The Food “Revolution” and Culinary Appropriation

I don’t often watch food shows because they either make me hungry or they annoy me as I watch people get paid to travel around the country over-indulging in sickening food contests, or getting paid to travel the world and make ridiculous and somewhat disingenuous commentaries about what they’re eating (“I can taste the countryside”), especially when some American makes these comments around people who they know barely speak enough English to even know what they’re saying and probably don’t find what they eat particularly astounding.

But last night I decided to watch Andrew Zimmern’s Bizzarre Foods. I appreciated this episode because he focused on the burgeoning food justice movement looking at what was happening in San Francisco in particular. He starts the episode profiling “Freegans” and the Food Not Bombs movement. He followed them in their dumpster dives, food prep, and the weekly distribution of a good and FREE vegan meal in the community. For whatever criticisms I had of the freegans I went to college with who upended the trashcans in the libraries, I can get behind the FNB mission. Their ideology of redistributing food that’s still good but discarded is one that should be supported given how much waste there is in the face of hunger. What’s ridiculous is given the large waste of food there are many policies in place that make it illegal to dumpster dive as well as to distribute free food. It was great that he gave some spotlight to their movement that’s spreading across the world.

BUT, after that first 10 minutes, we started to move away from real food justice and food activism into the corners of the food movement that exists in paradoxes: food sustainability and elitism; culinary innovation and culinary appropriation. This is where my irritation began to build. The next man he profiled was what he termed a “modern day hunter gatherer.” A guy who forages for his food in San Francisco. In essence he actually gathers the wild edibles that are in the San Francisco landscape–seaweed, wild fennel, wild snails, etc.–and works with hunters of wild animals.  Then prepares meals from what’s been collected, either in their entirety or as supplements to other food items purchased. It’s not a novel concept, but one that’s gotten lost in our strive for modernity and speed. I think the folks who gravitate back towards these practices have the right idea in mind in the strive towards food accessibility and sustainability. However, while the guy was patting himself on the back, there were some key issues that really weren’t addressed.

For one, it took them like 3 days to collect all of that food, and they had to go pretty far outside of the city center, taking long bike rides and strolls, to collect their wild veggies. And there was still an amazing amount of work that went into preparing it, time that people of lower-income brackets aren’t realistically going to have. On top of which there is an incredible knowledge base of foraging and hunting that’s gotten lost across generations. I mean, my father was a migrant worker and I’ve never grown so much as a tomato, don’t ask me to identify some plant I see on the side of the road and then take the risk of eating it. Also, there are a LOT of policies in place about what’s legal to pick and in what quantities and in what seasons that the average person isn’t going to know, and for brown, black, and low-income, the risk of being arrested over a wild carrot hardly seems worth it.

What further irritated me about this segment of the episode, was that this “modern day hunter/gatherer”  took all that great free food he collected, created a pop up dinner that required a personal invite, and charged $85 in advance for attendance. Now this very homogenous group of individuals (mostly white and 30 somethings) could have the privilege of indulging in and fawning over how great it is to ‘reconnect with food’ and ‘reevaluate their relationship to food.’ It comes off as an exercise in elitism and self-congratulation.

I understood the need to charge for such an event given the incredible labor that went into it, but what I didn’t understand was the greater purpose. Was this event a fundraiser that could help further activities to educate the greater population about sustainable food practices, or perhaps a way to fund activities that can impact those communities where food insecurity is rife? This is a question I can’t answer because the segment ended after the dinner was over. But if that’s where it ended, then all they did was have a consciousness raising activity among a group of people already conscious–a preaching to the choir. And a feel-good moment for those  30-something year old professionals whose station in life doesn’t necessitate these practices because they can afford to go to nice markets that sell (often-times) expensive organic food. It distorts the conversation about food activism, which originated out of need to address the glaring disparity of food access among the lower-economic bracket, and reinserts that classism.

The next part of Zimmern’s journey into the greater food movement was to profile a chef engaged in the new concept of “snout-to-tail” eating, where the whole animal gets consumed, no waste. The only thing is, it’s not a new concept. It’s one that brown and black folks have been employing for centuries because wasting food wasn’t an option. Now some expensive ingredients have been incorporated and certain techniques have been refined and what used to be just some down home cooking, soul food, suddenly becomes gourmet, a new cooking methodology and area of expertise. What was once just done out of necessity has suddenly became some new culinary frontier to be conquered, specialized, and elevated to the status of innovation and pushing the boundaries.

This small group of elite and “edgy” chefs now have the privilege of renaming and recontextualizing eating the entire animal as something innovative and admirable and then they situate it within the larger food movement. Meanwhile they serve their innovations in upscale restaurants where you pay exorbitant amounts of money for parts of the animal that butchers practically give away, and weeds that grow in your backyard. Then it’s framed as adventurous eating for the white and privileged who could always afford the good parts of the meat and best plants and were never relegated to scraps and weeds. That doesn’t sit well with me.

Why is this considered adventurous? I have older parents who both recount to me the numerous tales of how regularly they ate things like pickled pigs feet, snout, tails, tongue, of hating cleaning chitlins (pig intestines) but loving getting to eat them with some hot sauce. Fat back, hog maws, and the list continues. I’m sure there are similar anecdotes from latino and other immigrant populations. And while it’s no longer as much of a regularity within our communities, you can still go to most any grocery store in a black or latino neighborhood, and find a stock of large jars of pickled pigs feet. And don’t get me started on collard greens. What was was eaten mostly by blacks when they were enslaved because whites didn’t want it, has now become a restaurant delicacy. You can go into a restaurant today and order a side of collards with some hog jowls and pay anywhere from $4- $7 because now it’s trendy. Four to seven dollars for a cup of collard greens. Ridiculous.

I think the episode put the cherry on top of my frustrations when they finished the segment at a food truck meet up. All the trucks served adventurous menus (i.e. po’ folks foods) and were supposedly committed to the ideals of food sustainability. What was supposed to be even more laudable about this event was not only the ability to push the boundaries of what’s comfortable in consumption, but the chance to push people out of their comfort zone by situating the meet up in a blighted part of town. The idea was probably a good one, to bring people to a part of town that’s been systemically neglected, but to what end?  Those folks weren’t going to the food trucks and then hanging around the neighborhood to pump some of their money back into the businesses in that part of town–they’re getting back in the town cars with their kids and going back to their own neighborhoods. What’s more, is that food served at those trucks are most certainly priced out of reach for the average resident of that community, and who probably wouldn’t find it all that adventurous to eat chitlin tacos in the first place. So what does it do for that community. If that’s the totality of their meet up, all it did was to further perpetuate the voyeurism of the privileged to the economically underprivileged. They can look on and think, wow how unfortunate, and go home and recount to their friends the adventure they took to the bad part of town. It does nothing to humanize the situation or effect change.

But before someone states the obvious, let me just say that because of the way the episode was structured there is no way of my knowing whether or not these folks profiled were actually going beyond what was shown. They very well could be working in the capacities for which I’m criticizing them, and could be acknowledging the historical roots of their cooking methods. BUT if the episode is going to be centered around how each of these groups have found different ways to commit to this larger food movement that deals with food sustainability, the rejection of processed foods, GMOs, and wastefulness, and the promotion of food justice, then I would’ve expected them to at least make a 5 second blurb about the greater impact of their culinary adventures within their communities.

This isn’t so much a critique of Andrew Zimmern, because he makes his rounds to the  original settings of certain cuisines, which pays tribute to their histories. But this episode of the larger food movement in the US really touched a nerve. Especially because 95% of the people profiled were white and 30-40 something year olds who have stripped down the histories and context of the types of food they were cooking and repackaged it as a social movement that the elite can digest. Another white washing of history that I found to be disturbing given the fact that these same foods they’ve  effectively made the new “culinary frontier,” are rooted in a very diverse and culturally rich  peoples who are disproportionately in lower income brackets, disproportionately food insecure, and suffer from disproportionately high incidences of nutrition related chronic diseases.

As a food activist, I plead for people to hunt, gather, forage, garden, eat local, and to try eat organic and free range if possible. But I think this process of elevating these processes into something trendy, into a market on which to capitalize off of does a disservice to the larger food movement. Yes, the food movement deals with changing our consumption patterns to eat fresher and without GMOs, reducing our wastefulness by eating the whole animal, and reducing our carbon footprint by eating local. But that’s not the whole picture. We can’t talk about changing the food landscape without discussing food justice. This was the first time that I was able to articulate what’s been bothering me about the growing numbers of the collegiate, upper-middle class, and predominantly white “activists” taking on this cause: the possibility of not addressing the injustices in our food system, the prospect of getting so hung up in vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and organic but not addressing the inherent socioeconomic boundaries that make eating like that inaccessible, the desire to benefit off of the appropriation of culinary traditions by making them artisanal or creating specialty shops that employ labor intensive techniques that allow one to up-charge 200%.

This was probably the first time I was able to see the dissociation of food sustainability with food justice. For me they always went hand in hand. There are many individuals and groups out there engaged in activism that really have an impact across socioeconomic lines, but much of what I saw on this episode was not food justice nor food sustainability, it was just another face of the same coin of systems that perpetuate food inequities.