On Storytelling

or, the potential of catastrophe.

This was written as a talk for the Die Gemeinschaft symposium on food systems, and I’ve updated it slightly throughout for written publication. It borrows heavily from past writing, with new framing.

“The only war that matters is the war against the imagination / all other wars are subsumed by it,” wrote the poet Diane di Prima in “Rant.” This is the war that I’m going to be talking about today.

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I am more pessimistic now about the state of the world, especially the food world, than I was when I came up with the topic of this talk a few months ago. Just a few months ago, it seemed like real change could be on the horizon: People were out in the streets protesting. The spread of COVID-19 among workers in agriculture and meat processing were big news. All the ways in which capitalism fails to keep people safe and well in a crisis were clear. But now things feel like they’re returning to normal, with the terror of the pandemic and police violence being scrubbed away. This time of outrage and clarity could be an anomaly. Humans under capitalism have only a short attention span for disaster, for calamity, for caring. They must get back to making money for survival.

That’s the whole point of this talk, though, I remember. I believe it’s the role of the food writer to force readers to continually recognize the realities of the food system and those who labor in it. If we repeat the stories, don’t let the rage drift away quietly, and don’t allow ourselves to be pacified by looser restrictions and lower numbers of infected, we can change the cultural consciousness permanently. It’s an optimistic perspective, and I’m not usually optimistic, but this is a desperate moment, and there is potential in catastrophe.

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In A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit writes, “In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones.” 

Has the pandemic shown this to be true? In being a long-term disaster that affects everyone, it seems to have set off a different pattern of behavior. There are the anti-maskers. There are those who don’t mind sitting inside a restaurant and speaking to their server without a mask, knowing full well they could be asymptomatic and are putting this stranger at risk. There are police in New York City removing community advocates who are giving out masks and hand sanitizer to people waiting to vote in long lines. 

Mainstream food media believes the altruistic engagement will win out; it’s obvious in the coverage that remains upbeat, that rarely if ever engages with the reality of what food workers are facing from the field to the bar, or with the role that some food production has had in the emergence of this pandemic and how in the future eating habits and foodways will have to change if we’d like to keep this from happening again. What was once the absence of workers in coverage has become the fetishization of workers. There is an air of serving an impermanent duty when writers engage with the rough realities, a suggestion that soon enough, pleasure will be our only concern once again. The “our” here being confined to the bourgeois, mainly white gaze of prestige publications.

There are inklings of hope, though. I see some outlets embrace catastrophe as a means of narrative storytelling without overwhelming the reader with pessimism, but rather knowledge. Criticism can exist simultaneously with celebration. I believe this is how we must engage with catastrophe.

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“My exhaustion comes from dealing with a mediocre government amidst yet another emergency,” the artist nibia pastrana santiago recently told an interviewer for the Caribbean Cultural Institute. “In Puerto Rico, the level of frustration has been unbearable for many years. I’m extremely tired of imagining new futures that get smashed down by a hollow performance of politics and injustice.”

I am from New York but I have lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for over a year. During this time, there were historic protests against corruption in the right-wing local government; there have been earthquakes causing destruction in the south of the island, and two so strong that they woke me up in my bed in the north; there have been the disappearances and murders of women, disproportionally trans women; there has been a pandemic, leading to the enactment of a curfew for now eight months—cops with assault rifles guard the entrance to Old San Juan, where I live, in the evening; there have been protests for Black Lives Matter; and on the less consequential side, the power continues to go out on occasion and the water sometimes ceases to flow from the tap, for no clear reason.

It is within this political and cultural context of a colony of the United States empire that has endured catastrophe after catastrophe, in closer and closer succession, that I have been considering the current global catastrophe of the pandemic. As pastrana santiago said, how do you imagine new futures when they continually are destroyed by seemingly unbeatable systems of power? The ousting of Governor Ricardo Roselló in 2019 through relentless protest and a general strike only led to the governorship of his party companion Wanda Vasquez, who has pushed through conservative changes to the civil code, done nothing in response to the femicides, and has provided no safety net to workers and small businesses suffering at the hand of this virus and her regulations. The PNP, their party, seems to have effectively stolen the most recent election. There was a vision, there was pressure and work by the protestors—which resulted in what? More of the same. 

How can we working within the global food system, whether as farmers or cooks or activists or writers, make sure that we imagine a future that is sustainable on ecological, societal, cultural, and imaginary levels? How do we use our voices and our hands to pursue political change that will last? So much is becoming clear in this moment regarding labor and the environment: How do we make sure it remains visible? In this, I believe narrative is more powerful than we could possibly imagine.

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I have always been thinking about catastrophe. Long before there was a global pandemic or a fascist president of the United States, I was worried and assuming the worst. The song “Beds Are Burning” by Midnight Oil, about indigenous peoples’ rights in their native Australia, was a hit when I was a small child, and I spent my youth wondering, how can we sleep while our beds are burning? Meaning: How can we go on living like everything is okay while people everywhere are suffering?

In my own life, this obsession with everything that is going wrong has taken many forms, and the most deeply rooted form is in how and what I eat, as well as the ways in which I engage with the global food system. Many would call this an individualist, consumerist approach. That is true, and that is also a way of minimizing the significance of how we all eat. According to a 2019 UN report, the food system overall, including farming and grazing, transportation, packaging, and feed production, produces 37% of greenhouse-gas emissions. This needs to be dealt with on the policy level, but in the meantime, shouldn’t it be discussed on the narrative level in a way that expands our cultural imaginations, that imagines futures we can pursue? People will ignore or forget that which is unsettling or upsetting. The stories must be told relentlessly.

Elisa Gabbert writes in her book on disasters, The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays, “My research into past disasters—the plagues and the almost nuclear wars—was often oddly comforting. We’re still here, after all. But I can only take so much comfort in the past. This point in history does feel different, like we’re nearing an event horizon. How many times can history repeat itself?” How many, indeed. As Solnit showed in A Paradise Built in Hell, reactions to past disaster can provide points of optimism, but at what point do we acknowledge what Gabbert calls “an event horizon”?

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When I read Aleksandar Hemon’s My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You in 2019, he wrote of the generative potential of catastrophe. “If nothing bad happened, what do we have to talk about?” he writes.

There is no history without catastrophe; to outline a history one had to narrate its catastrophes. And what could not be narrated could not be understood. A family—or a world, or a life—without a catastrophe was incomprehensible, because it was an impossible proposition. If catastrophe (according to the theory of tragedy) is the dramatic event that initiates the resolution of the plot, then its absence suggests a possibility that the tragic plot will never be resolved. A catastrophe, in other words, might be a trap, but it also allows for a narrative escape. If you were lucky enough to have survived the catastrophic plot twist, you get to tell the story—you must tell the story.

I had the phrase “no history without catastrophe” tattooed on my right forearm, where it’s easy for me to read every day. A reminder. When I was returning to the U.S. from Paris last year, a woman working for their version of the TSA read it to me and said, “I prefer calm. Why would you like catastrophe?” I was recovering from food poisoning and didn’t have any energy to explain it to her. When the pandemic hit, I thought about her: Does she understand now? That nothing changes without destruction? I posit the question on Twitter and Hemon himself replies. “The industry of denial, optimism, and corn-syrup hope will resume promptly as soon as this is over.” I know he is right, but I also know that those of us with the ability to shift narratives have an obligation to remind people, over and over, of what has occurred.

Because it’s not just about climate change, it’s also about labor at the processing and picking end and in restaurants. The pandemic has laid all this bare. In August, NPR covered the outbreaks of COVID-19 among farmworkers, mainly Latinx migrant workers in the U.S. As of September, more than 200 meat plant workers had died of the virus. Service workers in restaurants and bars are now de facto enforcers of public health regulations, such as mask-wearing, bearing the emotional toll of people’s responses to requests to consider their safety. We must provide these fellow workers with the agency to tell their stories, to center narratives on their experiences. There is also the need to cover food that is not in restaurants or in markets, but food that is served in care homes and in prisons, as Ruby Tandoh has written for Vittles. This requires an exchange of narrative capital. 

Will food media be willing to do that, though? We’re still in the midst of the pandemic and already the high-end chef profiles have been reemerging despite the understanding of how endemic abuse is in kitchens. I worry that, as pastrano santiago said, the futures we’ve briefly imagined are already being smashed to bits. That is why it’s all the more important to continue imagining, to continue pushing against stale narratives, to give the storytelling capital to someone else.

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I first came to the phrase “narrative capital” in Alyshia Galvez’s excellent book Eating NAFTA. She takes Noma chef Rene Redzepi to task for his exorbitantly priced Tulum pop-up and tone-deaf commentary on local ingredients and cuisine:

“For Redzepi, who presumably is not up to date on Mexico’s centuries-old culinary, economic, social, and political battles over corn,” she writes, “the price and availability of maize flour, and land rights, it’s simply that tortillas have yet to have their story properly told: ‘Maybe the story-telling has been wrong. And therefore also their appreciation for it.’ We can only wonder who ‘they’ are, those who do not appreciate the sublime tortilla. Perhaps Redzepi refers to Mexicans, who no longer eat as many tortillas, or he might mean the diners willing to spend obscene amounts of money for hand-rolled pasta and potentially also for corn tortillas. Redzepi and his friends have ventured into the heart of darkness, identified an underappreciated treasure, and brought it back, to elevate it, pay homage to it, and change its narrative, but it is not clear that his project benefits those who consider tortillas their own.”

The narrative of foods and cuisines are significant, because they’re often the only way many people will experience them. Travel is expensive; time-travel is impossible. What we all have are stories and recipes. Think of Toni Tipton-Martin, who rewrote the history of American gastronomy in The Jemima Code, giving primacy of place to Black cooks. It’s the narrative of corporate plant-based meat that allows its stock price to jump (or plummet). It’s the capital provided by constant media visibility that allows the few to stand in for the many in policy decisions (indeed, it’s the machine that decides whether you’re disposable, whether your cultural capital has run out). It’s the understanding of sourdough as the world’s only naturally leavened bread that creates a culinary hierarchy that mimics how power and privilege function on a global political and economic scale.

And that’s the thing, right? Allowing culinary hierarchies, via narrative capital, to mimic the ways power and privilege function on a global political and economic scale. That’s why it’s so important to rewrite histories, to question assumptions, to not let simplicity and the liberal obsession with representation win when we can pursue something much more revolutionary—something much more honest.

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In these new narratives, which move storytelling capital toward those who have historically had the least power, to what will we give attention? Workers, first and foremost; ecological health; the policy initiatives that can truly adjust who has power and how it is wielded.

In light of catastrophe, I’ve been obsessed with researching the ways in which people have dealt with food in times of crisis.

The answer is, attention goes to what grows and what flows. Mushrooms have been cultivated in a Syrian refugee camp when the price of meat went up 650 percent; during the siege of Sarajevo, a local brewery helped people get clean water; as we continue to suffer a pandemic, fridges with free food and mutual aid groups have stepped in to care for their communities; in the Amazon, some are working to reforest and turn the agricultural focus away from modified soy and cattle; Latin American farmers are seed-saving and -sharing; in Lebanon, where the currency has been rendered useless and most of the population now lives in poverty, urban farming has provided nourishment. Solutions emerge—become obvious, even—when reality is confronted.

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Ultimately, I mean that we can write about bad things. We can talk about them, humanize them, and contextualize them so that they no longer feel insurmountable. Food isn’t always magical; cuisines aren’t always being “pushed forward”; sometimes there’s no lesson about resilience in what people do for survival. Sometimes the story is that we can’t solve any small problem without digging out the root. Sometimes the story isn’t shiny, isn’t something to invest in. Sometimes it’s about the war against the imagination, and how we can win it.

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Historic catastrophe, historic crisis, provides a means to understand what we are experiencing today, but that doesn’t mean it provides answers. The answers to unique crises require dealing with reality without believing someone else will invent the right tools to stave off the inevitable. The individual composes the collective, and we must understand what solidarity really looks like, really feels like. There has been too much pushing of responsibility onto some government that doesn’t actually exist to create the perfect regulatory system that will fight climate change, complementing market initiatives. That’s a fallacy and a fantasy. That’s neoliberalism. “People have the power to redeem the work of fools,” as Patti Smith sings. We can recognize it.

There are visions for a world beyond the one in which we pretend we’re all out here on our own, in which we ignore both history and present in favor of incremental change when there’s no time for such a thing. Perhaps I always blame capitalism, climate change, existing power structures, and consumption of industrially produced meat for all ills, but I will continue to beat these drums. These are the problems. These are our catastrophes. I’m prepared to narrate them, to shift the gaze toward them. This doesn’t mean we all must sit, Clockwork Orange–style staring at atrocities. It means we simply cannot ignore them; we must recognize them, and act. There is potential in catastrophe.


On Wednesday, paid subscribers will receive the third and final “essentials” not-gift guide, with a few of my most cherished and referenced food books.

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature William Mullan of Raaka Chocolate, who also does incredibly vibrant nature-centered artwork focused on the diversity of apples.

Published:
With my boyfriend, Israel Meléndez Ayala—whom you can feel free to not refer to as my partner, it’s ok!—a piece on Puerto Rico’s statehood referendums for Condé Nast Traveler. I’d also like to implore you to read his piece at SOURCED on the history of rum.

Currantly interviewed me. This is probably my favorite interview ever, where I was very honest but also myself.

Reading:
I read Zadie Smith’s Intimations on a plane and it was delicious. I have 10,000 magazines to catch up on and a huge to-be-read pile, and I really need to buckle the hell down for the rest of the year.

Cooking:
Oyster mushrooms galore from Huerto Rico!!! Will be making tahdig for the first time to see whether I’m capable of making it for Thanksgiving. My rice skills are bad because as a child, I truly hated rice unless it came with Chinese food. I will atone for this for the rest of my life, apparently, by generally making terrible rice.