After a couple of cocktails and over an order of noodles from Mai Pen Rai last week, I began talking about the real inspiration for a piece I’d just filed that’s not yet published about the post-2016 branding of bake sales: exhaustion with pronouncements that “food is political” and how people respond to that phrase with a sense of solemn duty, without defining what the politics are and minimal acknowledgement of how food’s politics manifest in the world. I am constantly asking myself: What the hell does anyone mean when they say “food is political”?
We know it’s some vague gesture of liberalism. The people who say “food is political” agree with baseline ideas of social justice. They’re feminist and pro-LGBTQIA and anti-racist in name—even if they don’t acknowledge “white supremacy.” There’s little to no recognition of empire or colonialism or all the failures of the United States as a state. Food being “political” generally refers only to an admission of humanity via identity, with gestures toward food as a matter of public policy, affected by governmental decisions. It’s the idea that no one deserves to be hungry. There’s rarely note given to class issues, beyond poverty. These things are not inherently political, to my mind; this is merely the least we can offer each other as human beings.
When I ask, in my weekly interviews, “For you, is cooking a political act?” it’s a way for me to understand how people define the word political. I don’t invite anyone on for whom that might be a difficult or confrontational question. I tend not to interview people who don’t think their food choices have an impact beyond how it enters their bodies. That is important to me. Everyone I talk to cooks, and everyone I talk to has—through their work—made it clear that they take food seriously. The variable is how food itself fits into their politics, if at all. Some people answer, “Of course,” because from their shopping to their choice of what to cook and how to cook, it is all steeped in ideology. Others, like Zoe Adjonyoh and Omar Tate, relate how their very existence as Black people makes their cooking political whether they’d like it to be or not. Some people’s bodies are politicized; others’ are not. Some people’s cooking is politicized via its association with their body; other people’s is not.
The politicization of bodies is a problem that goes beyond food, but it’s one that the food world seems stuck on. The food world loves a list of people they can suggest for those who might want to diversify their reading habit or their social media life, as though that might have a real material impact. What will have a real material impact is white people in power giving up said power. That discussion is more difficult to have than publishing a list of whom to follow.
I’m also stuck on this question because I, as a person who’s racially mixed by U.S. standards but is white, am consistently put on lists of people or women of color in food media who do “political” food writing. This is uncomfortable for me because I then have to tell the person, “Hey, I appreciate this, but I don’t like to take up this kind of space,” and also because I find it so dull that any non-cishet white identity becomes shorthand for “politics” with little interrogation as to why that is tokenizing. Some BIPOC food writers never write a word about politics. Do they have to?
As my friends remind me, it’s odd to read someone who identifies as white be not invested in the benefits whiteness can bestow—but as a mixed person, I’ve never felt too entitled to those benefits; I’ve always seen them for what they are (an upholding of white supremacy), and I am invested in only dismantling their existence for the liberation of all working people. But mostly it’s obnoxious to see people assume that my commitment to said liberation has anything to do with my genetics, because I have a rather explicit anti-racist, anti-capitalist perspective, and I would prefer my work stand on those merits (or demerits). I would rather people say, “Alicia Kennedy is an anti-racist, anti-capitalist food writer” than “Alicia Kennedy is a political food writer.” One of these sentences means something; the other is a dog whistle for, “rocks the boat” or, in other cases, “isn’t white.” Neither of these connotations does my work justice.
But that’s why the ousting of folks like Adam Rapoport and Peter Meehan is significant. It’s why the fight to get John T. Edge out of the position he’s occupied at the Southern Foodways Alliance for twenty years is so meaningful. When the baseline stops being the cishet white men, we can also stop pretending that being political means having an identity that doesn’t align with the mainstream. We can maybe have real discussions about power, labor, capital, and the various ways in which they manifest because of racism, sexism, and colonialism. When we stop fighting against these men, we can have more complex conversations. We can list each other in more nuanced ways, or get rid of lists altogether and let our work speak for itself. Now, I hope, when the urge to use the phrase “food is political” comes up, one interrogates what that really means—would it be better stated to explain precisely how and why, in that case, the food reflects governmental policy or a clearly defined worldview?
“Food is political” is a false shorthand for social justice, which means the politics of the food system, representation, and economics are still up for lengthy discussion in forums that discuss food as culture. I’m ready for that talk.
This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Nik Sharma, whose A Brown Table blog, work at the San Francisco Chronicle and Serious Eats, and cookbook Season are invaluable as both food writing and food science. Subscribe here.
A few things at Tenderly, and also my book announcement. An interview at Comestible!
Theory of the Gimmick by Sianne Ngai!
The pictured tart, which I’ll write up for Tenderly, but is a vanilla shortbread crust topped with peanut butter buttercream and chocolate ganache. All vegan.
Wednesday, with paid subscribers, we’ll discuss the phrase “food is political.”