It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Author's Note: This piece was originally set to be published elsewhere in February, until it was killed by shifting editorial priorities in the wake of the coronavirus. Now food media publications are talking that Black Lives Matter shit. Don't forget that where the media operates in news cycles, their allegiance is to the moment, not change.
The language of "Resistance" found its way into popular food culture a few moments after the shock of the 2016 election results.
When Trump put the Clinton political dynasty to pasture, liberal whites went haywire. Their anguish bred nationwide marches, replete with cat costumes and puns on placards. They streamed into the streets hissing their disbelief at this suddenly revealed America. Resistance was a widespread reaction to the impossible happening: all the hands that were thrown up in sorrow had to come back down to work.
Formerly domesticated, they were now activated. But if white liberals had had their worldview violently cracked, then the white food media— a vocally progressive subset—was shattered from the whole into cracker crumbs.
White food media lurched into action in response, dutifully reimagining its role from tastemaker to fierce resistor. Bon Appetit named South Philly's Barbacoa, owned by Mexican undocumented immigrant chef and activist Christina Martinez, one of the best new restaurants of 2016. They doubled down on their politics a year later by releasing an apolitical all immigrant issue.
Food52, a food and lifestyle e-commerce site firmly situated in the white food media firmament, also rose to the moment. They hired Mayukh Sen, a queer South Asian cultural writer, with a shutter-friendly smolder. Their timing paid off; Sen went on to win a James Beard Awards for the stirring profile of a Black woman restaurateur. It was the right tint of cultural bonafides at the right time to the otherwise vanilla digital publication.
Also swept up in the spirit was The James Beard Foundation, whose internal gyrations towards racial equity culminated in their prestigious award ceremony of 2018. Sen's win was one fruit from a bumper crop of awards to Black and brown food folks who swept the coveted categories. Another James Beard award that aberrant year went to Osayi Endolyn, a talented Black woman writer and editor. Two years prior to her win, before Trump was more threat than terror, Endolyn was hired as an associate editor for Gravy, a white-led, well-regarded food quarterly, published by the influential Southern Foodways Alliance, also white-led.
Martinez, Sen and Endolyn represented just the tip of this pivot for white food media. It seemed that in this Trump-bellum era, white food media were fully prepared to fight conservatism, xenophobia, and white supremacy using their favorite weapons: Black and Brown folks.
White food media's resistance relied on reinforcing identity politics, as it fought to separate its own identity from the wickedness of Trumpian politics. So writers, editors, chefs and subjects weren't valued for their contributions but rather reduced to their constructs; Black or queer or Latinx or woman or Asian or working class or undocumented. Ironically this weaponizing of identity, necessary for the war white food media outlets were waging, was exactly what would later erase Black and Brown voices when the initial and visceral rage over Trump melted into quotidian political discontent. Because what use was a politicized identity when it couldn't be sicced on something? What did Black mean when what was needed were recipes instead of rhetoric?
For those who espouse white liberalism it has always been less destabilizing—and therefore more important—to embrace Black and brown perspectives, than to interrogate its own complicity with white supremacy. White food culture is no different.
Differentiating white food media editors and outlets from the Trumpian version of whiteness was not just about aesthetics, it was also an issue of ideological and financial survival. Folks within the white food media landscape had to reassure themselves and audiences that they weren't the enemy, or at least they weren't the worst enemy. Then there was the important business of business. The growing white liberal counter resistance to Trump needed placation, and nothing soothes like commerce.
Affronted by his election and looking to spend their way to salvation, liberal white folks found an ally in white food media because it promised something special: the possibility that white villainy could be outsourced to someone else—namely, Donald Trump. If you were white you and ate immigrant food or frequented Black- and brown-owned restaurants, or purchased cookbooks from people-oppressed-by-Trump, then you could be—by the power conferred from commerce—absolved.
By the time popular white food writer Julia Turshen's recipe and essay collection, "Feed the Resistance; Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved" was published in October of 2017, the liberal white resistance had reached its peak. The book, with its simply illustrated cover in friendly font, was a small-sized and digestible manual for dissent. It featured work from many prominent Black and Brown food folks. I had a short essay in it myself. Turshen's book was of its time, swiftly published, eagerly devoured, and minimally critiqued. But whatever its merits or demerits, the anthology remains a formidable example of white liberal solidarity with Black and Brown struggle, packaged for mass consumption. Proceeds from the book went to the ACLU, and presumably it sold well.
In a system where goodwill is eventually monetized, charity and virtue has become currency for white food media. In 2016, the liberal white public was hungry to believe a revolution was coming and so white food media prepared to broadcast it for consumption. The most enduring legacy of the white liberal food establishment during the Trump era is the commodification of resistance.
But if white food media was devastated then kinetic after the election, Black and Brown food resistance was markedly pensive.
I hosted a somber pop up dinner in Los Angeles the day after the 2016 elections. My guests, mostly Black, talked about taking care of each other under this new old regime.
Our resistance was part of a longer and larger movement, a so-called Radical Tradition to quote Cedric Robinson. Robinson, the formidable scholar, makes the case in his seminal work Black Marxism for a history of Black resistance apart and separate from whiteness. His work offers at least two cursory lessons that are evident in Black and Brown food resistance:
Resistance is a global movement which includes and surpasses the struggle in the United States; and Resistance is an original practice more ancient than oppression.
Black and Brown food resistance is a decidedly preTrumpian phenomenon. Of course, the Trumpian moment elicited its own overt political responses from Black and brown food folks. Bay Area organizers like Nourish | Resist and the People's Kitchen Collective resisted beautifully and professionally with meals and educational workshops. In Philadelphia, Chef Martinez hosted the immigration focused, Right to Work dinners. Other responses saw indigenous chefs and scholars reassert that scorched, olden foodways were contemporary. And of course crop growing was practiced in communities like Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago and Los Angeles. All over.
But these were not novel fights. In fact, these efforts were a part of a tradition that existed before the beginning of this country. They were a continuation of the struggle, a struggle networked across space and practiced in solidarity with other movements and identity groups. In this way, the intersectional politics of nonwhite food resistance was Black, brown, Asian, queer, woman, immigrant, and on. It was interconnected and outerconnected. It was a network of identities moving beyond superficiality and seeking self determination.
But there wasn't and isn't a unified BIPOC food resistance. This intersectional food resistance is splintered across a spectrum of feeling and fight, as it collectively pushes up against a white capitalist food media machine that expertly coopts fight and feeling. What binds them together and pulls them apart is Robinson's notion that resistance is eternal.
So we are not resisting against an enemy that is white or capitalist or patriarchal. Instead, our fight is to constantly shape our democracies. The resistance is about being in better relationship, not in opposition. We must, as a matter of course, pull down the oppressive and extractive systems in order to be in relationship.
The precarity of Black, brown and Indigenous food resistance relative to the prodigality of white food media is a reminder that resistance isn't just blessing. It isn't a sexy trend.
The trap for Black, brown, and Indigenous resistance in this modern economic system is that money changes the resistance, but resisting is almost impossible without it.
Still, the gulf between almost and impossible is the definition of resistance. In that space over these last four years of these last four centuries, we've been preparing a table, not so that some can profit, but so that everyone can eat.