These past weeks have been very heavy on everyone’s conscience— mine included. It’s been hard to write about food and how to make it while people are getting shot at, gassed and beaten by cops. The recent events bring up an interesting question within how we think about food and how it plays into the politics of today and the cultural issues surrounding food. Because the questions of who eats and who doesn’t, and why they cook what they cook are highly political.
If we want an example of these questions being answered in the name of settler-colonialism, we need to look at the use of Bannock in the cuisines of indigenous people of Canada. Bannock is a very tasty and easy to make bread that has few ingredients. This bread is wide-spread across Canadian indigenous people; from the arctic, to the plains and to the coasts. This begs the question, “Why is that?”
Across Canada’s vast and varied landscapes, how is food such a staple? Well, the simple answer is that the ingredients used in the recipe for Bannock come directly from the provisions which the Canadian government sent to indigenous reservations in the 1860s when the Canadian Government was moving indigenous people off their ancestral lands.
In a similar story, Navajo bread was invented during the “Long Walk” in 1864, when the Navajo people were forced onto reservations in New Mexico. These reservations couldn’t sustain their traditional cuisine staples like yucca, beans, mescal, and pumpkins. It was made of the rations they had and was made out of a need for food.
Both foods are products of the genocidal policies put in place by the settler-colonial governments of the U.S. and Canada.
Just as the genocidal policies of settler colonialism have a cost that alters the nature of a people’s cuisine and hurt people then, food policies of the past and the present still have major human costs.
It’s no secret that slavery existed to provide labor to the agricultural industry; despite the institution of slavery being abolished, there are still massive amounts of exploitation today.
In many industrial farms, people work for obscenely low wages, the median income for farm workers according to the US Dept. of Labor was $17,000 in 2015.
Conditions are also an issue as workers are often exposed to pesticides that are applied to the plants. In addition to this, being a farm laborer is a very dangerous job. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016, 417 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury, resulting in a fatality rate of 21.4 deaths per 100,000 workers.
Let’s fast forward to now and the cultural appropriation of traditional foods. The food writing industry loves to take dishes that white people once saw as gross and turn them into the “latest food trend.” Just as the Acai bowl became a trend in early 2016, many of the food blogs and publications who hopped on the trend flat out ignored the cultural significance the berry has in the floodplain of the Amazon. Another instance is when Insider made a blog about food trends with one entry saying, “Breakfast food with an ethnic twist”. Ethnic, of course, referring to literally anything not traditional white anglo-saxon and protestant. The example they gave was chorizo, a cured meat used in many Hispanic cultures.
Food writers strip any cultural significance those dishes had and commodifies it for the mass white audience. This is often an echo of the orientalist attitudes that the west has towards foreign foods; see the example of “ethnic twist” above.
The most depressing part to me about stripping a food’s cultural significance is that food is something that connects us all. Food is the thing that helps us relate to others and get to know one another’s culture. When the food is completely divorced from its place in a culture we aren’t able to have that connection.
While talking about food writing, let’s talk about the recent controversy with Bon Appétit (B.A.). Aside from when their editor-in-chief isn’t in brown face and when they are intentionally not paying their black, indigenous, and people of color staffers to appear in videos, they are constantly missing the entire continent of Africa’s diverse cuisines.
Seriously, if you search for a recipe with cassava, a common ingredient in Central African cuisine, and called a yuca in America for some reason, you get zero results. A search for potato yields 844.
So sure, I can go on B.A. and find a recipe for Miso Butter Pecan Ice Cream, something no one asked for, but I can’t find a recipe to make thieboudienne or yassa or kedjenou or even ful. The fact that food writers at one of the largest food magazines have missed a continent with such a diverse spread of flavors, spices and ingredients is a damn shame. The fact that a publication will restrict what foods writers can write about is a massive problem.
Recently Alex Lau, renowned food photographer and former of B.A., said on Twitter,
“When I asked why have we shot food around the world, but haven’t touched the entire continent of Africa?, their (editors at B.A.) response: oh you know, the recipes get tricky, and readers probably wouldn’t want to make the food. Oh, but you’ll preach the wonders of 3-day long recipes.”
These editors, myself included, often fall into the trap of appealing to the “mainstream audience” even though that mainstream is still egregiously determined by white well-to-dos. They have a responsibility to tell the story of people’s culture through food and sharing that food with their audience.
It’s a bit cliche and overused to quote Anthony Bourdain in a food column, but he had an outsized impact on me as a person and as a storyteller. After he visited Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem for his show “Parts Unknown,” the great storyteller reflected on the response he got from the Palestinian community saying,
“I was enormously grateful for the response from Palestinians in particular for doing what seemed to me an ordinary thing…show regular people doing everyday things, cooking and enjoying meals, playing with their children, talking about their lives, their hopes and dreams. It is a measure I guess of how twisted and shallow our depiction of a people is that these images come as a shock to so many.”
Food is political for one simple reason: it is the lifeblood of any culture and a conduit through which we connect with other cultures. This is why it is important to feature foods from Côte d'Ivoire, Palestine, Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, Chile, Mali and to not divorce the food from the culture it hails from. Telling the story of food and its culture is the bare minimum we as food writers can do.