There was an old episode of Pioneer Woman running on the FoodNetwork where Ree Drummond makes spicy “Asian” hot wings and presents her dish to a group of doubtful male friends. Their reaction? Well, not the greatest. And I don’t blame them- Ree offered what looked like burned wings in a splattered pyrex tray. One man went as far as to say “I don’t
trust them” and repeated himself as if the wings posed some kind of threat to his personal safety. Yet, this was not the strangest moment in the show. After what looked like a few moments of playful rejection from her male friends, she walked back to the oven and withdrew a tray of buffalo wings. This was when the music cued and Ree and her male guests affirmed that these were the authentic wings that they had been waiting for.
Some Asian American groups cry racism, while their counterparts accuse them of racial fragility, one of many instances when food becomes a vehicle for ethnic and cultural identity politics. Remember the video of Tyler Akin, a Caucasian chef from Philly delivering a PSA on how to eat Phở? Not even 48 hours after Bon Appétit published the piece, fuming social media users responded with death threats and calls to firebomb his restaurant. On the third day Bon Appétit pulled the video and issued a detailed apology, including how they misrepresented both the chef, and Phở itself.
How about Oberlin College, a radical left leaning campus that experienced a small food revolution? Students demanded “culturally authentic food” as part of its diversity and multicultural inclusion practices. From increased enrollment of minority students, trigger warnings for offensive text and materials, to authentic Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches), better grade sushi, and real fried chicken. Bon Appétit Management Company (not affiliated with the magazine) promised to work with the Oberlin community to provide more “culturally sensitive” foods.
What about the Bush era of “Freedom” fries, when our country was on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, and France refused to join the coalition of the willing? Republicans in the House forbade french fries in the cafeteria, serving “Freedom” fries in its place to show solidarity with our troops. Surprisingly there are still people who walk into restaurants and ask for “Freedom” fries, even though there were no WMD’s and french fries themselves originated from Belgium.
But what will we see in this new era? The geopolitical climate is one that is polarizing, and what foods will demarcate our loyalty in the era of Trump? Will White supremacists reclaim Cheetohs from disenfranchised African American youth and champion it for its own resemblance to our new president? Russian borscht soup has been quietly weaving its way into the American palate, while molé, shwarma, and the falafel face new federal dietary restrictions.
Politics, food, and food politics, are often distorted by our own agendas (guilty as charged). We believe what we want to believe within our own political framework and will often use food as a basic, relevant, and delectable apparatus to reinforce our own arguments. Food becomes political capital, a form of currency to affirm, persuade, or even disparage individuals, groups, and sometimes entire cultures. In the late 1800’s, public health officials argued that Chinese cuisine, among other things, posed as an endemic health risk to the public. This armed crusading politicians with the xenophobic fuel and anti-immigrant rhetoric needed to pass laws like the Page Act and Chinese Exclusion Act.
Ree Drummond’s episode of spicy “Asian” hot wings is NO Chinese Exclusion Act, but it did make Asian American viewers react viscerally, likely driven by their own experiences with racism and our current political environment.
We need to truly remind ourselves that food brings out the best in relationship and community building. Food is thought provoking, inviting, curious, inclusive, and sustainable. Owner and chef Reem Assil who identifies as Palastinian & Syrian, does just this. Her market, Reem’s California, offers modern Arab street foods with the mission of connecting people. In a recent foodcast on Bon Appétit she states: “Food and activism is the new frontier for organizing. It’s a way to reel people in to build trust…..maybe it’s a conversation about the bread that leads to the history of the MiddleEast….it’s a way to engage people on a deeper level” (March, 2017).
Another example? Cook it Raw – an annual gathering of chefs from around the world, where they share in culinary traditions and prepare locally sustainable ingredients for new forms of expression and consumption. The event fosters an international camaraderie among chefs and engages local communities. In 2011, the event was held in Kanazawa, Japan after the catastrophic earthquake that claimed more than 20,000 lives in Fukushima. It was an opportunity among culinary leaders to show solidarity in a country rich in food history.
What makes an entreé “American” is less the label itself, and more the ability to bring people together. Some people would argue that there’s nothing more American than a good old fashion steak and potato. Possibly they’re right. The parents of 7 year old Meryam Yildirm and 9 year Adin Bendat-Appell were discussing the best steak house before exchanging phone numbers.
O’Hare International Airport on Jan 30, 2017. (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)