Thursday, October 9, 2008

Food The Global Experience

One of the things that we all have in common is that we must eat to survive.  What we are able to consume often says much about where we stand in the race/class hierarchy.  As a western middle class woman, food is something that I am able to consume almost at will.  There are some items because of their  price, and so-called "exotic nature" that I will never consume, but generally speaking the world is my buffet for the taking.

Due to globalization and the exploitation of third world labour, westerners are privy to various different kinds of food year round.  image A mere 60 years ago a kiwi in New York would be an oddity, and today they are as commonplace as apples and corn.  Of course with these new products we have had to find ways to incorporate them into our meat and potatoes diet...enter the celebrity chefs and the fancy cookbooks.

Almost every step between food being cultivated and arriving on our dinner tables is rife with exploitation.  To ensure that we are able to make use of the  vast cornucopia of items celebrity chefs play a vital role.  If  bok choy is for sale but we have no idea what to do with it, its value will be useless to the companies that are producing it for profit. I use the term companies because most of the food we consume today is the result of agribusiness.  Ask yourself why those that are trained to give us our food passports are primarily white. How many celebrity chefs of colour can you quickly name?  It is not an accidental phenomena that the Jamie Olivers  and Michael Smiths of the world exist. 

Our cultural ambassadors to the exotic are overwhelming white males.  This is nothing less than invisible cultural appropriation.  How is it that a white male becomes expert in a culture that he was not reared in?  How is it that he, and he alone is capable of transmitting this message?  It is because the white male normalizes our exotic consumption. The white male body is embedded with an authority and proficiency  that does not exist in a body of colour.  Just as he has raped foreign lands for profit he is now expert in consumption to facilitate cultural appropriation.

As with every glutinous empire food has become big business. Gorging ourselves has become a hobby as we consume the products of the vanquished.  We don'timage care that at 50 cents a pound per banana, the person that laboured picking it did not get paid, but those bananas are a tasty fruit that can be turned into great deserts. Chiquita has a long history of worker exploitation, aided by the US military, as well as funding terrorist organization to destabilize governments. Our need to consume this sweet fruit out weighs the crimes the company commits to ensure we get our daily potassium. 

We may believe that we are enriching foreign countries by our purchases butimage this is simply not the case. Clinton argued for an end to the Lome agreement which gave favoured status to Jamaica to trade with Great Britain.  This means that Jamaica now has to compete for business with Chiquita and dole on the open market without the benefit of the government subsidies that they receive.  The once flourishing banana industry of Jamaica is a thing of the past.  Land that once provided a decent living now lays idle.

This is just the story of the humble banana.   We now export products like potatoes to warm climates that are perfectly capable of growing this food because we have instituted unfair trade agreements.  image The IMF encourages that farmers plant medicinal herbs or spices for the market.  It would seem at first to be a good alternative to raising food, but when governments are no longer able to sustain the artificially low cost of food where does this leave third world bodies that have been forced to stop producing for subsistence?  Many tropical countries have no dairy industry, and are suffering with a declining produce industry?  When we take our yearly pilgrimages to the sun the food that we are consuming is not indigenous to the areas that we are travelling to.  People are eating Idaho potatoes in Jamaica imagine that.

The restaurants that have opened spreading "American culture", may hire local image workers but they do not use local produce.  For the purposes of standardization companies like McDonalds import everything from the US.   On top of destroying their healthy choice food options, we are introducing high fat, artery clogging alternatives with very little nutritional value.  

Supermarkets are filled with our left overs.  In the states chicken breasts are what are prized because they contain the lowest amount of fat but what happens to the rest of the chicken?  The rest of the chicken is for sale in a third world country.  Along with receiving the cuts of meats that we as westerners reject they also get the chemicals that we inject into our food.  With no other alternatives because we have destroyed their local markets people indigenous to third world countries are consuming our high fat, chemically injected rejects.

This is all occurring because of Western desire to consume.  Not only do we have a sense of entitlement when it comes to food we expect to be unreasonably cheap.  There are many costs to western privilege that go unseen by us.  We do not see the impoverishment that it produces nor we see the damage that it does to the environment.  Changing what local peasants have grown on land for generations to grow for the market is leading to land desertification.  When indigenous people are finally able to return to subsistence farming they will find that the land that they have come to depend on is no longer able to produce what they need.  This we can thank companies like Monsanto for.  Rather than delve more deeply into the ecological costs of development, because that would lead to a paper, I will state for now that the earth was not meant to sustain this form of living.  We are killing ourselves with this reckless path.

We must begin to think about the ways in which we consume food and the companies that we support.  Simply because an item is cheap does not mean that it is a "good deal" for all parties concerned.  It is time to recognize that our grandmothers knew something when they planted their gardens and pickled their preserves.  We need to start to consume locally and demand a better quality of food for all.  Our need for sustenance does not outweigh the right of others to have a healthy life sustaining diet.  This change of consumption is not only the human thing to do, it is the ecologically smart path to undertake.


Anonymous said...

I feel nothing but disgust for those who exploit workers. I've seen it in China as well, millions of workers wrap each apple bud in a piece of paper, to protect the apple. Thousands of acres of apple trees have this process. The workers are desperate for money.

However, the rising cost in food I've seen the last few months/years has me in a panic. My rent eats almost 2/3 of my income. Gas prices had skyrocketed, so have utility prices, and I'm in debt. I'm not sure I could survive if food wasn't unreasonably cheap.

Perhaps the government could send money to people like me instead of giant agribusinesses.

AR said...

Before I begin commenting on this I'd like to first say how much I appreciate your writing and activism in these areas. While we obviously disagree on many points, I would say we agree about more than we disagree on, overall. My comments tend to be almost entirely contrary, though, because obviously it is the points of contention which are the most interesting. I think I have become so interested in your writings in particular, which should be obvious from my level of activity here, is because we hold a particular balance of common ground and contention. The most productive conversations must have sufficient elements of both, after all, since at one extreme is the echo chamber, and at the other there is no common basis for arguments of any kind whatsoever. I can only hope that my own writings are also interesting to you.

That being said, on with the criticism.

Our cultural ambassadors to the exotic are overwhelming white males. This is nothing less than invisible cultural appropriation. How is it that a white male becomes expert in a culture that he was not reared in?

He doesn't need to be an expert on their culture. He just needs to know how to cook their food. By your reasoning, anyone who consumes pasteurized milk who is not French or who does not have a deep understanding and appreciation of French culture circa 1860 is engaged in an act of appropriation.

Renee said...

He doesn't need to be an expert on their culture. He just needs to know how to cook their food.

My point is not that he is an expert but that he is perceived as expert because of the way that the white male body is understood.

AR said...

I'm just not getting it. Where are there people who sincerely believe that they're learning anything about a foreign culture besides how they cook when watching a presentation on foreign cooking?

And perceptions aside, when you say, "This is nothing less than invisible cultural appropriation," it sounds to me like you're saying that they shouldn't be doing it regardless of what unreasonable and biased perceptions people have of them.

Renee said...

@AR Food is one of he ways in which we consume culture. We believe that multiculturalism can be experienced through what we consume. This applies to things like music as well. We these things as symbols of the 'other'.

I am not saying that the white chef should not exist, I am saying that he should not exist in isolation.

AR said...

So, if I'm understanding this right, the problems are 1) an excessively shallow conception of culture on the part of consumers and 2) racial discrimination in the cooking media, as a consequence of excessive valuation of whiteness.

If that's the case, then I agree that these are problems, but I still need clarification on 1. When I eat Chinese food, I'm not nor do I think I am being "multicultural," I'm merely enjoying a particular type of culinary artifice for its own sake. Is this also part of what you consider a problem, or are you merely criticizing those who would then claim to have a connection with Chinese culture for having done so?

nia said...

Where I live in Barbados, most of the head chefs at the hotels and restaurants are white European men.
I try to only buy fruits and vegetables that are locally grown, or grown from another Caribbean island like St. Lucia or Dominica. Right now they are importing mangoes, bananas, onions, grapes and other items from places like the US and Chile which is ridiculous because we have farmers right here who are being forced to throw that same produce away.

cchiovitti said...

I buy local whenever possible. I know where it came from and am able to harvest it with my own hands at this time of year. I live in a large farming area. This is why I get TOTALLY up in arms over illegal immigrant issues. What the hell are people thinking when they say awful things about kicking these people out of the country or sealing the boarders?

I'm too very aware that most migrant farm workers are NOT treated well most of the time and in most places (just speaking in the US) and it sucks. Our farm workers deserve respect and admiration for what they do. Minimum wage is no fun, I know. We, as a society, need to stop treating others as nuisances or second-rate humans. It truly makes me sick. We need to embrace these people, give them citizenship, support, thanks, and respect. THEN, and only then, will they be able to earn better wages and help their families more.

Yes, farming is a close subject to my heart. And yes, if the INS ever did a sweep close to where I live my car would be loaded up bringing people home to hide them. I was so depressed over a raid in Greeley last year. If I had known about it sooner, I may have been able to help at least one family. People were just rounded up like dogs. Most of them had children in school and desperately had to call friends and neighbors to go and get them. It still infuriates me.

Could anyone please explain why, working to support your family is a crime?

I apologize for my rant. It just hit very close to home. Yes, slave labor is being used around the world. People are taken advantage of and abused just so we can have a banana or whatever. I get that. But, it's going on right here in our own backyards too, and that is obscene. We, as Americans, cannot just sit in judgement about how atrocious things are in other parts of the world when we are doing the exact same thing. Oh wait, they're just Mexicans so it's OK (sarcasm).

AND - Male chefs. Yeah. No kidding, I don't watch those except for Ramsey, but his British show that I saw where he and his children raised pigs really got to me. He's an ass, but it's entertainment. The problem is, fine dining has been allowed to become the domain of the male elite and not the domain of commen "women". I mean, society has given women the role of preparing food for millenia, but once it becomes "art" then women just aren't good enough for it I guess. Sheesh.

Renee said...

@AR My problem is with those that assume that food or music is completely representative of another culture. In this assumption they are literally consuming the other.
Also the ignorant people that don't understand that they are still consuming a westernized version of a particular food. For example chicken balls are not Chinese food.

pizzadiavola said...

He doesn't need to be an expert on their culture. He just needs to know how to cook their food. By your reasoning, anyone who consumes pasteurized milk who is not French or who does not have a deep understanding and appreciation of French culture circa 1860 is engaged in an act of appropriation.

The problem that Renee is pointing out is not that, for instance, Jamie Oliver is cooking Italian food; the problem is that he, a non-Italian, white male is being held up as an expert on Italian cooking instead of Italian chefs, which perpetuates the notion that it's primarily white men that get to represent everyone and that there are few non-white men experts.

Food is an element of a culture; think of the prominent role that food plays in many societies. To ignore POC when talking about and teaching how to make their food, which is tied up in their geography, their history, and their culture, and have a white man come in and do so instead, is cultural appropriation. That would be the difference between, say, you merely eating Szechuan food because you like it and a white man getting a deal for a cooking show and a line of cookbooks on Szechuan food.

pizzadiavola said...

And about cooking shows and cookbooks not focusing on culture - all of my cookbooks specifically mention the cultural context of their recipes, even the Joy of Cooking. Sure, most cooking shows won't go into the artistic and political history of culture that the food comes from, but casual references to culture and origin are embedded all over the place: Viana la Place's cookbooks talk about where she first had a dish (a street vendor in Naples), about memories of watching her grandmother eat specific dishes, about the specifically Sicilian origins of some of her recipes and how they're part of her family history and belong to the cooking traditions on the island, shaped by the specific foods available there. Jamie Oliver goes on and on about the Italian approach to cooking and organic, sustainable agriculture, how X method of cooking a risotto is how Italian mothers do it, and the prominent role of food in Italian culture. Although people might not consciously watch the Food Network to learn about other cultures, that doesn't mean that culture is not embedded in the ways the shows present and talk about food.

pizzadiavola said...

Due to globalization and the exploitation of third world labour, westerners are privy to various different kinds of food year round. ...

As with every glutinous empire food has become big business. Gorging ourselves has become a hobby as we consume the products of the vanquished.

Yes. Food is a seemingly mundane thing to think about, but because it's so crucial to human existence, it's essential to think about the real impacts of what you eat and how it affects other people. That bunch of bananas in the dead of winter is not just a bunch of bananas, it's pesticides that damaged the health of the workers that grew it, the land it grew on, the communities that rely on that land as a source of food and water, etc. It's the tons of carbon emissions spent transporting the bananas from one side of the world to another, and climate change and pollution disproportionately hurt the poor. It's the exploitation of workers in countries with loose labor laws so that someone else can buy a bunch of imported, out of season bananas for $0.90/lb. That bunch of bananas cannot be separated from its means of production.

Unfortunately, SOLE agriculture is often more expensive at the cash register and inaccessible than conventional agriculture, depending where you are. The government needs to stop subsidizing industrial agribusiness and support small scale, local farmers so that good food grown by decently paid workers can be accessible to everyone.

We now export products like potatoes to warm climates that are perfectly capable of growing this food because we have instituted unfair trade agreements.

Not only that, but due to U.S. gov't subsidization of Big Agriculture, U.S. farmers are encouraged to overproduce foods for less and less money, which drives them into debt. And then their surplus of foods are shipped overseas and sold at artificially low prices, which undercuts local farmers and destroys their ability to make an independent living.

GallingGalla said...

As I was sitting yesterday eating my Amy's Kitchen Matta Paneer, I was admittedly thinking that "I'm not sure what the big deal is", then it dawned on me...hmmm...Not only has Amy's Kitchen divorced the food from the culture that it came from, but Amy's Kitchen is making a boatload of money off of that, not one cent of which is going back to the people who live in the culture that Amy's is ripping off, nor the people that, as Pizza says above, are being harmed by making this frozen food item.

Amy's claims to be organic, and maybe they are, but I don't see that their practices are any less harmful than, say Sara Lee's (except, perhaps, in the pesticides department).

There's a lot of vegetarians / vegans out there who are up on their high horses about "we don't support cruelty to animals", but what about cruelty to humans (who are animals, btw)? Are you buying frozen, process food that happens to be vegan? Are you shopping at whole foods? (answers for me are yes and yes) Unless we are buying locally-grown food, we are *all* implicit in supporting these practices that harm so many people, whether we are vegan or (like myself) eat meat.