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Food Ain't Racist

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Henry + The Invisibles--"Soul Shaker" (mp3)

Interesting situation at our school a couple of weeks ago: a lunch menu at the end of Black History Month chosen by our African-American organization included the following: barbecued chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, sweet cornbread, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. And Kool-Aid. Left off the menu due to expense and the need to limit the menu: ribs, yams, extra-greasy fried chicken.

The dining hall asked me to send the menu around. They have had bad experiences in the past when they mess with the normal expectations. So I did. I had the menu sent out. I gave the boys credit for it.

And then the questions started coming. "Have you seen that menu?" "Who picked that menu?" "Why did they send that menu out? It's so racist."

Well, I may be in the minority now and I may still be at the end of this post, but I am here to tell you that food isn't racist. Food is neutral. Food is sustenance. I imagine that those statements make me naive. Which is not to say that food cannot be stereotypical or that food doesn't come with history. Or that food doesn't cause shame. I get that. If you had to eat hog intestines or Hamburger Helper without the hamburger or rice sandwiches, then, yes, I understand that you might be embarassed.

But our boys were requesting foods that they were really excited about eating. Were until their menu put them under the scrutiny of their classmates and teachers. Then they backed away from the menu quickly, pretended like they had nothing to do with it. Sending around the menu was a bad idea, I suppose. A naive idea certainly.

But that naivete, if true, comes from my honoring food. I pride myself on my ability to cook from all cultures, to respect those cultures by respecting their food, by wanting to gain some understanding of their food. I have friends who are the same way. I "barbecue" chicken all the time. Don't you? I have friends who seek the perfect mac 'n cheese. I served collard greens at my Christmas meal. I have a no-fail recipe for black-eyed peas, zipper peas, pink lady peas, crowder peas. Every summer when they come in fresh at Linda's Produce, I buy many different varieties and freeze them. My cornbread sucks and I know it. I'm always trying to make it lowfat. Peach cobbler, well, in my book, that depends completely on the peaches.

Last Saturday night, after picking up a random food magazine from last year while in the bathroom, I became entranced with Russian cooking. I knew nothing about it, was surprised to find cilantro (the universal herb) and walnuts in almost every dish. By 8:30PM I had 6 different Russian dishes on my table to accomodate both my vegetarian wife and my daughter and I. The recipes were excellent; I will make them again for a summer party. Welcome, Russia.

I also know that if some of those students and teachers who were "shocked" by the menu mentioned above had accompanied me to Tunica over Winter Break and had eaten with me at Paula Dean's buffet in the Harrah's casino, they would have embraced every one of those dishes mentioned above and not given them a second thought. The exact same plate of food sitting in front of a diner in two different locations--one plate is "stereotypical" and "racist," the other represents the range of the "grand dame" of Southern cooking.

Part of the problem is that people confuse stereotypes and racism. There is some legitimacy to that confusion. Although as one of my enlightened students said last week, "Not all stereotypes are harmful, like the one that says that black people are good at sports." Um. Anyway. The problem for the confused is that the problem lies with them. When Fuzzy Zoeller asked if Tiger Woods was going to serve "fried chicken and collard greens" at the Masters luncheon, there was nothing wrong with the crunchy chicken or the nutritious greens. The problem was with Fuzzy. He tried to turn geographical comfort foods into a demeaning meal without realizing that Tiger Wood's skin color had nothing to do his affinity or lack thereof for Southern food. I think the reactions to our school menu suffer from the same problem. It's like we, none of us, are allowed to admit what we really like for fear that it will get made fun of.

One of my colleagues almost got it right. "The menu you sent around," he told me, "is not black cooking. It's Southern cooking." Maybe. Probably, at this point. But he told me that to let me know that the foods listed meant nothing to him as a black man who had grown up in California. Be that as it may, the fact is that our students wanted the food that they knew, being from the South. They wanted everyone else to get to eat those dishes, too. They didn't expect to have to be embarassed for things that they liked and that they figured most others would like, too. I fear that they were taught that their menu was somehow wrong, and so they fled from it.

But that's what happened. And I share the blame for that as much everyone else. But there is going to come a time when we all figure all of this out. Our students think that we're already there. Those of us who are older teachers are still trying to come to terms with ghosts. Neither perspective is entire accurate or productive. Not now. Not when there is neither as much enlightenment nor as much baggage as we collectively believe.

But let's leave the food out of it. Food, if it is not just food, usually carries with it the best of connotations, not the worst. Food says, as it always has, whether in Odysseus' home or at Jesus' table or in my basement, says come join in and share and eat. Maybe nothing more. Certainly nothing less.

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