Food and politics, some say, should not mix. A quiet family dinner is often spoiled by discussions of elections, policies and conflicting approaches to governance. Better to stay quiet and enjoy the meal, some would say, than to ruin it all by stating strongly something you believe.
Looking back, however, we see that politics has always been intimately involved with food: from feudal lords receiving their rents in the form of crops and livestock to government rationing supplies in times of scarcity, the decision of who eats and who doesn’t is one of the most political there is. We even use the phrase “a seat at the table” to imply participation in the political process.
Food is a lever for social change; it has to be. We cannot survive, as a society or as a species, without it. We cannot repair the world — among our guiding principles as Jews — without attending to the hungry among us, nor can we create true justice without looking at who feeds us and who profits from it. We cannot hold a seder without inviting all who are hungry to come and eat, and we must understand the greater implications of that literal and metaphorical statement.
Last month, I had the privilege of attending a panel at the Urban Consulate in Detroit discussing the questions of race, privilege and cultural ownership of food. The place was packed to the rafters — people sat on the stairs and stood on the upstairs landing just to hear this admittedly fraught and uncomfortable topic frankly and forthrightly discussed. While not all the questions raised were answered, some very particular things stuck out to me, and I think they merit consideration:
Why does an industry built on the backs of hard workers from across the world benefit so few of those same people? As many articles and books have discussed, the immigrant community is heavily represented in the kitchens of America, and yet few of these immigrants rise to ownership levels.
Why, when they do, is their food so often considered low-class, low-rent or cheap? Why isn’t there a larger segment of the restaurant market dedicated to fine dining approaches to traditionally “cheap” meals? Why do we expect a shawarma wrap or a taco to cost us a couple bucks, but pay top dollar for a plate of handmade pasta with rustic sauce?
Why does the identity of the person cooking the food so frequently dictate the price at which it’s sold? Why does the barbecue in one restaurant cost three times as much as the same plate in another establishment?
Why does the food media fetishize the fusion plate but not the original recipe? What is the difference between the food I make and the food my great-grandmother made, other than time and place?
I don’t have many answers. The only way we can fix this, my friends, is to eat more food from more places and learn to value cuisines that others might ignore.