How It Took a Pandemic for Me to Remember “Food is Political”
Food is political. This is especially true at a time when still, some regard the equal treatment of all people — race, ethnicity, or cultural background aside — as a political opinion rather than a given parameter of human interaction.
Food is political. This is especially true in a country that continues to bury its shameful past rather than acknowledge how an ugly history has brought about the new forms that overt racism has taken today. (Yes, America, that’s you and your defense of chattel slavery, antagonistic immigration policies, tacit approval of hate crimes, among other things.)
Food is political. But how is this related to the pandemic?
Pre-pandemic, my understanding of food politics was that kids bullying immigrant schoolmates for their “smelly” lunches was an onset of othering. “White food” like sandwiches and pizza was the American norm, while dumplings and curry were dishes termed “ethnic” and un-American.
I used to read through Twitter threads of people recounting these childhood experiences and empathize with those memories. I would feel angry yet empowered. Then I would forget about it.
The pandemic has reminded me yet again that food is political — in more ways than one.
From the start of the coronavirus outbreak, disparaging comments about Asian food culture were thrown around in mainstream media and beyond. Immigrant-owned restaurants — and even some regional cuisines as a whole — were apparently dangerous and warranted commercial rejection.
This is the adult version of the ew-what’s-that elementary school lunch trope. Coronavirus was already ravaging the restaurant industry as it was, and local independent businesses were taking the brunt of the wreckage. Xenophobic rhetoric further encouraged abandoning Chinese restaurants, using its food as a symbol of the overarching sentiment that anyone of Asian descent could never truly be American.
The food being glamorized in American popular culture isn’t actually diverse or representative of all the communities here.
The pandemic has pushed many of us in quarantine to look to social media when we’re bored. BLM has mobilized more people to the civil rights front than seemingly ever before, and has been nothing short of revealing of the racism entrenched in our most beloved brands and businesses.
The overnight collapse of former cult favorite food publication Bon Appétit in early June is evidence of that. Besides selectively compensating only white editors for video appearances and brushing aside the EIC’s brownface photo for so long, BA drew major backlash for its cultural exclusivity. Monthly recipe digests would feature pasta after pasta, with nothing to show for the rich food cultures of the entire African continent, South Asian region, or Latin American countries. This behavior subtly erases the presence of actual communities, calling them unworthy of full-length features and recipes. (However, all of this is not to say that the brand is incapable of progress. BIPOC staff have come forward to announce internal plans currently in the works.)
When systemic racism has created housing & healthcare disparities that disadvantage Black and minority communities, the country’s leadership has deliberately primed the pandemic to sweep across said communities at a disproportionate rate of spread. Food is an avenue for us to support these communities as patrons of their businesses.
The pandemic is disproportionately ripping through under-resourced Black and indigenous communities. Thus, the Administration’s response is, arguably, active encouragement of widespread infection, and signifies its apathy towards Black and minority lives. We need to show up for Black and minority communities by wielding the weapon brandished by our capitalist system: money. We need to support and spend on Black-owned businesses and the easiest place to start is food. I mean, we all need to eat.
The pandemic has given me more time for reflection than any other point in time, and I think this introspection can be channeled into positive, actionable change. Food is political, so I’m consciously making the food I eat a form of political expression.