Food Work. Privilege. A Promise For This Podcast.
There are many ways to be hungry in this world. Maybe you’re a chef, hungry for accolades and prestige, searching for renown and celebrity because you’re a 22-year-old culinary school graduate, just out of class with a degree in your hand ready to tackle the world as well as anyone who stands in your way. Maybe you were trained old school, starting as an apprentice or a dishwasher and working your way up through the ranks. Now your brain is filled with cooking experience and hunger is propelling you forward into finding investors for a space to call your own.
Maybe you’re a chef passionate about a certain technique or cuisine or ingredient. You hunger to shape it, break it down to its elemental parts before building it back up into something new. Maybe you’ve just discovered the art of fine French cuisine and you’re ravenous to learn more about it. There are literally empty brain cells in your skull just begging to be filled with new information until they are bursting at the seams. You might be a creative like that, hungry to make something different. Hungry to establish your unique signature in the food world.
Now imagine you are all of these things without the benefit of privilege. Race privilege. Class privilege. Gender privilege. The privilege of being a citizen of this country. What then? You’ve had exactly the same experiences as your privileged counterparts, but investors are not looking at you to helm the next great farm to table restaurant because frankly you don’t fit the profile. In 2016 that profile is someone white and male with tattooed forearms sporting a beard, plaid shirt, and Redwing boots. They’re certain they need him to helm their next great establishment with reclaimed wooden tables and an ampersand in the name. You? They just want you to show up on time because there are potatoes to peel, salads to make, and we’ve got 300 covers tonight. And while customers ooh and aah over the perfectly tourneed potatoes to the Executive Chef you’ll keep your head down and keep tourneing because you know in your heart this is all part of the process. Sure you’re a line cook, prep cook, server, hostess, runner, bartender. Sure, you’re a Mexican immigrant cooking French food but you care about what you do. You’re hungry to move up in the world and make something of yourself. If only you didn’t have to worry about getting deported or having enough money for the bus, or parking, or your wife’s bad tooth that you can’t afford to get fixed. Someday that will be you. You’re hungry enough. Your turn will come. Except you’re brown or black or yellow or a woman so it never does.
Maybe you possess another type of hunger entirely. Maybe you’ve just been diagnosed with diabetes and your doctor says you need more organic, additive-free vegetables in your diet? Except you live in a food desert and the nearest farmer’s market is two bus stops and a transfer away and then only on Saturdays when you have to work a double shift. Besides it’s just too expensive anyway. Maybe you’re hungry period. On SNAP wondering how to make ends meet. Maybe you’re standing in a median strip in the road holding a sign and wondering how you will eat tonight. That kind of hungry.
These are sweeping generalizations. I use these broad strokes to paint a picture. To prove a point. Too often we focus on the plate of food rather than the work, the real labor it took to make it. We adjust the plate, wishing for better lighting before snapping a photo with a cutesy filter or hashtag before bragging to our friends online about what we’re consuming. We treat this plate of food like the Ark of the Covenant. A precious artifact. Not once considering the hours of real labor it took to produce. I’m guilty of this more than most. It’s part of my vocation to photograph and share plates of food on social media. Sure I talk with food professionals, but I admit sometimes when a server sets down a particularly gorgeous plate, I think, wow, that’s going to get a lot of likes. Bully for me.
It’s the age we live in. Our version of Keeping Up With the Joneses. Or in today’s world, the Kardashians. In this country we are mired in a concrete sludge pool of class privilege, constantly one-upping each other with better, more stunning photographs of what we’re eating, wearing, traveling, seeing, feeling, admiring, and buying.
Why the soapbox rant? I had an epiphany recently when several articles and podcasts came across my feed in the same week. I’ve listed them below. Each discussed various components of privilege and how it relates to the food world. That very same week I had a conversation with Dr. Leni Sorensen which resulted in a deep discussion regarding race and class in our community. I’m not an idiot. I can read signs. And these signs told me it was time for me to change tack.
From this day forward my focus for the podcast will shift. From the food itself to the labor that produces it. The work of food. I will swing the spotlight off ingredients and onto the folks that labor in the kitchen, farms, factories, fields, offices, warehouses, and boardrooms to present it to you. I’ve read too many articles on this topic to ignore it. I’ve got to tackle it head on and try to help in whatever small way I can. Include it as much as possible in my writing and in the podcast. Because it’s too damn important.
Privilege is race. Privilege is class. Privilege is gender. Privilege is the country you were born in. It can even be the COUNTY you were born in. Very few investors want to pin their hopes much less their dollars on a person of color or a woman no matter how talented they are. That’s just a sad fact. What if you have the ideas and the passion needed to create and run a successful restaurant but you have none of the head starts? How can I help to change that? What can I do?
Again, I realize I’m using massive amounts of generalization to prove a point. Gray areas abound. Nothing is simple black and white in this discussion, excuse the metaphor. One thing I do know: I am a person of privilege. I am. Even though I grew up poor, I grew up white. In the United States. And maybe that is the first simple step forward. Accepting that fact. Not being defensive. I’ve worked since I was 15 in a myriad of jobs, including food, and I find myself now at a place where I’m able to pursue my passion without worrying where my next meal comes from. That’s privilege. I’m grateful for it every day. Now I’m compelled to do something with it.
What does this mean for the podcast? Starting with last week’s episode I will move the focus away from the plate towards the kitchen where the real Food Work occurs. Toward the folks who work hard but get no accolades. Toward the farmers who grow it and to the advocates who work tirelessly to make sure people stay fed. Of course I’ll continue to profile chefs, bakers, bartenders and restaurateurs but I’ll ask deeper questions. Questions about their kitchens rather than their ingredients.
The folks in the kitchens who do the Food Work but don’t often get recognized or applauded or even thanked? I’ll talk with them in their own dedicated episodes. From now on when I’m considering who to interview, these professionals will become a priority. I’m ashamed it’s taken me so long to recognize the important work they do. I’m sorry for it.
From the beginning I think I was always headed in this direction I just didn’t know it. I got glimpses of what the podcast could be when I talked to people like Laura from Local Food Hub, or John from Hoos for Heifers. But I still wasn’t sure where to go. What to ask. When I started I knew I wanted to talk to food people but I didn’t know why. Now I do.
Someone asked me a few weeks ago my podcast’s theme. I stammered and said something about having real conversations with food folks. His question stayed in my head though because truly, at my core, I didn’t know. It took several well-timed articles and one conversation with a good friend to realize I want this podcast to be This American Life. Except I want it to be This American FOOD Life. A podcast which includes our entire community, every voice, not just the privileged few. At least this realization only took a year. When you know better, you do better.
I’ll continue to Instagram pretty plates I’m sure. But I’ve realized rather than treating them like artifacts I will instead search out artifacts of authentic dialogue with folks who rarely get the chance to speak about the important work they do. I’ll muster up the courage to ask the challenging questions. Start the difficult conversations that make us defensive. Because getting into the heads of people who do Food Work is more important than the right Instagram filter.
This past weekend I had the honor of judging the Iron Chef competition as part of the Tom Tom Founders Festival. Five local chefs, four white, one person of color, all male, competed for the title. When all was said and done, Otis Sims, an African-American chef from UVA Hospital was victorious. Chef Sims has been cooking for 15 years in restaurants and country clubs all around Charlottesville. His sweet and savory dish of pork loin with honey-thyme glaze, goat cheese and chive mashed potatoes, and roasted baby vegetables was not only beautiful but tasted like heaven. Never has hospital food tasted so good. Some smart investor should steal him away to helm his own restaurant. Today. The victory applause for Chef Sims was deafening, and as I watched dozens of folks gather around him, offering up congratulations, I took it as a final sign to sit down and write this post. To have the courage to hit PUBLISH. And to absolutely have him as a guest on a future episode.
As I sit here trying to come up with a profound ending, I am fully aware that yes, here’s another white woman of privilege lamenting the plight of people without it. We just had a whole week’s worth of festival full of that stuff. Believe me, I’m painfully aware of how this blog post might come across as another bleeding heart liberal diatribe. This is a topic that puts people on the defensive. It makes them uncomfortable, me included. I’m not Wendy Bell here making sweeping, final declarations and pronouncements about the state of our food industry with regards to race and class. I’m just someone who’s noticed some things. And is starting to ask questions. I don’t know jack shit about anything. But I do have this platform. People read. People listen. If I can’t use it to start challenging conversations, to do something more than just offer up entertainment, to actually CREATE, to MAKE something, then what is the point? So here I am. I’ve gathered a small following over the years so perhaps by using that platform to ask the hard questions I can at least make people aware. The way the articles and last week’s podcast made me aware. I don’t have the answers. But I did notice this. And I’m here in this life, first and foremost, to learn.
I will try. I will try by running my mouth about stuff other than the simple questions. I’ll attempt the deeper conversation. How can we include everyone in the community? How can all of us have a place at the table and not just the fortunate folks so often in food’s spotlight? We’ve got to start somewhere. Otherwise how will it ever get fixed? I want to talk about it. I want to learn. Teach me.
Links to articles I read the same week as my talk with Leni. They changed my world. Years ago Leni gave me the nickname, “The Student”. It’s one I carry proudly.
- The Problems with Food Media that Nobody Wants to Talk About
- When Chefs Become Famous Cooking Other Cultures’ Food
- How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy
- It’s Okay to Cook “Other People’s Food,” But You Better Be Ready to Talk About It
- Americans ‘need to stop being defensive about their food culture’
- THE STATE OF SOUL FOOD IN AMERICA: EXPLORING THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
- A Laotian Refugee Cooks His Way Home
- The Testosterone Takeover of Southern Food Writing
- Beyond Talk: Searching For Real Solutions to Food Appropriation
- The Sporkful Podcast – Five Part Series: Other People’s Food
p.s. It took me 20 minutes on Shutterstock to find a photograph of people of color doing restaurant food work. And who knows, these hands might just have a really great tan. Sigh…
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