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What Could ‘Food Is Political’ Mean?
The start of a 4-week series on food politics.
It's been three years since I last wrote about the phrase “food is political.” From July 2020 to now, a lot has changed, or really nothing has changed—despite the promise of that summer, conditions have only gotten worse for most of us in the U.S. in terms of economics, literal physical safety, and bodily autonomy. Yet this phrase continues to be evoked, and it continues to usually be stated or printed without an outline of what politics the food in question—all food, any food?—have.
Many incidents in recent memory should make clear the very real political implications of food: the use of the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing going at the height of the pandemic; vegetarianism as an excuse to surveil and punish in India; Italy’s right-wing government perhaps banning lab meat to protect its culture (a fascinating issue I’ll dig into more, given the focus of my work and forthcoming book); farmworkers are suffering in extreme heat, without the regulatory protections necessary to keep them safe; in Puerto Rico, reliance on imported goods increases food costs to some of the highest in the U.S. despite the high local poverty rate and low local wages.
In all cases, though, the food is neutral; the food is simply a tool. To say “food is political” is to gesture at all of this very real evidence of how food is used politically without committing to a stance. To say “food is political” is to avoid talking about climate change, labor rights, fascism, racism, capitalism, and colonialism. What does it look like to engage with the way food is used as a political tool a bit more rigorously?
I recently spoke with Dr. Alex Ketchum over Zoom, facilitated by the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, shop Archestratus, about her book Ingredients for Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses, and one of the things I wanted to talk to her about was how she defined “feminist food.” Some feminist restaurants were vegetarian; others not. These choices were justified, either way, with a feminist ethos: maybe it was ecofeminism, maybe it was prioritizing accessibility.
I had similar issues in my forthcoming book (No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, out August 15!) figuring out how to position vegetarian and vegan diets in political perspectives, because food and approaches to food can mean very different things to different people. One person’s anarchist diet is another person’s fascist way of eating. When one is trying to engage with how people eat in a way that examines politics and economics, these realities have to be teased out and analyzed. To forgo analysis for simplicity is a privilege for those who don’t really have to worry, for those who are safe, from whatever “politics” are, which is an increasingly small number of folks.
Because of this really superficial engagement with actual political ideologies, “food is political” has been allowed to proliferate in a mainly unquestioned manner—something to say for a round of applause.
This is a phrase that (1) chaps my ass and (2) could be meaningful if engaged with differently. What if “food is political” were the starting point of a multifaceted historical and cultural analysis rather than a tepid refrain? I think of Maggie Nelson in On Freedom writing, “…the one thing all art does is transmit a signal, put forth a communication.” The same can be said of food, no? It’s what we do with the signal that matters.
Through next month, I want to do the engagement that I so long to see. I will be approaching the idea the way I approached teaching culinary tourism: a reading list, a series of essays (these will be more fun than lectures, because I’m not writing them in order to speak them!), and interviews with folks who will help me untangle this problem. Will we reach any conclusions? Perhaps not, but it will be fun to try, and in the process, I’ll get to revisit or read for the first time a bunch of books I’ve been meaning to crack open and have conversations with folks whose work in this field I really admire.
These essays will be interspersed with an edition of the From the Kitchen podcast with Tenderheart: A Cookbook about Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds author Hetty McKinnon and conclude by the end of July. If my editorial calendar works out as planned, I will kick off August with an in-the-works essay on what we’re writing about when we write about the piña colada. This does require me to drink piña coladas while I’m also seeking answers to how best to write about food politics in a way that doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. Life and food writing are both about balance.
Week 1, June 26: A Foundation for Inquiry
To read: Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History by Rachel Laudan; Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz; Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics by Fabio Parasecoli
Week 2, July 3: Defining U.S. Food, Politically Speaking
To read: The Taste of America by John and Karen Hess; Hippie Food: How Back-To-The-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by Jonathan Kauffman; Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry by Warren Belasco; Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-To-Table History of How Beef Changed America by Joshua Specht; Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House by Alex Prud’homme
Week 3, July 10: Mixing the Personal and Political, a Conversation with Anya Von Bremzen
To read: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing; Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba; National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home
Week 4, July 24: Is a Leftist Recipe Possible?
To read: Rebellious Cooks and Recipe Writing in Communist Bulgaria by Albena Shkodrova; Ingredients for Revolution by Dr. Alex Ketchum; Soy Not ‘Oi!’ by the Hippycore Krew; an interview with Dr. Anny Gaul
Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be a rewriting of my mushroom pinchos recipe—now that we have an actual barbecue!—with a very easy barbecue sauce you can whip up from pantry ingredients, plus more ideas for how to have a vegan barbecue. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
I worked on a small five-piece capsule collection with by ren, the jewelry designer who made my wedding rings. She reached out after I’d posted a picture on my Instagram of eggshell and cabbage to do some items inspired by my interest in organic shapes and sustainable fashion, influenced by my approach to food photography. There are even cocktail picks for martinis!
These pieces are all made to order by Rachael at her studio in Philadelphia. The above photo is from my photo shoot with the pieces, which will be available through the end of 2023. (Note that I do make a bit of money if you buy any of these pieces!)
The stuff above but I really need to read something for fun soon. I’m losing it!
A lot of popsicles and granitas!!! Acerola and amaro came out last Friday for paid subscribers. Hibiscus-chili and a creamy coconut–passion fruit are coming soon.