Posts Tagged ‘class


urban farming class divide

Thanks to Mei Ling for pointing me to this article about San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, the good work that it does for people living in an urban food desert, and the unemployment, violence, and other problems that still plague the neighborhood despite that.


writing but not blogging: rice edition

I’m still squeezing in some time to write, but most of it hasn’t been too bloggable. I spent about half an hour after work last Thursday (8/26) at 826 Valencia‘s Write-a-Thon, in support of their after-school tutoring and other work. Here’s part of what I scribbled down:

…Southerners—whether black, white, or other—led the United States in rice consumption before easy shipping, broadcast media, and convenience foods started to wear away at the country’s regional cuisines. The states that led in rice production also led in rice consumption: South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas. South Carolina is where rice was first cultivated in future United States territory—in fact, South Carolinian rice planters chose their slaves particularly for their expertise growing the grain in Africa. After the Civil War, Louisiana took the rice-growing crown that South Carolina had worn for almost two hundred years. In the twentieth century, newcomer Arkansas and long-time secondary producer Texas “vied with Louisiana for dominance.”

Outside of the South, certain ethnic groups were associated with rice-eating: East Asians in California, Caribbeans in New York. In Texas (along with New Mexico and California), so were Mexican Americans. Rice was also associated with poverty, and the rice-eating regions and ethnic groups were, overall, poor.

At the time of the first National Food Consumption Survey in 1955, there was already a sign of the trendiness that would nationalize rice-eating and make rice a relatively chic grain. Rice consumption remained high among the poor and dropped as incomes increased—all the way to the upper end of the income distribution, where there was an uptick in rice consumption. By the mid-fifties, rice was well on its way to overcoming its traditional image as a fattening grain for the poor and ethnic.8 In fact, it would soon play a large role in a countercultural “western arcadian lifestyle,” the culinary branch of which would mature in the 1970s with Alice Waters’ California take on nouvelle cuisine and its emphasis on “light, fresh foods in their natural forms.” What could be lighter, fresher, or more natural than (self-evidently slimming) Asian cuisines, which both nouvelle and California cuisine appropriated gladly?

All of the quotes are from a 1983 Geographical Review article by James R. and Barbara G. Shortridge on the changes in US rice consumption between 1955 and 1980. The Shortridges find it an anomaly that Texas, alone among Southern rice-producing states, had increased consumption during that time, but I’m pretty sure it has to do with the state’s increased production, its Asian immigration during the period, and the growing popularity of Tex-Mex at the time.

Long-Grain White Rice


making new foods familiar

Wednesday‘s NYT article on Korean tacos made me think of Richard Wilk’s Home Cooking in the Global Village: Caribbean Food from Buccaneers to Ecotourists, which discusses, in depth and in the context of Belizean cuisine, six ways in which cuisines interact and exchange elements. One of those six is, of course, wrapping or stuffing: “physically enclosing something new or foreign within a familiar wrapper, or vice versa.”

White bread or hamburger buns can civilize otherwise low-status local foods, “making them acceptable to middle class and foreign tastes.” In Belize, the result is something similar to the Mexican torta compuesta; Belizeans are even able to civilize gibnut* (a jungle rodent) by using a bun to dress it up as a hamburger. Local, low-status food + foreign, high-status form = sudden acceptability.

Wilk also notes that local wrappings can make foreign foods local. In Belize, “canned tomato paste and Campbell’s vegetable soup” make their way into tamales wrapped in locally familiar banana leaves. In Mexico, he says, corn tortillas play the role of banana leaves “in wrapping all kinds of ingredients; the name of the dish and the mode of preparation as tacos or enchiladas or gorditas remains familiar, even if the stuffing is alien or strange.”

And now, restaurateur John Ban tells us, corn tortillas are a familiar enough wrapper in the United States that they can turn Korean barbeque into recognizably American food.

Note that this essential Americanness did not skip the humble Tex-Mex flour tortilla for the newer-to-these-shores but more “authentic” corn version; think of every wrap joint you’ve ever been to. Though perhaps that’s a case of the fillings, which undoubtedly cater to a particularly bland American taste, civilizing the wrapper. And giving “wrap” makers the latitude to take out the lard and replace it with spinach. Or flax seeds. Or whatever.

Maybe the very American health consciousness of the wrap is a way of mitigating any remaining suspicions that its form–essentially a street food–might arouse that the wrapper “conceals suspicious or even dangerous ingredients.”

* Gibnut is technically Cuniculus paca. WIkipedia reports that it is known as “paca” throughout most of its range, which extends from central Mexico to northern Argentina. The article proceeds to give the other names by which it is known in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Guyana, Trinidad, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru–leaving us to wonder where it is actually called “paca.”

The most interesting names for today’s discussion are its Latin name (cuniculus being part of the scientific name for rabbit) and those from Panama (conejo pintado, or “painted rabbit”) and the Venezuela-Guyana-Trinidad axis (lapa-labba-lappe, all variations on the French lapin, meaning “rabbit”). Civilizing foreign ingredients through language.

For those familiar with the campo cuisine of Guatemala, we are of course talking about tepezcuintle here. It’s not bad: white meat, pleasantly gamy, though a little stringy.



attitudes toward diversity in food

Thanks to Joan for pointing out the differences in tone and language between these New York Times articles, one about Bulgarian-British star chef Silvena Rowe, the other about Tomas Lee and the increasing availability of Korean tacos.

Rowe can indulge, without reproach, an “Orientalist vision” in her “sexy,” “hedonistic” “signature dishes.” (Perhaps she gets a pass because she caters to “the pomegranate craze” in a “Britain avid for new cuisines.”) Her food is the product of great thought and creativity: she “reinvents” herself, “finds” herself, “locks herself in her room” until she gets her variation on someone else’s recipe right. She “preserves” recipes through her innovation, and looks to the past (that outdated Orientalist vision again).

Meanwhile, Tomas Lee and the other Korean taco chefs profiled in the second article (note that they are many; Rowe is one) are “making up a cuisine as they go along.” They hardly think about what they’re doing, much less lock themselves away for research. Inevitable product of the interaction between Korean shopowners and their Mexican employees, Korean tacos were “just lunch” for all these “entrepreneurs” (not chefs, note) who are now trying to “mainstream” Korean food in America. Dave, though, pointed out my favorite line: “The tortilla and the toppings are a way to tell our customers that this food is O.K., that this food is American.” Even so, the article sounds rather concerned that there are so many “trend-conscious restaurateurs with few apparent ties to Korea” who are getting in on the act. (Compare to how Rowe’s tenuous ties, as a Bulgarian-born, Russian-educated British citizen, to the Middle East go unremarked in the previous article.)

Meanwhile, in Arizona, SB 1070 (otherwise known as the Your-Papers-Please Law) with go into effect tomorrow. Andrew Leonard of Salon’s “How the World Works” noted an uptick in Google searches for Pei Wei, the casual pan-Asian spin-off of Scottsdale-based P.F. Chang’s. Were people searching for information on the Pei Wei franchise in Chandler, Arizona, that fired 12 employees for taking May 29 off (unauthorized) to protest SB 1070? Nope, the buzz was all about the cut-rate entrees the chain is offering to celebrate its tenth anniversary. This leads Leonard to a wonderful rant:

What really gets me riled are the ridiculous contradictions baked into the ersatz globalization symbolized by a chain of faux-Asian eateries in a state like Arizona.

Diversity is fine if it applies to the ability of Arizonans to eat cheaply priced cuisine that imitates Chinese or Malaysian or Thai (albeit with all the sharp edges sanded off.) The fact that producing such cuisine for such low prices requires exploiting cheap labor gets swept under the rug. The fact that actual Asians have almost nothing to do with the production of the food is also considered irrelevant. …

But god forbid society itself should become more diverse, along with the food.

The actually interesting story there, about the workers who were fired for knocking off to go to a protest, also shows a limit to the kind of “community organizing” that has been most effective in the minority- and immigrant-heavy service sectors. Not only are significant classes of these workers (domestic workers, farm laborers) not even covered by basic labor protections, but those who are covered are only protected when they’re involved in straight-up labor organizing. Fighting against “race-baiting laws” that make the whole community insecure (including workers who might otherwise organize)? Not covered.

Thanks to J-P for the Andrew Leonard tip. (He also points out that William Gibson probably feels slighted that his 1991 coinage “kimcheewawas” didn’t make the Korean tacos article.)


romanticizing peasant food

Going back to the section of Jeffery Pilcher’s Que Vivan los Tamales I mentioned last week, about the Mexica’s butterfly- and leaf-shaped tortillas, and their seed-spangled tamales impressed with snail shell patterns: it seems that food writers (Pilcher, the chroniclers he cites, many others past and present) can’t resist romanticizing certain kinds of food. Broadly, it’s peasant food. Witness the cucina povera prixe fixe that was my introduction to fancy dining in San Francisco. But anywhere that has been colonized, it’s more than just peasant food; it’s also pre-colonization food.

Whichever variety, most writing about this type of food is highly romantic and ignores issues of class and history. Perhaps some Italian peasants from a simpler time regularly supped on oil-cured sardines, stuffed turkey breasts, and Negroni sorbet, but we know for a fact that many more were suffering from pellagra on a diet of unlimed corn and emigrating to the United States as fast as they could. And maybe the Mexican nobility’s feasts featured decorative breads, sauces with thirty ingredients, and stuffed fowls galore, but we know that their society was highly stratified, and I imagine that everyday fare for the Every Man was more like what I experienced in rural Guatemala at the turn of the 21st century. Black beans, corn tortillas, chilis, wild greens, fruit, and atol, with meat of any kind being a pretty big deal. Even if the average diet was a little more varied than that, the intervening centuries of oppression that brought it to its current pass never seem to matter when it’s time to romanticize what might once have been.


Corn tortillas and Bay to Breakers

Chez Cervantes-Ferguson was culinarily busy, and full of runners, this weekend for Bay to Breakers. All of which partly explains how I found myself, at 5:50 yesterday morning, breakfasting on two stale corn tortillas and some cherries because they were the most readily available food in the house.

A little over an hour later, I was standing at the corner of Howard and Spear, corn tortillas whizzing through the air around me. Apparently this is a Bay to Breakers tradition. It took me three tries to get the hang of making one fly like a frisbee.

The tortillas got me to telling Courtney about atol and the changing availability of fresh corn masa in my grandparents’ neighborhood in Houston when I was growing up. When I was very young, there was a woman in the neighborhood who had a wet mill and ground her own nixtamal. She would make extra for any neighbors who wanted to buy it. Usually there wasn’t much demand, except in December, when everybody wanted to make tamales. Maybe someone would buy fresh corn masa if they were making a big batch of enchiladas, but almost everyone preferred flour tortillas and thought of corn tortillas as poverty food.

The holidays were also the only time I experienced champurrado–a sort of hot chocolate thickened with fresh corn masa. I had no idea that champurrado was part of a whole matrix of drinks known as atol: sweetened milk or water thickened with a grain, usually corn masa or old corn tortillas, but sometimes fresh corn, rice, or oats. Like champurrado, horchata and my grandmother’s sweet, milky preparation of Cream of Wheat also belong to the atol matrix, but I didn’t know what to call it until I lived in Guatemala for a while as an adult. When I came back and mentioned it to my grandfather, he said that atol was often all his family had to eat during the Depression, and that he couldn’t stand the stuff, or the memory of it. So it was no wonder neither I nor my mother had ever heard of it.

When a Fiesta supermarket opened up at the end of my grandparents’ block in the early-to-mid-80s, its mill put the neighbor lady out of business. It was able to run at large volume all the time because of a fresh wave of immigration–the newcomers preferred corn over flour tortillas. I’m sure they knew all about atol, too.


the root of the pill

In Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Sidney Mintz identifies the 19th century commercialization of sugar beets as “the first important seizure by temperate agriculture of what were previously the productive capacities of … tropical region[s].”

This tidbit stuck with me, and I’ve spent some time trying to come up with other examples. Often, it’s temperate chemistry that undercuts tropical agriculture, but I think that’s within the spirit of Mintz’s comment. Indigo, natural rubber, and palm oil (replaced as an industrial lubricant by petroleum products) have been undercut this way.

This morning, Richard Grijalva brought the case of barbasco and the birth control pill to my attention. Barbasco is the wild yam indigenous to Mexico from which chemists learned in the 1940s to synthesize the steroid hormones that made the Pill possible. Gabriela Soto Laveaga’s Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill tells how the Mexican government encouraged peasants to cultivate barbasco for this new use, and then to use the new product to regulate their own population growth.

Today no one–whether in the pharmacy or in the campo–remembers this part of the Pill’s history. Which reminds me of a another tidbit from Mintz. Writing about the temperate world’s shift from a preference for the whitest (and therefore purest) sugars to browner, less-refined varieties, Mintz notes that the latter were once traditional foods of the poor but are now “expensive relics of the past … [on] the tables of the rich, … now produced in modern ways that make money for people quite different from those who formerly produced them.” I wonder if barbasco’s involvement with science has given its consumption a similar trajectory, and if Laveaga’s book has anything to tell us about it.

Tex-Mix's Photostream