“People usually think Mexican food was, oh, the intermarriage of Spanish and Mexican,” Jinich says. “No way!”
Less well-known is the culinary imprint left by large waves of Africans brought to Mexico as slaves during the Spanish colonial era; by Japanese, Filipino and Chinese immigrants (the latter of whom created a Chinese-Mexican fusion food just south of the U.S. border); and by the many Lebanese who arrived after World War I — bringing with them the technique of roasting meat on a turning spit for shawarma. That became a gastronomic ancestor to tacos al pastor,now a signature street food of Mexico City.
One of Lucky Peach’s recent essays, Between Machismo and Matriarchy, about female entrepreneurs in the Mexican dining scene, reminds me of the complex dynamics of gender and food, as constructed by culture.
The confidence, economic freedom, and culinary ingenuity of Cámara, and of women like her, converged into a muscular fulcrum that elevated the dining scene. In creating a class of restaurants that generated international acclaim and drew the elite upper class to indigenous and regional Mexican food, these women were challenging the male-centric culture at large. They could be spokespeople and icons of the country; they could be powerful entrepreneurs; they could spearhead a culinary movement. Women had always toiled in the kitchen with no status or prestige; these women demanded that the profession be elevated beyond blue-collar work.
For all of the inspirational females, the field still has persistent biases. Last September, Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants feted their annual list in Mexico City. Out of the ten Mexican restaurants that placed among the fifty best, only two of them, Rosetta and Dulce Patria, had a female executive chef. Rosetta’s chef, Elena Reygadas, also won the Veuve Clicquot Latin America’s Best Female Chef category. Cámara quips, “So the 50 Best comes out with the woman-chef category to compensate their macho leanings. Why do they have to make a special category for women? It just highlights how unequal the profession actually is.” At the very top tier of Mexico City fine dining— Pujol, Amaranta, Biko, Kaah Siis—men are in charge. Now that the occupation has become something desirable, men are leaning in. “Make no mistake, the bro-y, dude thing is going on here, too, specifically at the high end,” Cámara says. Ironically, though it was Mexican women who inflated the status of cooking from mundane, domestic work to celebrated art, the arena long defined as “women’s work” is now a space where men attempt to prove their dominance.
Goodbye Ketchup, Hello Sriracha! How Immigrants Transform US Cuisine, published by The Voice of America, has a nice exploration of how the rise of sriracha in “American cuisine” reflects earlier patterns of how different waves of immigration have changed American cuisine. It also has a nice interview with Krishnendu Ray, professor of food studies at New York University and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur. A quote from the article:
“Overall, immigrants have been way over-represented in the feeding occupations in American history. When we match the occupations and birthplace data, we see baker, butcher, green grocer, saloon keeper, tavern keeper, subsequently cook…they’re all foreign born,” Ray said, “meaning that 70, 80, 90 percent of bakers, butchers, saloon keepers in New York City [and] in the major cities, are foreign born and in the rest of the country, in the smaller towns, they add up almost to 50 percent.”
Yes Magazine has a great article out on the recent regrowth of African American farmers. As the article explains
For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Black farmers,excluding them from farm loans and assistance. Meanwhile, racist violence in the South targeted land-owning Black farmers, whose very existence threatened the sharecropping system. These factors led to the loss of about 14 million acres of Black-owned rural land—an area nearly the size of West Virginia.
To put a plug in for one of my colleagues, Thomas Mitchell, he has an even more in depth analysis of this history in an article published in the Northwestern University Law Review back in 2005, entitled From Reconstruction to Deconstruction: Undermining Black Landownership, Political Independence, and Community through Partition Sales of Tenancies in Common, and proposes a number of reforms related to this topic.
In addition to helping African American landowners as a group stabilize their common property holdings, the federal government should restore land to black farmers who lost their land due to foreclosure by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The settlement of the Pigford class action lawsuit provides for limited land restoration, even in those cases in which the USDA played a significant role in driving successful black farmers into bankruptcy. Such broader land restoration would be consistent with the recent efforts made by countries such as South Africa to return land to individuals and communities who lost their land due to unjust governmental actions in a prior period in the country’s history. Even if land is restored to African Americans or tenants in common are given the right to reorganize their landownership under another, more stable form, poor landowners often do not have access to lawyers who can help them manage their land effectively or fend off those who seek to acquire ownership of their land against their wishes. Congress should expand the mission of legal services to allow poor landowners access to legal-service lawyers. Such an expanded vision would recognize that there is as much value in preventing those on the cusp of distress from falling into the ranks of the economically disenfranchised as there is in trying to help those already destitute survive on the margins.
He’s been working on this ever since, including in a recent law review article, Reforming Property Law to Address Devastating Land Loss, published in the Alabama Law Review.
NPR’s The Salt has an article entitled At Food World ‘Oscars,’ Category Sneakily Redefines All-American Cuisine. It talks about this year’s James Beard awards for “American classics,” and their growing inclusivity, covering restaurants that would once have been grouped as “ethnic,” including Mexican American, Japanese, Chinese, Native American, and Lebanese cuisines. Which we at Dark Meat, with our focus on minorities in the food system, welcome! It’s great to see the concept of “American” reflect more and more the wide range of what it means to be American.
Public Radio International has an article out entitled Kids made fun of my ‘stinky’ lunch, which taught me a hard lesson about life in America that captures a lot of my childhood experiences. I grew up eating the Cantonese food described by one commentator’s classmates as “gross” in the article. Unlike her, I didn’t reject that food, perhaps because I was bullied already in so many other ways that one more way just didn’t seem like such a big deal. But it came at a cost. While others were eating “normal” food, mine was considered anything but. Chicken feet, pigs knuckles, soy sauce eggs–these registered to my classmates as disgusting, and this me–by association–as disgusting. (Of course, I had already claimed the title of Grossout Royalty for myself, so I was sort of okay with that.)
But it’s also why, nowadays, when the foods of my youth have ended up being popularized by hipster restaurants, that I have such mixed feelings about it. I wonder to myself, are the people enjoying this food now the same people that made fun of me when I was a kid? (Or the same sorts of people who made fun of kids like me?) And, if so, what does it mean? Have they changed in any significant way, or is that bullying impulse still there, just redirected?
That said, there seems to be some promise of change in this article. I checked out the Guide for School Food in Culturally Diverse Communities mentioned in the article (put out by the Massachusetts Farm to School Project), and it seems useful in terms of countering some of these harmful school dynamics. As it points out
Identifying and incorporating even a couple of culturally appropriate menu items has the potential to help validate students from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. It celebrates and can normalize the experiences of students from multicultural backgrounds, while also potentially extending “children’s understanding and appreciation of their own world and that of others.”
As such, it recommends a number of steps that educators can use to build cultural relevance into school meal programs, and they all seem concrete, effective, and do-able. So, kudos to the Mass Farm to School Project! And to others thinking about these issues today.
The Washington Post covers the ceremonial digging of the soil of Greer Farm at Lyles Station, a historic site of African American farmers. The ceremony is being conducted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Exciting to see this place being honored! Some history on the farming practices at the farm is here, at the Lyles Station Museum website.
Mother Jones has a nice article out entitled Why the People Picking California’s Tomatoes Can’t Afford to Eat Them. It covers some of the struggles of agricultural workers–many Latino–in Yolo County, California. The article is based, in large part, on a new report by the California Institute of Rural Studies, available here. The report contains some disturbing statistics.
The vast majority of farm workers in California are Latino. National rates of food insecurity among all Hispanic or Latino households in the US are well above the average at 22.4% compared to 14% among all US households. Two additional studies have explored food insecurity among low income Latinos in California. One study evaluated food security status among low income Latino families from six different counties in California; out of a sample of 212 families participating, a total of 61% families were food insecure: 45% food insecure without hunger, 13% food insecure with moderate hunger; and 3% food insecure with severe hunger (Kaiser, Townsend et al. 2004). Another study among 630 low income Latino, Vietnamese and Cambodian legal immigrants in California, Texas and Illinois found that a total of 81% came from households that were food insecure: 40% food insecure without hunger, 27% food insecure with moderate hunger and 14% food insecure with severe hunger (Kasper, Gupta et al. 2000). CHIS data for 2001-14 show trends in food security over time among Latinos in California. In 2014, food insecurity for Latinos in California was 40% a full 2% higher than the state as a whole
Check it out.