food The Food World and America's White Supremacy Problem
Whether you like am, whether you no like am, the thing be say, you go still dey shake body.” — Trybesmen, 1998
Translation: We can’t help but do what we’ve been programmed to do.
Let food forever be the metaphor, and food stories the allegory. Because food alone, by its unsentimental self — before celebrity, before vanity, before its appearances in television and print — was fuel. Let it be fuel again to bring our most objectionable selves to heel, to further better ideas. Maybe this is how the expression “food for thought” was cooked. Fuel.
The older I get, the stronger my emotional indigestion: The smallest swallow of violence may incite depression. Last weekend I purposefully inoculated myself against any news of the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. I didn’t want to know, instead losing myself in Premier League Football and Disney’s “Moana.” But the news was pervasive, crawling down the face of my computer, clawing for my ears. And because white supremacy outlasts soccer games and children’s films, eventually I was compelled to contend with the insistent images.
All those white marchers — illuminated by fury, their faces tortured into evil snarling — held my attention, until my fixation flew to less obvious details. The preppy and casual outfits of some of the marchers, politely dressed in contrast to their ferocious resentments. The weave work of the cheap tiki torches lighting their march, backyard accessories that were never designed to menace.
Even in that spectacular image of homicide suspended — a silver Dodge Charger possessed by unrefined hatred, surging with lethal intent through a crowd of counter protesters, flinging human bodies like dolls — I thought about how that moment of murder was only possible courtesy of advanced camera shutter speed. Something else seized my attention, in this picture depicting horror at its zenith: one of the tumbling victims, falling backwards to the pavement with his legs splayed was sporting red Jordan sneakers.
From my perch, the entire vignette of images from the march, mediated by the safety of distance, was a surreal sequence heightened by normalcy: violence and death literally competing with quotidian life. America was everywhere in this anachronistic event, boldly listed and surreptitiously advertised.
White America continues to be aghast at Charlottesville, decrying ideas of blatant white supremacy. However, what we willfully ignore is that white supremacy is not relegated to such events, such ostensible vitriol. It’s the establishment — not part of it, but all of it, our politics, prisons, schools. And white supremacy dominates our food, our media, even our escapism.
Despite itself, America can’t help but shake to the tune of this song.
“I’m not saying he’s a bad cop; on the contrary he’s very good. Like all good cops he does you over just inside the rules. He’s a talented oppressor, a subtle beast.” — Jack Stone, HBO’s “The Night Of”
Needing to cleave the bold duo of racism and America into separate compartments to spare my psyche, I eventually distracted myself online with frivolous things that I could click “Like” and “Heart.” I wanted my American pie without its delicious crust of oppression: the khakis, tikis and Nikes without tyranny.
Bon Appetit Magazine was my quick retreat. And I chose its annual list of America’s Best New Restaurants, as solid respite from sorrow. The project is a culmination of extensive traveling, tasting, research, painstaking deliberation — and other appropriate synonyms of effort. All the haute food fit to find, corralled into fine texts, film and pretty pictures, saturated in color and fat.
Bon Appetit’s 2017 Best New Restaurant in America is Turkey and the Wolf of New Orleans, the city where I currently reside. It is high praise for a humble place — a restaurant that manages modesty as an aesthetic (and maybe an economically pragmatic) sleight, even as bombast pervades its dishes and ambience.
There is a short video documentary of Turkey and the Wolf accompanying the award — the fun and quirky opening sequence, with the chef/owner rollerblading in front of his restaurant as he balances an impressively stacked sandwich, is as lighthearted as the establishment.
At the end of Bon Appetit’s video, the sanguine chef/owner offers some cheerful future plans about opening more restaurants, but not before his colleagues open up more first.
Yet here it was again, slightly different, casual, soft tyranny. America with the crust.
In the video’s entire 4 minutes and 41 seconds, only white people are featured among the patrons and staff. Actually, there may have been a fleeting cameo by a Latina dishwasher, unnamed, but the camera never lingers long enough for a positive identification.
I do not know whether the restaurant has a more diverse staff or not, but the video by Bon Appetit treats us to the charming and slapstick banter of our white protagonists and we are unwittingly lulled into a profligate future where similarly styled restaurants, spawned from this one inoffensive zygote, multiply across a sinking New Orleans.
New Orleans, a decidedly black city, with a distinctly black and singular culinary tradition. But this is how America works; the meek inherit this earth, while the persecuted suffer until heaven.
Regarding food culture in particular, we have to stop skimming the surface for superficial spume. Deliciousness cannot be the entirety of the narrative; it is merely a prerequisite for a wider conversation that considers the broader context. People of color are continuously dispossessed of culture and self in service of whiteness. And all hands, and their instruments, should be working for equity, stretching to think past prevailing convention, which always serves whiteness, to construct a conscientious reality.
I ate once at Turkey and the Wolf, about a year ago. It was a friendly meeting with a white food writer friend, to talk about racism in food, an ironic subject in retrospect. He wanted to visit the restaurant for a future review.
The food was delicious, but most of the memory of it faded after the last bite. Unlike Bon Appetit, my own background afforded me no nostalgia or whimsical appreciation of the food.
Still, I remember a huge wedge of lettuce squirted with creamy blue cheese dressing, bedazzled in shiny bacon cubes and halved tomatoes. And I remember something else about the food that I forget right now.
Sitting with my friend at the slight diner table, its edges wrapped around in utilitarian aluminum, I scanned the space. It was kitsch-embraced, coddled and elevated beyond irony. The glasses were plastic, the sort that necessitated a straw, except straws are harmful to the environment, so I smeared my drinking lips against my glass’s seedy rim. The plateware was self-consciously cheap, and the silverware doubled down on the low-cost theme — it was all flimsy enough to be noticeable but didn’t distract from the job of shoveling histrionic morsels of food.
Yes! That’s the other thing I remember about the food: its histrionics. It was a tasty, hyper-realized interpretation of conventional lunch staples. Melodramatic chunks of meat stuffed between thick slices of toasted brown bread and weighted with garish and conspicuously incongruous ingredients — potato chips in a sandwich, for example.
On my bike back home, a vaguely bitter emotion poisoned my usually carefree pedaling. As I sorted out my unarticulated feelings, satori struck, and the scales from my eyes fell.
If the ownership and staff of Turkey and the Wolf were to be replaced exclusively with black New Orleanians, it would hardly be interesting to most food publications. Its kitsch would be deigned bad design; its off-kilter take on conventional staples would be judged too baroque and gauche; that charming laid-back service would be registered as rude and incompetent.
I know this because 1.2 miles away is Heard Dat Kitchen, a small DIY restaurant that uses cheeky local puns on its menu to introduce the most clever and richly delicious food. Chef Jeffrey Heard is the owner.
Forever the popular excuse for the innumerable white-dominated best restaurant or chefs lists had been aesthetics: Only a certain type of modern sleek interior and geometrically obsessed plating commanded mainstream accolades. But here, in New Orleans, is proof of the lie, or rather the truth. The rules are rigged in favor of whiteness.
Even as the national conscience is temporarily morassed in last week’s Charlottesville crisis — soon to pass to the next concern — America’s cultural constructs continue their essential work of advancing whiteness, except with greater finesse and limited physical violence. And while white America is legitimately horrified at itself, exhaling a collective fury of deplorations at this resurrected caricature that it was certain was settled by war 152 years ago, it still persists in surreptitious pillage.
What we have is a Janus, a double-headed behemoth. Each face fixed in the opposite direction of the other, representing the two supposedly diametric perspectives of America and white supremacy. Two heads, but one body. There is no appetite for curbing whiteness as an ideology. There’s no need to listen to what either of those mouths say; instead look at how the body moves. The American polity locomotes in the direction of a white supremacist agenda.
The incessant ticker of white denunciation running since Charlottesville is necessary but isn’t heartening; a cursory rebuke is not tantamount to virtue, and what we need is an admission of complicity. Charlottesville is another distraction, albeit a mortally dangerous one that will inevitably offer up these more obviously “evil” white supremacists to smother the necessary restitution.
Just as real, and often as raw, as the conspicuous Confederate flags, notorious effigies and taut fascist salutes is the routine, pervasive and seemingly innocuous disfranchisement suffered by people of color — at large, and in more frivolous matters like food. The destructive effects are compounded by time and institutional denial.
What else but injurious is the effect of lists and laurels that continue to disregard black cooking, especially in this cultural moment where food is king and small fortunes are possible?
With honest deference to the hard work and talent of the good folks at Turkey and the Wolf, their restaurant isn’t best because it is. It’s best because in America whiteness is all that matters.
And all the machinations, subterranean and overt, that conspire to pick winners and losers are not complicated by talent, hard work, economics or aesthetics; they are animated by the ideology that whiteness is superior. Proof? Look at any number of “best restaurant” lists in this country. Despite the purported complexity of the issues, the outcomes consistently favor a particular group: white folks.
This is the white supremacy that America does not acknowledge.
Somewhere in the video, the proprietor of Turkey and the Wolf pinpoints the exact inspiration for his restaurant: his hometown deli, Maupin Brothers, where as a kid he would eat memorable sandwiches. It’s a distraction of a fact, but the poetic symmetry is worth mentioning, as if fate wanted us to connect the two issues. He hails from Virginia ... Charlottesville.
Let food forever be the metaphor, and food stories the allegory…