On Heat

and colonial systems of social categorization.

The press releases in my inbox and the cookbooks coming in my physical mail insist that a change of season is upon me. How disorienting it is, to be told that the air around me is beginning to chill, that I must want to eat soup, that I’m getting ready to wrap myself in sweaters and blankets. I’m doing no such thing, because I live in the Caribbean. Even my denim jackets are gathering dust, sadly hanging on a chair. Sometimes I put on jeans and pay for the look with sticky sweat. What’s the point? During a pandemic, there is no real occasion for a look. There’s only the effect it has on how I feel, a pronouncement to myself.

And while I thought moving to the Caribbean, to Puerto Rico, would solve the problem of my sinus health declining during each seasonal shift, it has not. The seasons here do change, subtly. Suddenly there’s more rain, the sun sets earlier, and there are some telltale ocean breezes that strike the sweat on your skin and cause a shiver. My boyfriend, his shirt studded with sweat from our morning jog, will tell an acquaintance at the coffee shop that the weather is so much more “fresh.” It both is and isn’t. Seeing how the heat affects people born into the tropics has been a point of particular interest. When he gives me shit, on particular days, for announcing that I’m “sweating my ass off,” I remind him how much he chats about the calor himself— “demasiao,” he’ll say. “Demasiado,” too much.

My sinuses bear the signs—alternating between dry and over-mucoused; my throat, owing to post-nasal drip, emits an occasional cough that strikes fear in anyone who hears it during these times. Always, with a bad case, I am fatigued, my body demanding bed. Though I’m perpetually in denial of the idea that perhaps I work hard, these moments always make me admit it, relent to it. Yes, I work hard, and the repetitive structure of my pandemic days doesn’t let me feel like I’m ever really relaxing. Just getting through it. From one task to the other, then a dog walk. Repeat.

But the heat, the Caribbean, the colony: The descent of autumn and cooler weather upon New York City makes the media psychically foist upon everyone else a sense of change, whether it’s actually happening to them or not. This has occurred to me before, even while I was living in New York for the first 34 years of my life. The world doesn’t feel the same for everyone, I’d think. Then I’d move on, from one task to the other.

Shouldn’t we try to exist more internationally, though? More globally? I mean, most of the U.S. doesn’t experience the same weather as New York. Why the insistence on one seasonal truth? This is what I meant when I wrote about the significance of translation—it’s about undoing what David Bentley Hart wrote about earlier this year for Commonweal:

Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations, or the histories of the various social movements that have risen and fallen in the past, and they certainly know little or nothing of the complexities and contradictions comprised within words like “socialism” and “capitalism.” 

English-language media doesn’t have to be relevant to those close to the equator, I guess—it can simply remain steeped in particular U.S. ignorance despite its pursuit of universal significance. But it is universally significant—my survey on global food media showed that, that it’s the U.S.-based publications that are covering food more holistically. That role should be taken more seriously.

I was on an NYU Food Studies panel last week attempting to answer the question, “What is American Food?” I started it by saying “American” is a word of imperialism in this usage, and concluded by saying we should stop insisting on assimilation and work to understand the myriad micro-cuisines of the world. Who is allowed the privilege of specificity? (As I’ve tweeted before, “It’s a pluriverse, bitch!” For a large chunk of the planet, we’re moving into spring, not fall.)

Despite this, it’s interesting to watch the markings of the tropical continue to be relevant to those for whom the air truly is cooler. I wrote about this in my tiki piece for Eater, about how odd it is to see palm trees and flamingos and pineapples be symbols of “escape,” of vacation. Tropical cocktails will take you away from your quarantine troubles; sun-soaked rum will taste like the beach in a glass. 

We’ve had to smile at tourists who continue to come, and editors ask me to write about what it’s like to live my life amid these intruders—intruders upon whom, nonetheless, a large chunk of the economy is based because of poor, erratic local governance and worse colonial imposition. The hospitality sector being a large aspect of that tourist economy leads to endless exploitation. Someone might be offered $5 per hour to manage a bar, because they’ll also receive tips. Perhaps even just the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13, despite the expertise required. 

That exploitation is possible and persists because of myriad political reasons—and I mean “political” as in policy, as in long-standing, organized effort by the United States and other places in the Global North to perpetuate the exploitation of the Global South. In the colonial situation of Puerto Rico, this extends from the Jones Act to the current junta. Read Carina del Valle Schorske’s profile of Bad Bunny to get a better sense of how these swirl and affect everyday life, as the threat of hurricanes and earthquakes loom. (Yes, a profile of a rapper gets at all of this.)

I’m thinking lately of this endless exploitation in terms of seeds, in terms of farming technique. I have re-read Vandana Shiva’s short 2000 text Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, which tells how global trade agreements have privileged agribusiness to the detriment of yields, culture, animal welfare, and farmer wellbeing across India. In Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, Tim Wise starts off by telling of the same for the African nation of Malawi, where heirloom varieties of maize had been, for years, cultivated to acclimate to the weather and use in the dish nsima. Monsanto varieties, planted in monocrops and requiring chemical fertilizer rather than traditional compost and manure, garnered poorer yields and weren’t as appropriate for that dish, yet were heavily subsidized by a government program. NACLA recently reported on the seed-saving programs across Latin America that are responding to increasing demand because of the pandemic. One farmer tells them, “Now we are beginning to value our sustainable food systems.”

This is because the exploitative way of the Global North, of capitalism and agribusiness, has proven itself unsuitable, unsustainable. The cracks are showing. They’re showing far more deeply and more swiftly in the South of the planet, where climate change and destruction of ecosystems for food are already present.

In Foreign Policy, the need for climate reparations is laid out—the alternative is climate colonialism:

Climate colonialism is like climate apartheid on an international scale. Economic power, location, and access to resources determine how communities can respond to climate impacts. But these factors are shaped by existing global injustices: the history of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism that enriched some countries at the expense of others. Global warming has exacerbated these inequalities, and the climate crisis will lead to new divisions between those who can mitigate its impact and those who cannot.

And when I think about seeds, and exploitation, and how capitalism has been allowed to destroy so much, I think about how first people, lands, traditions, and cultures must be constructed in people’s minds as deficient, lesser, “underdeveloped.” This happens through media; it happens through images; it happens through associations of escape, of difference. The Dominican artist Joiri Minaya’s recent exhibition “I’m Here to Entertain You, but Only During My Shift” demonstrated how this is all constructed. As Rachel Remick writes in The Brooklyn Rail:

We might draw parallels between the structure of patterns and that of the stereotypes Minaya challenges in her work. A stereotype acts as a pattern: it is a repeated, reductive mode of cultural understanding. For example, the “tropical,” to people in the global North, could include blooming flowers, palm trees, sandy beaches, and beautiful women. Through stereotypical patterns of understanding, social subjects can be sorted and pigeonholed, often in the service of racial and gender hierarchies. Minaya began the series after searching online for “Dominican women” and finding repetitious images of women in tropical settings. … Minaya’s work points to the persistence of colonial systems of social categorization.

Is the insistence that cold weather is upon us a “colonial system of social categorization”? It could be, by its insistence that there is one weather norm from which the rest of the world either deviates or complies. I think of heat now, of weather, as another social norm established from on high by the arbiters in power. Cis straight white male… in a temperate climate.

The world as a whole is heating up. Living in the Caribbean feels like living in the future, I’m not the first to suggest. I wasn’t here for Hurricane Maria; the experience of it is only built in fragments from the stories I’m told, the traumas that emerge. 2020 began for me with my bed being rocked by an earthquake. When fall comes, the vegetables don’t change much, though they change; there’s still no occasion for a sweater. The local microclimates are year-round. For a chill, go to the mountains.

I think maybe those English-language publications headquartered in New York City should consider what they’ll do when their world gets warmer, when they can’t rely on the predictable shifts of the seasons. Insisting on what the year would bring in the past has a tinge of climate denial. What would it be like to have these shifts regarded? How will the world organize itself when heat is no longer something to escape to but something from which there is no escape? When the oceans aren’t a relief but have taken over? What will capitalism look like when every farmer realizes the value of their sustainable food systems? Living in the Caribbean feels like living in the future.

On Wednesday, let’s talk about weather in the paid-subscriber discussion thread. In November, I’ll be replacing the discussion threads with lists of my favorite kitchen things. We can still chat, too, but these will be my addition to holiday gift guides.

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Molly Wizenberg in a discussion on her latest book, The Fixed Stars, genre, pigeon-holing, and more.

On the possibility of sustainable beef, for Epicurious.

The aforementioned books as book research and finally diving into My Struggle, Book 2! YES!

A really good take on the Superiority Burger Sloppy Dave using jackfruit and mushrooms. The frizzled onions really make the sandwich. I was tricked into buying tiny potatoes at the supermarket by a tag that says “PR AGRO,” while in fact they are from Europe and just packaged here. Tricky. But the potatoes… they’re delicious.