A Cook's Manifesto On Power
Whiteness is power.
I’m gonna give you a quick minute to let that sink in, and I want you to understand why and how I say that. Let your immediate reaction to that statement permeate and become real to you. What is your response to that statement: whiteness is power? Does it embolden you? Does it bring you shame? Does it make you afraid? Does it make you scared? Sit with that for a quick minute.
I am a white woman. I sit in the seat of power. I expect that when I speak people will listen to me. My whiteness is a ticket to tell my story. And that means that right now in our historical moment I must speak about truth. As a white person, to not speak at this very moment in history is to silently affirm the status quo, and the status quo is about retaining power for whiteness regardless of morality, and justice.
In my whiteness I refuse to be quiet anymore.
Let me give you a little backstory here. I am a professional chef, educator and author. I have five degrees and too many certifications for me to even know the number. For this story, my PhD is perhaps the most important one for you to know about, but the associate’s degree in culinary arts is a close second to this story, and maybe even more important.
In 2009 I left the confines of a chef-instructor position at New England Culinary Institute to conduct my dissertation fieldwork in New Orleans. I spent a year as a visiting scholar at Tulane’s Newcomb Center. I was fortunate to spend hours in the field with too many people to mention here, although their stories will feature large in coming posts. What I can say is that those stories were gifted to me in a way that I have held sacred. People told me their stories. They let me record them. They let me extrapolate on them. And I have held that honor as sacred space since I was awarded my doctoral degree in 2012.
When I finished that work there were a lot people who pushed me in the most nurturing way to publish that research as a book. I resisted. I have resisted since then. Because I felt those stories were not mine to tell. The things I recorded. The photos I took. The analysis I gave them… I did not feel an ownership to them, and here is why…
Food is a narrative. How we cook for others is imbued with the deep, intricate language of our people. When we make a dish our mom, or grammy made we are recreating a space, a place, a visceral experience of the past. To take those recipes is to coopt that space. As a white northerner, I never felt “okay” about telling those stories because I feared taking some kind of ownership of them. They are not mine to own. I simply transcribed them.
Food is narrative, and narrative is power.
When you get to tell a story you own it, and how it lives and evolves. This is so apparent now, when we talk about who controls the narrative of politics. Who has access to the media… who is heard on the radio, online, on TV, in the newspaper. Power lies with those who get to speak, and food is a language.
The kitchen is a different language though, it’s a place that speaks outside of verbal communication. In a kitchen you are known when you can perform the actions and rituals of cooking. I was never so reminded of this as when I was a young kitchen manager in Boston and was in the expo position [expeditor = the person who calls tickets (orders), and fires (tells people when to cook)]. I was the only English speaker in the kitchen that night (and the only woman), the dominate language was Spanish. So, we did service in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish. It didn’t matter. Everything went out without a hitch. It was the only service period that month we did not comp [give away] food because of poor kitchen service.
So, I speak this language. I know how to cook. It’s ingrained in me. I feel most comfortable in a kitchen. I love to just chop vegetables and cook. It’s meditation in action. I know the language, I understand the cadence of cooking. I breathe that space. And that means I get to spend time with people that I can’t communicate with in any other way, and that opens up space to share experience… and people will tell you their story in that space, because it is safe. If you speak food you get to access these spaces that are forbidden to Other. When you can deeply connect through the production of food you get to access other people and cultures in a way you are not allowed otherwise.
And I collected stories, recorded in many ways. And I have held those silently to myself because I have felt a deep need to respect the right of those people to own those stories. It is too easy for me to own those, to insert myself and make them my own. I have resisted that since 2010 when I started that work.
But I can’t any more. Tonight, I was reminded of the power of food and voice. I was made aware again that food is a political tool – the dominate system is rewarded when you are sick and require healthcare, and they benefit greatly from a food system that produces processed food that makes you sick in the first place. It is no mystery that we no longer learn how to cook in school or in our families… if you can’t cook you can’t control what goes into your body – you are forced to consume products that are tainted by a system that has a lot to earn from you getting sick and needing healthcare.
Food is power.
Narrative is power.
Health is power.
When you control those things, you get to live a happy and long life. When you don’t have control of those things, others dictate how you live. Too often many parts of our society are not allowed voice in controlling their food, narrative and health. At this particular point in history this is more apparent, and more virulent than I remember in my lifetime.
I am in a unique position to understand this and to fight against the classicist, racist, gendered assault we are now living through. I refuse to be silent anymore. Silence is acquiescence. Silence is submission. And I will not submit to these attempts at domination.
Instead, I will tell those stories that were gifted to me. I would like to revel in them, in all their pain and joy. Right now, being silent is a crime, and I will not be a party to that felony. I choose to publish these under my name because these are often politically charged stories. I want to own my part in the telling of those. Because these were transmitted to me, they changed me. These stories have become a part of my narrative too. I do not own the experiences, or the recipes, but I am remiss if I do not tell what was told to me. These were given to me to give away… to share… to make part of the larger narrative of what American means.
These are stories about food. They are a transmission from one person to another at a given point in time. This is what food is… a sacred transmission of history, culture, belief, and love. I share them as those things and with that intention. At the end, we all eat at the same table.
[For those who care, the initial research done for my PhD, and the early work I publish here, was done under an approved IRB through Antioch University. The work was vetted by the faculty of Antioch University prior to the research and reviewed before my dissertation was approved. Every person who’s words you read and listen to gave me written consent both before and after my writing. Each person received a full audio copy of their interview with me, as well as my written analysis.]
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Traveling around, eating what's found.