On America

and the gaping maw of empire.

Before I started watching Taste the Nation, I shared an Angela Davis quote to my Instagram story: “Diversity is a corporate strategy.” I hit play, and the first episode begins with a call to go to the James Beard Foundation’s “Open for Good” campaign, about helping independent restaurants survive the pandemic (each one starts with the same message); in another tab, I had the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex open. I felt silly for even watching. As a leftist, as an anti-capitalist, I was clearly not the target audience for a perfectly liberal show.

But it’s a perfectly liberal show that wants to define “American food”—while even using the word “American” to refer to the United States, its culture, and its inhabitants is already an imperial act—so I watched.

Taste the Nation and its host, Padma Lakshmi, are showing that throughout the existence of the United States, its foodways have been determined by immigration patterns, as well as by indigenous and enslaved peoples. That is true, but where they lose me immediately is in the romanticization of the “nation” without enough context for what pushes people to the U.S. and the reality of its violent empire. (I am writing from one of its long-held colonies.)

“A better life” is cited repeatedly—a better life as defined by whom? By what? Lakshmi repeatedly refers to ideas like, food “travels and unites us” and flavors “aren’t limited by lines on a map”—no, but human movement is quite violently limited by borders, and a love for tacos hasn’t and won’t make any change for immigration policy with Mexico and Central America. But I should be able to fuckin’ hate burritos (I do not) and still recognize everyone’s humanity, every person’s intrinsic worth and dignity. As the Trump supporter with whom Lakshmi holds hands proves, you can claim to love a people and their food and still vote against their humanity. The idea that we’re still doing this anachronistic dance about getting to know people through their food in a time of open fascism—how?

The United States’ “unique dream of harmony,” as Lakshmi calls it, is a fallacy, but it is never questioned throughout the series. Neither is the concept or value of “the nation.” Indigenous food is called “original American food,” but, as blogger Anise to Za’atar has pointed out, it is the food of its tribes—nothing to do with the U.S. The food of the Gullah Geechee people, the show suggests, should be famous for its influence on Southern American cuisine. No, it should be famous on its own merits, not valuable only for what it’s provided others outside its community.  

Krishnendu Ray’s The Ethnic Restaurateur examines the ways in which immigrants and their foods have been absorbed into what is broadly (if inaccurately) understood as American cuisine. As Taste the Nation itself depicts, German food like sausages (as hot dogs), sauerkraut, and beer melded in seamlessly. We know that this is because Germans are white, but the show expresses this assimilation as a spot of hope. As Ray writes, “German, Irish, and Scandinavian gustatory identity was submerged in a white, Anglophone text, that was a hybrid for its time, but flattened out in posterity’s view.” Italians, Slavs, eastern European Jews, and Greeks have maintained their ethnic identity without being flattened out; one reason for that, as cited by Ray, has been their usefulness as a “retort to Blackness.” 

“Americans discovered the virtue of quintessentially ethnic food—pizza, pirogues, gyros, and bagels,” Ray writes. “They would eventually become so popular that new forms of corporate cuisine would be built on them. These immigrants would be absorbed into a different kind of whiteness—tamed but flavorful.”

And though Mexican and Chinese immigrants have been in the U.S. for ages and their food is ubiquitous? They’ve remained unassimilated into the whiteness that would deem them “American.” It would be fascinating to watch this be untangled with food as the conduit, but Taste the Nation side-steps the white supremacy that is foundational to this country in favor of assimilationist thinking. Like I said, it’s a perfectly liberal show that buys into old myths about good will and meritocracy.

One fascinating but uninterrogated point in the show is the equating of industrialization with Americanization (which Ray also does with “corporate cuisine”): Oscar Mayer’s introduction of plastic-wrapped deli meats that could be sold in a supermarket, taking people away from their local butchers, is presented as innovation (while, of course, Lakshmi and her guest drive around in… the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile); the “commodity foods” like white bread and American cheese from the government that were given to indigenous peoples on reservations divorced them from traditional foods and led to diet-based disease. This, to me, is the only thing one can authentically call “U.S. food.” It’s not addressed head-on.

Last week, Mayukh Sen’s piece on a documentary about cookbook author Diana Kennedy came out in the Washington Post. He was critical of the movie, as it was a hagiography of a much more complicated and divisive figure—this white woman who became an “authority” on Mexican cuisine. The writer Gustavo Arellano told Sen, “She made regional Mexican cuisine palatable to Americans. I will never begrudge that, because it was an important step in the course of Mexican food in the U.S. that a Mexican chef or writer could’ve never accomplished.”

I wondered, on Twitter (where too often I’m doing my wondering), what the real value is of this American acceptance—white acceptance. It’s not political or cultural power, we know; it’s not new immigration policy or a non-militarized border. It’s simply the broad availability of tacos; it’s jars of salsa in the supermarket. It’s the corporatization of a cuisine and the cultural capital of knowing “authenticity” for those who want to seek it out. What’s the value of this “acceptance” outside of capitalism? I’m still wondering.

One other thing I’ve been mulling over after watching Taste the Nation is the title, which implies the U.S. is the nation, which is certainly how the show presents it—as though the rest of the world exists to be consumed by it, assimilated into it. In that sense, it’s a very honest depiction of empire.

In this Friday’s paid-subscriber interview, I’ll be talking to Korsha Wilson about her A Hungry Society podcast and website; her writing for outlets such as Eater, Food & Wine, and more; and (as always) power in food media.

I wrote a farming and food justice reading list for Tenderly, as well as a short write-up of Falastin that includes a recipe for pickled eggplants!

At Literaturhaus, I wrote a brief essay on Long Island, nature, food, and land.

So much research-reading, like The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle, and Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community. I know it seems like I only read Kate Zambreno, but I do have her book Screen Tests, which I haven’t read, around for when I feel like treating myself. I have a lot to say about Drifts, too—get in touch to commission me for a few thousand words on the brilliance of Zambreno!

I’ve been watching some Parts Unknown, too, which was originally as a means of contrasting with Taste the Nation but it didn’t feel too relevant—I want to write something bigger on the specter of Anthony Bourdain. A friend of my father’s wrote me that my newsletter last Monday reminded him of Bourdain, and I was in turn reminded that he is most people’s only framework for a food writer. There is just… too much to say, and while I of course recognize the flaws in him, I think anyone suggesting he wasn’t a thoughtful and engaged host and writer is being disingenuous.

Truly nothing thrilling, once again—am I a disappointment? Has anyone subscribed to this newsletter for what I’ve been cooking? I’ll get my kitchen legs back again soon.

These vegan nachos I made were excellent. I’ve been eating very vegan lately as opposed to my usual capitulations to vegetarianism and I feel very good, very aligned and focused. Pictured above is some fried batata (a sweet potato indigenous to Puerto Rico) and red onion. We’ve been getting local onions lately, too, and they make all the difference.

We just watched the three-part Carlos miniseries by Olivier Assayas again and, my God, I love it so much—the soundtrack! If you haven’t watched it, get on that Criterion Channel and do so.