If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Omnivore's 100: In Which I Am a Killjoy

Bear with me, this one evolved as it was written, and everything I've been thinking scatteredly for months seems to have made it out.

I take issue with this list the way I take issue with most food writing in general: in its pronouncement that "the list includes fine food, strange food, everyday food and even some pretty bad food – but a good omnivore should really try it all," it glides over the fact that "omnivore" apparently means someone who eats at all price points as much as someone who eats at all food pyramid points.

For example, number 84: "Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant."

Food writing, in general, tends to be pretty glib about the socioeconomic impossibility of pleasures such as the above for 99% of the world's population. In taking up Pleasure as the banner of foodie-ism, we are able to overlook everything from cultural theft to local poverty as unfortunate, but ultimately not our problem.

Leave it to the people who write food politics blogs or race blogs or humanitarian blogs, the thought goes, so we can get back to the business of analyzing whether something tastes good. Let hedonistic enjoyment prevail, all else is irrelevant. The world is our banquet.

But I am bothered by taste that exists in a vacuum, sucked from its context. I am not saying we shouldn't eat, and eat everything, it's just that should we not also recognize the privileges of being so entitled? Food is an excellent entry point to examination of ourselves and the world around us, but an element of self-critique has been missing from the current trend.

What is the current trend? The current trend is that frat boy down the hall who went to India and came back with Buddhism and rope sandals. We go out of our way to eat (and write) the most exciting things sourced from both Third World backyards and our own, and we congratulate ourselves on being open-minded.

I hate that kid down the hall, and I find myself turning into him.

But once in a while, something like The Omnivore's 100 comes along, and I end up checking myself even though I was only intending to check off numbers. I find myself looking at the "whole insects" entry and wondering about the people who eat them because they are the cheapest protein available or the only protein available, as my Dad once did. I look at something like "sweetbreads" and wonder when it became so hip, and why only European cuisines can seem to make offal hip. I see McDonald's on there and recognize its place on the list as an ironic cultural marker, not the way of life for people living in urban deserts.

I look at "pho," "aloo gobi," and "chicken tikka masala," and wonder when did other peoples' histories of immigration and adaptation - people who face oppression in America even as their foods are celebrated - become something for me to check off a list and pat myself on the back over.

As foodies and as writers, I think we've done a good job of giving serious thought to important issues like animal rights and America's broken agricultural systems. What I don't see is the same incorporation of critical analysis toward people.

When Yelpers or Chowhounders complain about the lack of great Mexican food in NYC, I want to ask whether they've thought about why that is. Are the people qualified to make great Mexican food priced out by the high overhead costs of opening a restaurant here? What about the great "secret" taco shops hidden in the back of unassuming grocery stores? Can we look at their locations not as a charming quirk - or worse, a badge of authenticity - but as the manifestation of people trying to do business with very few resources?

Foodies often take food a little too seriously. I want foodies to take food even more seriously, but in a different way. Our prevailing attitude toward ethnic food and ethnic communities cannot be like Columbus discovering America. How many times have you heard someone say, "I found the best Indian/Vietnamese/Thai place the other day, I was the only white person there," or, "The only GREAT Chinese restaurants are in Flushing"? If we think something exists solely for our foodie creds, our little pilgrimages, it's inevitable that we develop a hurtfully cavalier attitude toward other people's cultures.

You see, for people of color, food is more than just food. It is often the only representation our histories and cultures have in America; it is our face. So with feelings of pride at seeing our cuisines be accepted come feelings of protectiveness as well. It is hard to abide casual users and casual judgments of our food when our food is known as our identity, whether we like it or not. You may not feel like Chinese tonight, but we can never escape questions like, "so is it true y'all eat dog?" Thus, it is even harder to see casual users enjoy our foods with no strings attached, when we ourselves have been ostracized many a time for our curries and kimchis, which were "weird" and "disgusting" long before wealthy white foodies made them cool.

I guess I am uncomfortable with food writing and going about it as a woman of color. There are plenty of people of color who write food blogs, but I can't help but feel the conversation is still very white. I'd like to hear thoughts on this. Does anyone else have opinions about these things?


  1. There are a lot of differnet reasons people seem to come to food writing. I started reading it in the early part of this decade when I started working with people from around the world, and got more obsessed with it after 9/11 as a way to connect to cultures and places that mainstream white american (of which I am quite certainly a part) society was actively rejecting.

    That sounds overly grandiose.

    Because I cooked hummus ma lahma after thinking it sounded awesome in some food writing, I was able to have a conversation that wasn't about work with the Jordanian woman on my team. Because I learned I love chili pickle, I got to connect to my friend's auntie (who is originally from Behar, India) at my friend's wedding.

    It's that connection between people that otherwise wouldn't ever connect that makes writing about food *not* just about hedonistic quests for pleasure.

    I haven't done the Omnivore's Hundred (I did do the Imbiber's Hundred, though), but my take there are two ways to look at it.
    1) Do all these things before you are done eating

    2) Here's some stuff other people who really enjoy eating think covers the full gamut of Stuff There Is Out There People Eat.

    I land much closer to #2--at least that's a way to look at it that lets me have an attitude toward food that isn't internally offensive.

  2. I think you make some great points, and I've been thinking about them all day.

    Food writing, at its best, inspires and enables the connections you speak of. That is wonderful. I absolutely think eating, cooking, and writing about food from cultures not your own is legitimate, I just don't seem to find much evidence of a conscience in the way people talk and write about food.

    Building connections is great, but I want there to be more of a dialogue, more of an explicit awareness, of the more fundamentally problematic aspects to eating, cooking, and writing about food from foreign (and often politically besieged) peoples. Those connections have to take us to the next step, right?

    It's not like we haven't been using our wallets and our blogs to make political choices already. Many foodies choose to eat organic as a stand for animal rights, but why don't we seem to give equal attention to the atrocious labor conditions in America's slaughterhouses? All too often, the trendy causes aren't too concerned with people.

    Lastly, I don't know if I agree that there are two ways to look at that list, as it pretty explicitly says "Below is a list of 100 things that I think every good omnivore should have tried at least once in their life."

    If it were number 2, it would be a pretty incomplete gamut, and you run into thorny issues of representation there as well.

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  4. (edited for clarity) Great thoughts. I feel like I can't comment on this with too much expertise, as I have only recently started reading your blog (my first foodie blog). But while I would say that people do look for things the way "the frat boy down the hall" does, I hold onto the hope that there are at least some people who would want to learn more and understand the people and culture behind the food. I don't think I'm being overly optimistic about this - I realize that there might not be alot of people who will take this sort of attitude, but I think there will be some people who do. And they will influence others.

    I think it's important to have relatively light-hearted blogs about food, fashion, and music that address cultural issues and educate and enlighten people. And I think these light-hearted blogs can do alot to educate people and to increase cultural interest, compassion, and awareness. These sort of blogs can ease people into thoughts and ideas, and will be seen by a demographic that wouldn't typically read about topics like politics, race, or the suffering of others. Sometime people need to be able to work their way in slowly, and I think the way you're expressing your point of view on this topic is a great way to do it. I'd like to see more people take note of these issues, grow to care, be involved, and have a voice. I really enjoyed your take on this, and I admire the thoughts you expressed.

  5. I'll certainly concede your point about the Omnivore's Hundred--I didn't bother with introductory text.

    It might be interesting, though, to try to construct such a list that was more effectively culturally representative. "What are all the best, most interesting and more representative foods across the world?" (As I understand it, you could probably do a hundred just from Singapore, though).

    Your other points about acknowledgement about the problematic aspects are interesting; I have a feeling *I* am going to have to chew on them a bit.

  6. Frankly I read food blogs for information about the best restaurants, recipes and cooking techniques. I think discussing the political backdrop to food is a great conversation to have though.

    I remember sitting in a Brick Lane restaurant with my friend from London and discussing Ghandi, India's partition and the subsequent emigration of Indian and Pakistani families to inner city London. All while eating lamb saag and nan and raita.

    While it was a great conversation to have, the stories behind the globalisation of ethic food are no numerous that you could write volumes on how the spread of food has been linked to the spread of peoples through economic, political or natural circumstances.

    For me, as much as the socio-political reasoning for the spread of ethnic cuisines are important, my obsession with food is more about my tastebuds.

    I'd rather talk about the flavours over a meal than get into the (sometimes very disturbing) reasons that I am having the experience.

  7. Torque: I think constructing a representative list is probably an impossible and futile task, as there is no way to be objective in such an endeavor.

    Paddy: "I'd rather talk about the flavours over a meal than get into the (sometimes very disturbing) reasons that I am having the experience."

    To me, that sounds like turning a willful blind eye, which is precisely what I hope foodies and food bloggers are NOT doing (I hope it's merely ignorance that there is such silence...) It seems that everyone who has commented here so far at least recognizes the issues I brought up, and feel a certain amount of unease about their roles in these issues. We should probably address that unease rather than reach for the next glass of Champagne, right?

    If the stories are so numerous that we could write volumes, why AREN'T we writing volumes? You can certainly do that while giving equal measure to tastebuds. I think the best cookbooks do exactly this (see Beyond the Great Wall by Alford and Duguid, for example).

  8. Zoe, I applaud your willingness to throw these thoughts out there, as I have been wanting to address these issues for quite some time, as well!

    While I am guilty of blindly responding to the pleasure-seeking end of food blogs and food porn, I do admit that it has breached a threshold where the term "foodie" has become trendy to the point of saturation. Living in Flushing and seeing one too many groups of non-Asians huddled into the best hole-in-the-walls, I only have to look to the NY Times and popular food blogs to understand how these once-guarded spots are now simply an unchecked box in the insatiable foodie vernacular.

    I remember as a child when I would bring leftovers of tripe, pigs feet and the like for my school lunch while my friends munched on chips, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and juice pouches. My peers (as well as adults) would wrinkle their faces in alarm with the inevitable, "Ew. What IS that?" I was offended by their close-mindedness at first, but as a young adult I have concluded that perhaps it was MY single-mindedness that was the issue. While I grew up around these sights and smells, my peers had undoubtedly been sheltered from anything deemed "exotic." Our judgment of these people cannot be considered without our own misguided assumptions that everyone else should be willing to accept anything outside of their norms. We are actually fortunate to have been raised with a wholly different palette, but it is up to the individual to expand on it. Today, my fellow elementary classmates may very well be more well-versed in offal than I. It is those "hipster foodies" who wish to try everything simply to tell others that they have and to appear well-rounded and open-minded; and it is these individuals that dare tell others which noodle house has the most authentic taste and noodle springiness. However, we must remember that there exist purist foodies who only wish to expand their repertoire of food knowledge and actually appreciate the history beyond the taste.

    If you think about it, the items in a truly "American" diet (hot dogs, hamburgers, etc.) all had its origins elsewhere. Some classic French dishes found at the most expensive restaurants were once considered peasant food that was necessitated by scarce resources, crops and war. If we did not reach out and appropriate these dishes from other sources (be it across race, class or geography), then how could we truly embrace our cultures, let alone that of others? On the other hand, as much as food has become a source of pleasure and gluttony, we must remember that food is fundamentally a necessity for life and sustenance. In many cultures, food represents struggles to live until the next day and I agree that many of us subconsciously overlook the politics of it to rationalize our baser desires to simply put something tasty in our mouths. The prevalence of foodie blogs can be seen as frivolous but they at least provide a forum in which to discuss food that was once considered inferior. Perhaps it is too soon to look at these issues objectively since we are too close to the situation, but the first step toward change and critical discourse is awareness. Indeed, without the popularity of food blogs, your arguments would have a very limited audience. We will not be able to quickly reach a viable conclusion to these issues, but this entry is an ideal jumping off point for such change.