, for the first time) of critical danger. From fine dining to neighborhood diners, immigrants from many countries play a major role in the American restaurant industry. In New Orleans, as elsewhere in the United States, there are many restaurants owned and operated by people from predominantly Muslim countries, serving food from those regions. There are also many immigrants (perhaps most) who prepare and sell foods that have nothing to do with their origins, so they may not be visible as sellers of foods associated with immigrants. All of them may be targets for people who want to advance the nationalist agenda that has accompanied the rise of President Trump.

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There has been an outpouring of support for Zohreh Khalegi and for the restaurant. People have posted testimonials and statements of support on the restaurant’s doors. Money has been raised to help with expenses. There are many people here in New Orleans who are eager to show their solidarity. The stakes involved are very high. By choosing to stand by owners of restaurants and other businesses that are targeted by racists and nationalists, we make a statement about what kind of community and nation we want to live in. We must all consider where we stand at this moment and what we will do to make sure that heated political rhetoric is not turned into more violence.

So why document this on an anthropology blog? There is a lot that anthropologists and other social scientists can do—and are doing—to help us understand the rise of nationalism and fear around the world in recent years. For anthropologists, this sort of incident can be an opportunity to think about how institutions like restaurants tie communities together, as well as about the ways violence, fear, and terror, can work to tear communities apart. We can call attention to the way such acts are named and discussed. President Trump recently claimed that many acts of terror are not adequately covered by the media and that, as a consequence, people do not take the threat of terror seriously enough. This act of arson, if it turns out to have been motivated by politics or hate, is an act of terror, but one that Mr. Trump will probably not define as terror, either because it is too small or because it had the wrong sort of victims. Yet acts of mass violence, including attacks on restaurants, schools, or religious communities, create exactly the kind of fear that terrorists try to achieve. We need to document the impact of these events and examine why they are interpreted by people as acts of terror. And, in this case, we can also show people coming together to resist and to show solidarity. In doing all of this, anthropology can help increase understanding and help resist those who would sow fear among us.

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Resistance.

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Filed under anthropology, food activism, Food Studies, New Orleans, restaurants