This is a transcript of the Food with Benefits episode — Food & Racism originally published April 12th, 2021. Listen to Food with Benefits here.
Well hey there everyone! Welcome to Food with Benefits. I’m your host Austin and today we’ll be having a little chat, about food and racism. Specifically, we’ll be discussing racism through multiple viewpoints. From racism in the food service industry, to the America’s love of Mexican food conflicting with its attitudes towards South American immigrants, and the “white savior” complex in fine dining.
There’s no doubt in saying that racism is complex, or I guess, multifaceted is a more applicable word. Racism isn’t just throwing a slur at someone, or diminishing an individual or ethnicity down to stereotypes. No, racism is unbelievably more complex. It’s economic, it’s institutional, it’s cultural, and it’s aversive. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that these racist beliefs and actions would blend into a universal constant, like food. I think a great place to start is at something that I believe took the food world by surprise recently, the downfall of Bon Appetit.
If you keep and eye on the food world like I do, I’m sure you remember the implosion of Bon Appetit last year in 2020. When an old Instagram post of then Editor-In-Chief, Adam Rapoport, was in brown face dressed as a stereotyped Puerto Rican, with a do-rag and #boricua present to drive the point home. Now, this one photo of Adam Rapoport isn’t what brought Bon Appetit down, no, this was only the catalyst. Shortly after this there were old tweets, Tumblr posts, and Vines of then-Drinks Editor, Alex Delaney, posting homophobic slurs (which were initially called out by Andy Baraghani or Bon Appetit), a racially-insensitive cake (featuring a confederate flag design), and multiple derogatory posts against women. But just as quickly as Baraghani called out Delaney, Baraghani was in the receiving end of the accusations. Alyse Whitney, a Korean-American and another Bon Appetit staffer, made public that Baraghani tried to have multiple stories of hers killed (a phrase used in journalism where a story is completed but not published, effectively throwing possible weeks or months of hard work down the drain), all due to a story being a profile on Queer Eye star, Antoni Porowski. She alleges Baraghani had some “petty feelings” as she says towards Porowski.
Oh, you think this is it? Oh no, absolutely not! After these accusations began to fly around the internet, Sohla El-Waylly took to Instagram to air out Bon Appetit’s dirty laundry for the world to see. From being hired as an Assistant Editor to predominantly-white Editors with much less experience then her and a salary of only $50,000 (yeah, try to make $50K livable in NYC), she said she was pushed into Bon Appetit videos by editors to be diversity token. Even as she became more popular on the channel, she was not compensated for that work above and beyond her Assistant Editor role. Stating that only white Editors were paid for their video appearances, not POC editors were compensated. With fellow Bon Appetit darling, Claire Saffitz, speculated to be making $20,000 to $30,000 per episode. Essentially, 2 episodes from Claire cost as much as Sohla’s entire years worth of work.
Over the following few weeks, most of Bon Appetit’s biggest stars have either left the company., or have fully removed themselves from the video side of things, relegating their time to the physical magazine. Sohla El-Waylly, Priya Krishna, Claire Saffitz, Molly Baz, Rick Martinez, Gaby Melian, Carla Lalli Music, Amiel Stanek, Christina Chaey, and Alex Delaney. Of these 10, 5 are POC. Brad Leone, Andy Baraghani, and Chris Morocco continue to appear in videos with Bon Appetit.
So what happened here? Why was Bon Appetit, a darling in the food industry, and a consistent powerhouse on Youtube, able to get away with this behavior for so long? Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the food industry is not as inclusive as a space as we’d like to think it is. Couple that with the publishing business, and you have a recipe for disaster (I’m so sorry about that pun).
In regards to the food industry side of the business, Bon Appetit had this idea of who its readers were. Wealthy, white, urbanites with a love of farmers markets and Whole Foods. So, to the Editors, there were concerns of how well they would take a dish like mohinga or tahrig? Or how would they respond to Ethiopian cuisine (which is primarily eaten with your hands thanks to the help of injera, a type of bread that’s used in lieu of utensils). This fear of “otherness” has lead a lot of restaurants and food publications like Bon Appetit to stick with a mainly white and western focus on cuisine. Systematically silencing black, indigenous, and people of color chefs and editors.
However, I do have to talk about the other facet of this industry, which is food that has been largely accepted or absorbed into western food culture. I’m talking, primarily, of South American and East-Asian cuisine.
How many South American dishes can you name? For most people, it’ll primarily be what’s on a taco bell menu; tacos, burritos, churro’s, tostadas, quesadillas, nachos, and fajitas. But there is a range of dishes as diverse as South America itself is. Empanadas, silpancho, pao de queijo, arroz con dulce, arepas just to name a few. The point I’m making her his that our society, the magazine editors, the recipe testers, etc, filter and distill these cultures and their foods in a way to make them palatable to American tastes. Effectively skewing our view of the culture itself.
Food is an avenue, and usually one of the first avenues one has into another culture. And when this interaction with south American cuisine is largely $1 tacos from taco bell, or fajitas from some national Mexican food chain, your perception is skewed in a way that is not authentic. It can form this idea that south American cuisine is just cheap ground beef, processed cheese, and guacamole. You lose out on the history, the uniqueness, and the dishes that are held near and dear to the hearts of the people.
When looking at east-Asian cuisine, we primarily focus on Japanese and Chinese food. Chinese food is as diverse as Chinese culture is itself, however when you look at any small local Chinese restaurant, it’s primarily always the same things that are available. Sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken, egg rolls, fried rice, with a fortune cookie. And typically incredibly cheap for how much food you’re getting. This can lead to this perception of Chinese culture as being incredibly cheap, bland, and homogenous. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. These dishes are like this purely to meet American tastes and a lot of these restaurants are just trying to make a living. This isn’t a way to truly appreciate authentic Chinese cuisine, which is incredibly varied.
Congee, a versatile rice porridge; scallion pancakes, baozi, maps tofu, and my personal favorite, Hot Pot, are all various Chinese dishes that are absolutely incredible, but don’t fit in with the general American ideal of what Chinese food is. These dishes are some soy sauce flavored chicken, or pork fried rice. These dishes are spicy with Szechuan pepper in the mapo tofu, the sweet and subtle spice of scallion in the pancakes, a sweet and savory red bean paste in baozi,
This is a long departure from the racist and dehumanizing American belief that Chinese people eat bats, dogs, and rats. These racist beliefs have only been amplified in recent times due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even as these food sources are not part of the modern Chinese diet. This has resulted in nationwide hatred and attacks against the Asian members in our community, and a resurgence in stigmatization against Chinese cuisine.
In December 2020, a contestant on MasterChef: The Professionals, Philli Armitage-Mattin is a self-proclaimed “Asian Food Specialist”. On many of her instagram posts about various Asian foods she began using the hashtag “prettydirtyfood” and the phrase “Dirty Food Refined”. It’s easy to understand that this phrasing aimed at east-Asian cuisine, especially in todays climate and when the Asian community in our country is being targeted.
This view towards Asian food, specifically Chinese food in todays climate, has implications against the Chinese members of our communities. Chinese people have long been the scapegoat in white American fears that they were taking our jobs (and not the reality of Chinese people being exploited to increase American business profits). Chinatowns and Chinese American neighborhoods being viewed as “dens of sin and vices” leads to racist beliefs that Chinese people are less civilized.
This is no more apparent than in the murder of 8 people in the Atlanta community, my local community. 6 of those victims being Asian women. Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kin, and Yong Ae Yue, As well as Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michaels. Owners and employees of spas killed my a man who claimed a “sex addiction” and wanted to “eliminate the problem” in his own words.
These beliefs run deep in American culture, and a source of those beliefs is in our diluted, incorrect, and racist understanding of various cuisine. Of course, I’m not saying this is the SOURCE of the problem, but it is a participating factor that reinforces racism.
To fight back against racism we have to be knowledgeable of all the avenues in our life where these racist beliefs are perpetuated, and that includes in the food industry.
I mentioned earlier Philli Armitage-Mattin’s use of the phrase “Dirty Food Refined” when it comes to Asian cuisine, and this brings us to something called the “white savior”. In a lot of restaurants and the food industry as a whole, foods from other countries and ethnicities are not taken into consideration as being refined, or as being worthy of a $100 meal at a high-end restaurant. That honor is bestowed upon French, New American, or Japanese cuisine.
Ask yourself why. Why is asian food viewed as needing to be refined to be respected in the culinary community? While at a French restaurant a common vegetable stew like ratatouille is considered a necessary inclusion to any high-end establishment’s menu?
Take a look at most of the newer restaurants opening in any metropolitan area. You’ll find restaurants with a focus on Burmese food, or the staple Latin American and Japanese cuisine. You’ll find that a lot of them are owned by white people. A restaurant named Burmasphere served Burmese and was owned by a white man who got the inspiration from eating Burmese food in San Francisco. Or Kooks Burritos in Portland, OR, run by two white women who started their business after eating in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico.
This occupation of that space takes that opportunity away from actual people of color to invite you into their culture and their kitchen to properly introduce you to the various foods of their own culture. It separates the food from its history and from its people. Disconnecting the diners and customers from the people from the culture they’re taking a peek into through food.
I’m going to take a moment here to focus on Mexican food for a minute, due to its close proximity to the United States and its prominence in the culinary world here. The humanitarian crisis at the border has been going on for over a decade as far as I can remember. When you look at our previous presidential administration, there were clearly people in the administration who didn’t have a fondness for Mexican immigrants. In June 2018, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled at a DC Mexican restaurant. That same week, Stephen Miller was called a fascist at a separate Mexican restaurant. On Cinco de Mayo Trump tweeted a photo of himself eating a taco salad, after a presidential campaign calling Mexicans “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists”.
Four white supremecists who tried to murder a Latino in Huntington Beach had photos of them eating burritos from Del Taco. In a Huffington Post Article from 2016 all Trump supporters who were interviewed at the 2016 Republican National Convention admitted to hating Mexicans, but loving the food.
Now, there’s no one singular way to look at this dichotomy and disconnect between Mexican food and the Mexican people who pioneered it. Is this America wanting to enjoy the product of millennia of cultural growth, but not the people? Are Americans just disconnected from Mexican culture that the food isn’t really considered “Mexican” anymore, being relegated to “Tex-Mex” to give it an American origin? I could spend all day debating the reasoning behind this, but the outcome is clear — Mexican food is held up on a pedestal higher than the actual Mexican people. Which, as you may have guessed, is incredibly racist, reminiscent of Manifest Destiny, and a quick way to fully dehumanize the Mexican people while assimilating and contorting their food and culture beyond recognition.
Now I’ve been focusing a lot of the higher echelons of the food industry. The chefs and the magazine editors, but we can’t leave out the backbone of the overall business of agriculture. The lifeblood of the food industry. The farmers, processing plant workers, and back-of-house staff.
Author Michael Twitty wrote an article titled, An Open Letter to Paula Deen. After her culinary empire was exposed for racial discrimination, her response of “yes, of course” when asked if she’s said the n-word, and her plans to throw a plantation-themed wedding for her son, complete with an all-black staff. The article goes into Paula’s fondness for southern cuisine (a cuisine near and dear to my heart), and brought to light how her failure to properly showcase the history of southern cuisine. About how so many of the core staples of southern cuisine were ripped straight from African cultures along with their people. About how the black cooks who were the backbone of the American south are glossed over in historical museums, just relegated to “servants”, with their creation of southern cuisine being overlooked.
When we look at farmers of color they are historically excluded from loans and services issued by the US government. As recently as 1996 black farmers were denied business loans solely on the basis of their race. And were completely absent from any representation in USDA committees. Even today, 70,000 black farmers have not had their claims heard in court.
Today, communities of color face multiple barriers in access to healthy food choices, safe kitchen spaces, and affordable food. Food deserts are what they are called, and I’ve lived in one myself when I lived in North Charleston, South Carolina. A predominantly black community comprised of people of color who were gentrified out of the east side of the downtown Charleston area. The community had 2 buses, that were $2 a trip one-way, and did not stop near any grocery stores. The closest store was a Save-A-Lot which featured canned food, near-expired bread, and gray and low-cost meats. Any access to a healthier food source (like a Wal-Mart or Publix) was 10 minutes away by car, and completely impossible to walk due to no roads from my community to the store including sidewalks.
The racial inequality in food is not just the white savior chef making asian food “refined” or the separation of Mexican food from its cultural roots. The racial inequality permeates down to the root of this industry, and to the top, the black, indigenous, and people of color who buy this food. There are barriers at each and every step that make this industry hostile towards them, and we as a country and as people need to ensure that the farmers, the plant workers, the dishwashers, the chefs, the servers, and the consumers all have access to food and to any culture connected to that food.
I’m not going to be optimistic here and say that eating food from another culture will solve racism. That’s incredibly naive. But I will say that food is not just food, it’s not just something to eat and then go about your day. Food is a window to a culture, and a culture is a window to a person. We must be cognizant of the cultures that we are enjoying, and I believe that will help us to better understand the people of that culture. Bringing them out of some 2D bastardization of stereotypes and assumptions, and allowing us to be knowledgeable of their history, and their struggles. When we eat food prepared by someone of that culture, they are inviting us into their home and into their lives, even if it’s just for a quick bite at a food truck. They are sharing the experiences and history of their people dating back hundreds or thousands of years.
When we pay attention to what we eat and the story behind it and it’s people, we can better sympathize and connect with others around us. Food becomes that common ground that we can share. A ground where we can work together to build a connection, and flow of ideas, of appreciation, of awe as we experience the world through the eyes of someone else.
Now this may just be me waxing philosophical about food. The old saying “the way to a mans heart is through his stomach”, and I think that applies to anyone and everyone. And when that food is offered to you by someone with a cultural connection to it, it gives you that line to truly open your eyes to something you may have been gone your whole life not knowing.
So the next time you’re in the mood for some Mexican food, think a bit before you drive to Taco Bell. Actively search out for restaurants, food trucks, and pop-ups that are run by black, indigenous, and people of color. I believe you may be surprised by how much you can learn from them when they offer you a seat at their table.
Thanks again for tuning into this episode of Food with Benefits. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you’ll take to heart what I said about learning so much about people through their food. There’s a great big world out there and it’s our duty as humans to ensure that other cultures, societies, and history is preserved and told by members of that culture. If you want to follow along with me on my food journey, you can follow me on Instagram @AustinEatsATL.
Thanks again everyone, I’ll see you next time on Food with Benefits. In the meantime, stay safe and stay curious everyone.