A professor once told me, “Everything is political.” Whether or not you agree with his statement, I am here to prove to you that it is true, at least when it comes to food. Yes, food. The joyous, shared, delicious experience of a meal is as complicated as race, economics, and social justice. Today, our news feeds and television channels are inundated with recipes and cooking shows. Our ghettos are empty food deserts, while our high income neighborhoods have their own Whole Foods and farmer’s markets. We review food, photograph it, avoid it, devour it, and dictate who should eat what. Today, in America, to be healthy you have to be wealthy. A wholesome diet is often only available to affluent populations, while poorer populations sometimes have no choice but to default to fast food as a way to save time and money.
We judge each other’s lifestyles and diets, but the truth is, dictating your own diet is a privilege. Certain food allergies, like gluten intolerance, don’t exist when you’re poor. Food elitism, whether it is focused on nutrition or gastronomical technique, is folded into our conversations and culture. From slow food to fast food, our complexes with what we eat and our habits go back to the founding of our country and evolve hand-in-hand with political climates. Here are nine facts and stories about the United States and the politics of food.
1. White People, White Bread: White bread became popular in the 19th century, as food safety became a priority. Its rise was part of something called the Pure Foods movement. These ideas of food safety started to fuse with social ideas of health that related external bodily health to superior genetics. White bread became synonymous with whiteness and white people, because of its “purity.” Bernarr Macfadden, a strong figure in this “healthism” movement, believed that the availability of white bread was threatening the status of the white race because it wasn’t as nutritious. The 20th century and industrialism manufactured and famously sliced bread, making it even more accessible. With time, people began to question the nutritional value of white bread. Finally, 1960s counterculture rejected white bread, not only for its lack of nutrition but also for its stance as a figure of corporate artificiality. Whole, artisanal bread consumption became rebellious. Today, we know the benefits of whole grains and handmade breads, but these products are not affordable to much of the American population. That which represented whiteness (white bread), in many ways, is now the only bread available for many people of color to consume.
2. Ice Cream Truck: Remember that jingle that rang from ice cream trucks sending you, your siblings and your neighbors running outside for a fudgesicle? Well, the origins of that melody go back to a (very) racist song, “N***er Love A Watermelon! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Its creator, Harry C. Browne, took the melody from the song “Turkey in the Straw,” which was an American adaptation of the song “The Old (Rose) Tree.” Racist lyrics were added to the melody in 1820, and it was renamed after a blackface character, “Zip Coon.” “Coon cards” became popular collectibles in the early 20th century, so Browne took the idea of the cards, and the melody of the song, and created his own version. After World War II, business owners wanted to bring their ice cream products to the consumer via automobile, so they used recognizable minstrel songs to bring about a feeling of nostalgia.
3. Bittersweet: After a boom in sugar production, candy companies aimed to create an even greater demand for sweets in America. But, they marketed products according to race: expensive products like chocolate bonbons were advertised to the white, middle class, while cheap stick candy was aimed at black, Irish, and Chinese populations. The color line ran through production as well. Only white women worked for expensive companies, dipping their hands into warm chocolate to coat candies. While black women made cheap candy that didn’t involve such close contact. One particular product was even named after a slur for a black child, the “Picaninny Freeze.” The advertisement from the 1920s shows the product, an ice cream in the shape of a watermelon, being consumed by a caricature of a black girl. Another candy company came out with a product called “N***er’s Toes” in 1923. The image for their advertisement featured a character in blackface.
4. Chile Con Carne: Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in the United States, but early American racism decided that this food was dangerous right away. “Anglo” foods were seen as civilized, while events like the U.S. Mexican War shaped attitudes in the 19th century, leading the women cooking the food, the Latinas, and the food itself to be eroticized and exoticized. Palates of taste and morality refused to accept the flavors of chili peppers and spices, instead they were accustomed to boiled potatoes and meat. Spicy foods were the “other” and so were the Latinos, which kept them isolated and barred from citizenship. But, as the delicious food inevitably became more popular, businessmen saw an opportunity to can and market these foods in order to make more “wholesome” versions, which really were “white-washed” versions of dishes such as chile con carne. The spread of chile con carne influenced the Memphis dish “chili mac” and the 1920s invention Cincinnati Chili. It became a popular dish in Texas, after cowboys were exposed to it while working with Mexicans. Authenticity of the food was reclaimed by migrant families later on, and by the 1990s, Mexican food was one of the top 3 most popular cuisines in the USA. Salsa became the best selling condiment, even surpassing the popularity of ketchup.
5. Street Food: Many working class Mexicans supplemented their income by selling food on the streets from San Antonio to Los Angeles. The food became very popular and the lively stands eventually attracted a lot of food tourism. This popularity boomed in the 19th century, with records citing that black vendors had even brought tamales back to the Mississippi Delta. During that time, the Mexican vendors were incessantly harassed. But, officials could not stop the people from flocking. Today, in 2016, street vending is essential to the fabric of Los Angeles. Many people don’t know that the act is still illegal. Food writers question whether or not they should write about a certain vendor and take the risk of exposing them to deportation or equipment confiscation. Tamale men have been in downtown Los Angeles since 1870. White-owned businesses would do all they could to stop the vending. The city marginalized the vendors, framing their actions as health concerns, which many people still do today. The idea of a “roach coach” or that you will get sick from these foods is racially driven. This language creates the same kind of fear white businesses owners hoped would keep people away from Mexicans and keep people inside their own restaurants. In 1917, Grand Central Market was created to keep white vendors together and create a “safe food” space. 150 years later, the same issues of legal vs illegal, legitimate vs illegitimate, and safe vs unsafe, create an unequal racial and culinary landscape.
6. African Roots: Many crops that have become synonymous with American cuisine were shipped over from Africa, along with slaves. In fact, many slave owners would have ships send back specific foods their slaves were used to eating. The slaves were not accustomed to American foods and were allowed to harvest and plant their own crops. The red pea was one of these items, and is essential to the famous Southern dish Hoppin’ John. Okra is another African import that has become a staple in America. In New Orleans, gumbo is thickened with okra. The origin of gumbo is a Senegalese dish called “soupikandia.” Senegalese slaves prepared it for their owners and their slave communities. African slaves did not simply work and live separately from white Americans, they raised white Americans and established their palate and cuisine. They were in charge of smoking and cooking meat outside, as well as butchering it, which led to the art of barbecue. Techniques and forms of barbecue were shaped and determined by the slave population, as they tried different woods and curing techniques while feeding the white population.
7. Salted Meat & Preservation: The origins of frying meat in popular Southern dishes such as fried chicken came from techniques learned from Native Americans during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Many people believe the roots are African, but slaves acquired this method in order to preserve meat. Jerky, another popular form of salted and preserved meat, was made through a method practiced by the slaves and taught by the Native Americans. Slaves had to learn to make the most of the little food they had access to, and these methods allowed them to eat more from the bits they had. White Americans used their control over their slaves’ access to food to prove their generosity to the slaves and also argue that these enslaved people were better off than the poor, white Americans. James Madison once stated that enslaved blacks had better lives than the poor classes of Europe in order to defend slavery. That attitude of control and “generosity” led to the necessity of preservation, which is the root of Southern food. It defines essential dishes, such as greens, which are cooked, preserved, and flavored by pork.
8. Pork, Sauce & Seasoning: Pork is synonymous with the South, but consuming it wasn’t always an option. Slaves received rations which included the worst cuts of meat, meaning the feet, head, ribs, and organs. To make these cuts edible they would reference their African flavor palates and use ingredients such as red pepper and vinegar. This went directly to West African tradition and cuisine, and carried through to America as slaves continued to grow peppers in their gardens. This combination became the base for meat seasoning and evolved into barbecue sauce. The closest example to this foundational recipe for barbecue sauce is found in North Carolina and its surrounding regions.
9. Past Rations, Present Essentials: African slaves found similarities between their cultures and that of the Native Americans. Native Americans have been depicted eating from communal bowls, placed at the middle of the table. In West Africa, this practice was also common. Native Americans shared their culture of corn with Americans, passing on recipes to slaves. They taught black Americans to make bread out of corn, leading to popular dishes such as ash-cakes, spoonbread, and cornbread. Once again, these foods were essential because corn was a main ration for slaves. They had to stretch their rations and also find quick ways to sustain themselves because they were worked incessantly, without breaks to eat or rest. Cornbread became essential to slave children, who were sometimes fed from troughs. Memories have been recorded of slave children being fed boiled vegetables with cornbread on top. Cornbread was used to soak up the flavorful water from boiled dishes and stews, again, the slaves couldn’t afford to waste any aspect of their food supply. Sweet potatoes were another essential food for Native Americans that was passed on to slaves. Slaves were able to apply the cooking techniques for the yams of their native Africa to these sweet potatoes. They would often cook both the sweet potatoes and cornbread in hot ashes wrapped in leaves.
Slave rations (controlled by white Americans) led to survival methods, which birthed American cuisine and shaped American palates. The legalization of Latino immigrants and their persistent alienation was directly linked to criticism of their cuisine. Even as Mexicans created businesses and expressed their desire to integrate into American culture, they were framed as “unsafe” in reference to their food flavors and their health standards. Whiteness in bread, high-end sugar treats, and childhood sweets have direct roots to the active maintenance of a racial hierarchy in America.
As we see today, those at the top still eat the best, and now you know why that is, in fact, political. From 18th century slave recipes to 21st century migrant farmers, those at the bottom have always fed those at the top. A lot has changed in the landscape of cuisine and health, from discoveries in nutrition to breakthroughs in technique. We read about this exciting evolution every day. But, many things have stayed the same since the founding of this nation. Those patterns produce quiet effects as we continue to consume. They may go unnoticed to the naked eye or the unassuming foodie, but they are kept very much alive deep within the complex food pyramid of America.