On Culture

and how a capitalist food system feeds white supremacy.

All the discussion of who does and does not have “a culture” (we all do) has had me considering my own, which I’ve come to define as Long Island—what else, where else? It’s Italian pizza and Jewish bagels and Greek diners and Chinese takeout and Japanese sushi, and never was it not clear that these foods had origins and cultures and people attached to them. Roots. None of these were mine, but I was and am of them, the composite effect of their nonchalant availability built on immense labor.

At home, the food was mainstream white American with Ina Garten flair and touches of Puerto Rican ingredients and flavor. There were pasteles during Christmas, when my mom bought them from my dance teacher’s mom, Carmen; there were fried plantains; there were bright orange pastelillos in Goya dough filled with ground beef seasoned with Goya Adobo and sofrito, dotted with Goya olives. These were the references to a distinct culture to which I was connected but distanced from, and so they became another piece of my amorphous cultural composition—as familiar as a slice of pizza or a plate of shrimp tempura, but still not “mine.”

(What was “mine”? Grilled chicken in a Caesar salad wrap. Racing my uncle to see who finished a Friendly’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ice cream first. Fried clam strips, the crisp batter softened by a squeeze of lemon juice. Wet walnuts on my Carvel sundae, served in a miniature Yankees helmet. Oysters, always oysters. The nuggets from the shack at Corey Beach, when my brother and I convinced my mom to buy them, sand and saltwater mixing into the ketchup. I could go on and on.)

I understand the urge to call being the product of what feels like a hundred diasporas but the daughter of none “no culture,” to put it all in a blender, pour it in a Mason jar, and call it new. Or we can be in conversation, in self-interrogation. (When it comes down to it, what do I really identify as? Irish Whiskey, thrice distilled.)

But being the product of Long Island has also meant simmering in racism, and in a violent and politically endorsed anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx atmosphere. (As I was writing this, my sister called from her job at a non-opiate pain management office to tell me a patient called for the third day in a row, demanding to know the “nationality” of the nurse who would be attending her.) All of this was pre-Trump. The Southern Poverty Law Center did a study of the county where I grew up in 2009 titled “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County NY” that chronicles endless violence, discrimination, and mistreatment. This was in the aftermath of a hate crime that happened less than a mile from the house where I lived, which I wrote about in 2018. All of this has only gotten worse, bolder. Women call doctor’s offices and demand the nurse’s ethnic makeup.

In true “me” fashion (and reflective of youthful naiveté), I was excited when the population demographics of my hometown began to shift because it meant a long-shuttered Pizza Hut became a Colombian restaurant; it meant that a Main Street I’d long resented for its emptiness came alive. Others, though, used the word “illegal” as a noun and I got into many heated arguments with them over the years, including my ex-boyfriend’s mother. To these people, the shifting demographics were an imposition. This shocked me. They’d have preferred that place stay a Pizza Hut, in ways that had implications far beyond the gastronomic. I, child of a brown father, finally knew what some people really thought about my lineage.

It’s with this knowledge of how white America really thinks, really acts, really talks that I consider how we discuss our inherently racialized food system and why I know shirts that say “immigrants feed America” and other dehumanizing nonsense aren’t effective. They want immigrants “feeding” America; they want them in the fields and the slaughterhouses and the restaurant kitchens, far away, working invisibly for a pittance in fear of deportation to keep them in constant supply of iceberg lettuce and shitty tomatoes and cheap steak. Among the white urban liberal bourgeois, they want immigrant populations equated with their food, divvying up worth based on whichever flavor of “authenticity” is cool that week. Consumption is consumption is consumption.

The capitalist food system being a white supremacist one, with its demands for more food, cheaper food always on the backs of the Black and brown no matter the human cost, has become abundantly clear during the spread of Covid-19. We don’t solve that individually by going to the farmers’ market; we solve that through reparations and a complete socioeconomic, political overhaul. (That shouldn’t feel insurmountable; that should feel like a fucking fire under your ass.) I read the chef and writer Millicent Souris talk about these ongoing issues in her brilliant essay “The Duck Part Two”:

I work at a soup kitchen and food pantry, the largest emergency food provider in Brooklyn, a borough where nearly 20% of the population are food insecure, well above the national average. This statistic is from before the COVID-19 pandemic started. I’ve been on staff for over two years, and in that time I’ve become more and more aware of how we ask the wrong questions when it comes to poverty and hunger. We put band-aids on situations that require amputation.

This has all been the background and context for my reading of The Immigrant-Food Nexus: Borders, Labor, and Identity in North America, edited by Julian Agyeman and Sydney Giacalone, a food studies text from MIT Press that has been sitting on my pile; it was released in late March, its perfect moment. “Slaughterhouse Politics: Struggling for the Future in the Age of Trump” by Christopher Neubert digs into a local controversy around the opening of an Iowa meat processing facility in 2017. The community of Mason City, where it was originally slated to open, had gone into an uproar: not because of the environmental concerns, per se, but because they knew that a slaughterhouse meant an influx of immigrant labor.

“...Alignment between whiteness and American belonging informs white residents’ reactions toward immigrants of color, such that even in the absence of lived experience with immigrants or other people of color, white residents reproduce historically racist discourses,” he writes, noting the “isolation” and “vulnerability” that white Americans feel when they come into contact with anything they consider “other.” Residents of Mason City and Eagle Grove (where the slaughterhouse moved on to) exhibited explicit racism in comments and actions, even flying Confederate flags. None of them were suggesting that people go vegetarian or stop eating factory-farmed meat; they just wanted to keep the laborers invisible. As Neubert writes, “There can be no sustainable food system brought forth through environmental justice that does not also confront the racial hierarchies embedded in the economy.” These folks in Iowa were attempting to use feigned concerns for the environment as a shield. There is no food justice, no environmental justice, without racial justice.

Kimberley Curtis’s “Criminalization and Militarization: Civic World Making in Arizona’s Agricultural Borderlands” chronicles the daily life built around migration and border-crossing in Yuma, Arizona, where 90 percent of the U.S.’s winter greens are grown thanks to the labor of 40-50,000 field workers. Curtis writes that “agricultural borderlands are potent sites for understanding the impact of increasingly fascist policies of border militarization and immigrant criminalization on the fabric of our world.” A capitalist food system is inherently a white supremacist food system.

We can talk about culture and melting pots and all the things we learn from people different from us—the richness of gustatory pleasure, the bourgeois exuberance of a well-cooked, well-sourced meal; we can talk about the inequities and we can even try to do something about them to the best of our abilities, yet this is the backdrop, no matter how hard we might try to divest ourselves of it. I’m reminded of my youthful naiveté, my thrill at the new Colombian restaurant in the old Pizza Hut, while all around me, violence. There is no fixing what is so irredeemably broken. There is no sufficient band-aid. It needs to be torn up, from the roots.

In this coming Friday’s paid-subscriber interview, I’ll be talking to chef and cookbook author Bryant Terry about his career, how the pandemic may or may not affect meat consumption, and his latest book, Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes. If you have any questions for him, please let me know.

I was on Salt + Spine to talk about the state of food media (another system that, we all know, needs burning down). The picture they used was fitting, as my Courtney Barnett T-shirt says “tell me how you really feel.” Also! At Tenderly, some condiment recommendations and a good book to use if you want to make vegan cheeses.

I’m continuing to read The Immigrant-Food Nexus: Borders, Labor, and Identity in North America, of course, and re-reading Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments and Ongoingness and continuing with 2666. I love fragmentary writing—so sue me! It helps with the thinking and the figuring out how to make a big point in few words, and it also helps with the reading of a giant novel that’s going to go on for weeks. I’m waiting on five freaking books—three of which are new food memoirs, one of which is a collection of short stories by the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti, and the other is My Struggle: Book 1, because I think that will be a fun adventure to go on years after everyone else has gotten over it (and because I was paying a high shipping cost from Archipelago Books anyway so why not).

Jackfruit biryani, folks! I can’t recommend it enough. I used a recipe from a bootleg PDF copy of the Dishoom cookbook, a restaurant in London, but I promise I’m getting a proper book soon—I was just so curious! It requires a lot of frying, which I love. Frying well is a real fuckin’ art, and keeping the fry station moving is no easy feat. If you want to make something that requires an extremely on-point mise en place just to feel alive, go for this biryani.

This week I made the best baba ganoush, which is the simplest baba ganoush, which I figured out after reading, I think, every baba ganoush recipe on the internet: A couple of medium eggplants, placed directly over fire till charred all around and cooked through (don’t bother with drainage, which I think is unnecessary); let them cool a bit and skin them (as a vegetarian, I don’t get to say this often—thrilling!); add them to a food processor with a quarter cup of tahini; toss in some garlic cloves, a pinch of kosher salt, the juice of half a lemon, and let ’er rip till it’s nice and fluffy. Garnish with olive oil and flaky sea salt. NO BIG WHOOP. Let someone else make the pita. You’ve done enough.

This week on my Instagram Live on Wednesday at 11 a.m.!!! I will be making a gluten-free chocolate ganache tart. Raw crust! Local chocolate in the ganache!

This isn’t an ad but they did send me some knives, and let me say: Opinel knives are dope? And affordable? The wooden handles are really lightweight and extremely cute, and they are sharp as hell. If your knife collection needs some freshening up—and mine, which involved at this point in my life only a 12-inch Japanese chef’s knife and a bread knife, certainly did—you could do much worse. This 8” chef’s knife has been my go-to.