Rachel Laudan

Restaurants and White Supremacy

Teatro Real, Madrid.
Photo by Andreas Praefcke
(Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5)

Reflecting on recent events, Tunde Wey, raised in Lagos, Nigeria and now working as a chef and writer in New Orleans, has a piece out that takes as its focus award-winning restaurants.  What I understand to be the gist of his argument is excerpted here, but follow the link for his entire piece.  (Thanks to Joi Chevalier of Cook’s Nook in Austin for the pointer).

“Regarding food culture in particular, we have to stop skimming the surface for superficial spume. Deliciousness cannot be the entirety of the narrative; it is merely a prerequisite for a wider conversation that considers the broader context. People of color are continuously dispossessed of culture and self in service of whiteness. And all hands, and their instruments, should be working for equity, stretching to think past prevailing convention, which always serves whiteness, to construct a conscientious reality. . . .With honest deference to the hard work and talent of the good folks at Turkey and the Wolf [a New Orleans restaurant that apparently at the top of the Bon Appetit Best 100 List], their restaurant isn’t best because it is. It’s best because in America whiteness is all that matters.And all the machinations, subterranean and overt, that conspire to pick winners and losers are not complicated by talent, hard work, economics or aesthetics; they are animated by the ideology that whiteness is superior. Proof? Look at any number of “best restaurant” lists in this country. Despite the purported complexity of the issues, the outcomes consistently favor a particular group: white folks.This is the white supremacy that America does not acknowledge.” Source: Look to the food world to understand America’s white supremacy problem – San Francisco Chronicle

Here’s my take on restaurant culture, understood here as the high end full service restaurant culture that wins Bon Appetit prizes. In the West, it derives from the aristocratic tradition. It was never designed to be entirely about deliciousness.  It was always also about social distinction, originally class, now if Wey is correct also about color.

That’s why, from the moment restaurant culture began crystallizing in the eighteenth century, it has been roundly criticized for overlapping reasons from different political perspectives (and not just in the United States).  For now, I’ll lump them into three in a historical sketch so quick that it verges on a travesty.

Republicans (that is, anti-monarchists) in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, denounced ostentatious restaurants, then almost invariably described as ‘French’ as exclusionary and wasteful. Socialists rejected them as perpetuating a servant class.  And romantics argued that the ‘artifice’ they employed in fancy sauces and desserts should be replaced by dishes composed of fresh, natural ingredients.

All these groups offered alternatives that had their own problems. The republican-democratic-progressives tended to see the solution in home cooking, which condemned women (servants in well-to-do households, wives in others) to the kitchen. The socialists looked to communal kitchens, which still left the problem of what proportion and who in the community was going to do the work. The romantics were a bit hazy, perhaps because fresh and natural was supposed to almost prepare itself, which it didn’t.

The problems sprang from the fact that feeding oneself, let alone a group, is hard, demanding, difficult work, whatever dozens of cookbooks say to the contrary.  It’s not as bad as it used to be because modern societies divide the task up into specialist farmers, truck drivers, millers, refiners, etc etc. Even so the relentless work goes on.

I sometimes think one way of describing what’s happened in food preparation (leave farming and primary processing to one side) in the period when democracies have begun replacing hierarchical, monarchical societies, is a huge experiment in ways of feeding urban populations. To the street foods, take out, institutional foods, and inns that go back to Antiquity have been added a host of options that have come and gone: canned meals, fish and chip shops, pizza places, diners, prix fixe lunches, tea rooms, fast food, cafeterias, small delivery services, comida corrida, meals swapped between households, the storefront family restaurant, vending machines, automats, frozen dinners, etc etc. It’s an experiment that is far from over.

Fine dining restaurants are part of this, especially in a society that is many, many times richer than it was a hundred and fifty years ago. For diners, they offer choice, a chance for a celebration, and the life of luxury even if just for an evening.  For proprietors and chefs, they have offer a chance to create something wonderful besides a more recently-acquired cachet. They may well be in the vanguard of culinary change (though industry is another competitor). They sometimes come up with innovations (the molten chocolate cake) that make their way down to the grocery store freezer.

I would not want to be kind of sour-faced moralist who wanted them gone.

In addition, they have become a kind of bell wether, chefs frequently looked to as those who should (and do) deliver food that is both delicious, and moral, and nutritious. This is putting a huge load on an institution designed for quite different purposes. The fact remains that they are a pricey way to deliver food, thus drawing a particular clientele. They still market a wide range of dishes, rather than concentrating on one dish done well. To deliver their product, they still run the kitchens in ways worked out in the nineteenth century.

Given this context, it’s hard for me to imagine fine dining restaurants in the vanguard of social change, however well-intentioned their owners. Quite the reverse.

Perhaps some one can show me why I am way off base.

One last point. “The food world.” Tunde Wey probably didn’t choose the title “Look to the food world to understand America’s white supremacy problem.”  Editors frequently, perhaps usually, title pieces.  The title, though, is a huge overstretch.The “food world,” though, even if limited to preparing food for final consumption, is so much bigger than the full-service restaurant world aspiring to Bon Appetit’s Best 100 list. It includes school lunches and military canteens, taco joints and Cherry Creek “keep Austin fried” catfish, Luby’s Cafeteria and McDonald’s hamburgers, rotisseries in grocery stores, and (the biggest group of all) millions of home cooks. It would take more than one short piece to

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5 thoughts on “Restaurants and White Supremacy

  1. Chuck Morse

    I love your work, Rachel, and this blog. Both have been (and are) tremendously useful to me.

    Respectfully, I think that this essay begins from a tautological premise: restaurants emerged as institutions designed to serve elites and therefore must always serve elites. That is, restaurants are elite institutions and therefore are elite institutions.

    As an analogy, (most) automobiles rely on internal combustion engines and therefore affirm internal combustion in practice.

    Although this seems plausible, I think the position is ill-informed. I believe that we should assume that anti-systemic impulses can be present, and self-consciously cultivated, in restaurants.

    For instance, consider the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley, California. It is a worker-owned-and-operated cooperative. Its labor practices and, to some extent, its food are self-conscious challenges to the capitalist economy (and the capitalist food business).

    While the Cheese Board Collective is certainly aberrant, I think its existence shows that capitalism and restaurants are not always identical. And, if that is the case, we have to ask a broader set of questions about how capitalism (and white supremacy) interact with restaurants. I think it is a mistake to assume, as point of departure, that restaurants always affirm the status quo.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Chuck. So pleased that you have found my work useful. I appreciated the thoughtful comments.

      Yes, institutions can change. And the Cheese Board Collective, which I did not know about, is certainly a different model, one that I look forward to learning more about. I would place it in the socialist tradition I talk about in the piece. I am not arguing against eating out tout court.

      However I do try to hint at the end of the piece that many fine dining restaurants have not changed that much: they offer wide menus, which tend to be expensive to prepare; they offer a dining experience that is intended to hint at luxury and distinction, even if now it is often a rustic Mediterranean setting rather than chandeliers and mirrors; and the kitchen brigade is still the way they are run in many cases. They reach more people because the world is much richer. They are not, however, in the business of promoting, say, citizenship.

      So I find myself ambivalent about fine dining establishments. I enjoy them occasionally (though tedious as a regular way of dining, even if I could afford it). I think the best do a useful service in setting standards of excellence. I certainly admire the energy, dedication, and skill of those who work in them.

      On the other hand, I still find many fit uneasily in a democratic society.

      It’s not just food obviously. There is room for the same ambivalence about couture, cabinetry, jewelry, housing and so on. I go back and forth on this.

    2. Rachel Laudan Post author

      One more thought, Chuck. I think perhaps I am particularly sensitive to this having grown up in rigidly class conscious Britain. I think Americans, who have been accustomed to restaurant dining for longer and who have more different models, don’t find this so troublesome.

  2. Chuck Morse

    Thank you for your comments, Rachel (and your work as a whole).

    For my sake, I come out of the anarchist tradition and thus assume that capitalism, as a social order, is riven with internal contradictions and will one day meet its demise.

    I also assume that such contradictions are accessible to us and can be cultivated. It is, in this sense, that a restaurant can self-consciously promote anti-systemic tendencies, whether through its labor practices, its cuisine, or something else. To put it differently, social contradictions act on food, but food can also act on social contradictions.

    The Locol restaurant, in Los Angeles and Oakland, is another example of a restaurant that places opposition to white supremacy and socially reparative practices at the center of its identity. It was the LA Times restaurant of the year last year. While one may disagree with its strategies, I think it affirms the broader idea that restaurants can express powerful forms of social criticism.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      May be one of the confusions is just what the term restaurant covers. Following Rebecca Spang’s Invention of the Restaurant, I define it as a place to eat out with a menu (and hence individual choice), individual tables for each group, service to those tables, and elaborate decor. There are lots of kinds of places to eat out. For me, not all of them count as restaurants.

      And yes, Locol was an interesting experiment. As I said, experiments have been the name of the game, trying to find ways of feeding urban populations well and without great expense.

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