Slaughterhouse 90210

“God made food; the devil the cooks.”
— James Joyce, Ulysses

Taco comment heard round the world

This is old news by now on the internet, but perhaps pertinent to our discussion. If you don’t hang out on the internet much, though, the story goes like this: The FBI arrested four police officers in East Haven, CT on charges that they had terrorized latino members of the community. When asked what, if anything, he was doing to help the latino community, the mayor of East Haven answered, “I might have tacos when I get home.” For a mayor named Maturo, it’s an awfully immature comment, right? (Watch the baffling video at my favorite news source, videogum.com.) While I think it’s probably not the best thing in the world that this comment has overshadowed the very serious charges against the East Haven police department, it has been taken as evidence of troubling and pervasive racism in East Haven’s leadership. In the days following, protesters sent thousands of “protest tacos” (best neologism ever!) to the mayor’s office.

I raise it here for two reasons. First was this mayor’s immediate impulse to link a community  with a single food item, to reduce a heterogenous group of people to a(n inaccurate) metonym. Second was the response to the mayor’s statement, with criticism focusing more on his racism than on his stupidity. A Connecticut state rep compared the comment to a “slighting the African American community with a fried chicken joke.”

We should probably talk about the connection between food, race, and racism. And also about the way the banner ads on the urbandictionary definition of East Haven are ads for making tacos with Old El Paso taco sauce? Right? We should probably talk about that.

Meatball Problems: Jersey Shore and Italian-Americanness

 

A few years ago, MTV premiered a crass, exploitative show portraying “real” people picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, destined to make buckets of money for the network and for the show’s putative stars. Jersey Shore premiered in December 2009, and the controversy that resulted hasn’t stopped the momentum of this monster, now in its fifth season somehow. Italian-American groups registered their displeasure with the show almost immediately, complaining about the show’s overuse of the term “guido” and sleazy reliance on Italian-American stereotypes. It is an ugly, artless show that has captured a lot more attention than many of the other ugly, artless shows out there. Why?

The show rarely purports to be about Italian-Americans. It purports to be about these kids, some of whom are of Italian descent (and some of whom aren’t) who embrace a peculiar particular lifestyle. The lifestyle is about spending the summer at the beach at the Jersey Shore, drinking shots, going to loud Euro-y dance clubs, foregoing the beach itself to hit up a tanning salon, teasing hair, seeking “love” with other club-going, shot-drinking, tanned muscular young people. (There’s some other stuff, too, involving yucky drunken sex, men mistreating women, everybody being vulgar about their sexuality, a chronic lack of bottom sheets, public urination, anger management issues, and knowing catchphrase creation. It’s a mess and everybody involved has a lot more money than any of us ever will.)

The Italian-American thing is interesting, because it was fore-grounded as a controversy at the show’s debut, but it is not a big part of the “plot” of the show. With one main exception.

Each Sunday, the characters pause from being monstrous to one another to gather for a family dinner. It wasn’t until reading Hasia Diner’s book that I realized that this is what makes Jersey Shore momentarily human. The cast is not all Italian-American, but they all are identifying themselves with Italian-Americanness, and molding their collective and individual identities around food.  And they eat as Diner’s Italian-American immigrants ate: macaroni and sauce, olive oil and cheese, Italian sausage. Cast members’ mothers are venerated as outstanding cooks (while current girlfriends and love interests – who do not cook, as usually the boys do Sunday’s cooking – are treated as disposable.)

I hear echoes of DJ Pauly D, Vinny, The Situation and Ron when I read, on p. 82 “In discussing marital prospects, most informants indicated that they preferred Italian girls, because, ‘They know just what we eat, the way of the house, and so on. I’m used to eating Italian food; that’s the main reason.’”

In the show’s fourth season, the cast were magically whisked away to Florence, Italy, where they showed no curiosity about anything, and seemed surprised that the motherland was so unfamiliar. The best part was when they kept noticing the Vatican everywhere in Florence. Or when Deena whined, “God, everything’s in another language!” On the other hand, this quote from JWoww is actually kind of a propros and winning:

When I’m 80 years old, and I’m making pizza in my kitchen, and I’m teaching my kids how to make pizza, and they ask me, ‘Oh where did you learn to make pizza,’ I’ll be like, ‘Bitch I made it in Florence, that’s where I made pizza, so shut your mouth and enjoy my pizza.’

What does this say about place and authenticity?

For research purposes, I add this link to the Irish version of JS, Tallifornia, perhaps not safe for work. I’m sorry and enjoy.

Bands named after food, in no particular order

The Raspberries

The Jam

famed Temple alumni Hall and Oat(e)s 

The Cookies

Orange Juice

Strawberry Alarm Clock

Neutral Milk Hotel

Country Joe & the Fish

The Seeds

Honeybunch

Coconutz

Pop Art Toasters

The Flying Burrito Brothers

Pulp 

Honorable Mention:

Self-Eaters

My former painting teacher/friend Dana Schutz did a series of paintings of an imagined race of “self-eaters,” people who could eat themselves and remake themselves in any form they wanted. The paintings are kind of funny, kind of gross, and beautiful.

Face Eater

It seems like a few critics/gallery blurb writers made the connection that self-eating was a kind of metaphor for making art. But I always liked thinking about the basic premise of the paintings: what would happen if you just ate yourself to live? If you didn’t have to rely on anybody else, or do any labor, if all you did was just be by yourself and eating? If food wasn’t a motivator, would we do anything at all?

Reviews Round-Up

I round up (some of) the book reviews so you don’t have to. Onward!

Ronald Bayor, writing in The Journal of American History, finds much to admire in Diner’s book but thinks she uses too many anecdotal examples and overstates her case. He points out that Diner underplays the role of anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe, asking more broadly, “Could property ownership and a more secure political future have less meaning in emigration than food for these groups? And did religion, language, and nativism have less meaning for the creation of an American ethnic group consciousness than food?” Nonetheless, “this is a significant work that clearly brings European scarcity and American plenty into the immigration-ethnicization discussion.” (Bayor specializes in immigration history at Georgia State.)

Harvey Levenstein reviewed Diner’s book in the American Historical Review. This line made me LOL: “her appalling description of Irish cookery is a refreshing change from the usual hagiographies of immigrant cooks.” But Levenstein isn’t convinced that hunger was the key motivator for emigrants: “But her main point, the importance of “hunger” in the immigration, remains rather problematic… After all, as she acknowledges, it was not the hungriest who left but those who had somewhat more in terms of resources.” He points out that plenty of people emigrating from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe went to places other than abundant America, places where acquiring enough food would be challenging. Like Canada.

Levenstein teaches in Ontario, I feel compelled to point out, and wrote a book on the transformation of the American diet around the turn of the twentieth century.

In the Urban History Review, Sarah Elvins cannot resist using culinary metaphors to describe Diner’s book, a “treat” whose “strength is in its ability to retain the distinct “flavours” of the communities involved.” She find little to critique in the book aside from some wandering chronology, roaming back and forth between 1820 and 1930. Still the book is easy to digest. 😉

Mindy Weidman, who I believe was an undergraduate in history at the time, reviewed Diner’s book for the journal Food & Foodways. Curiously for a journal on food history, this review treats Diner’s book as an immigration history with an overemphasis on food.  Diner, Weidman argues, “minimizes the significance of any other factors [to immigration] and, instead, proclaims food abundance and possibilities for an improved diet as the primary motivation pulling migrants to the New World.” If the review means anything, I’d say it reveals an academic resistance to taking food seriously as a motivator of human behavior.

In the New York Times Book Review, food critic Robert Sietsema says this thing that is anathema to grad students: “In proper academic fashion, the book also includes introductory and concluding chapters that rehash what will be obvious to the reader of the other six chapters. You can skip them, unless you expect to be tested.” More usefully, for our purposes, he laments Diner’s lack of field research in today’s ethnic restaurants. He wants more of a sense of actually tasting things in the writing.

I chuckle when Mark Choate describes the book as “a tasteful and satisfying feast” in the International Migration Review. Diner’s reach exceeds her grasp at times, but she provides welcome insights showing “how emigrants developed new traditions, in a context much different from the Old World.”

Irish Foods

Hasia Diner surprised me by forcing me to remember that Irish identity in the United States does not center on food. Of all the “stuff” I think of when I think of the Irish (this amazing song and Guinness and the stunning The Secret of Kells) none of it is cuisine. I am tempted to buy her explanation for that, too – potatoes were imposed by the English and symbolically linked to suffering, and didn’t require/inspire technological innovation, so cooking was not communal nor a focus of family life.

One counterexample is a strange deli on South Street at 8th Street, offering up a confusing combination of products, among them hookahs and “Irish foods.”

When I was out jogging this afternoon, I went into the store to get a better look at the foods on sale.

For a deli with limited shelf space, this one stocks quite a few varieties of beans, including some from a company called “Batchelors,” aka “Ireland’s leading brand in canned Baked Beans, Peas and Pulses.” Okay.

 

Also available? Chipsticks and Hula Hoops. Chipsticks are manufactured by Tayto (“The Tayto name is synonymous with crisps and is regularly used as a generic term for crisps in Ireland.”) And Hula Hoops (actual motto on actual website “little hoops of satisfying fun. Made for fingers… and mouths”) have been around since 1973 and may cause cancer.

Did I mention you can also buy a hookah here?

Sunday barbacoa: Ethnic eating in the cosmopolitan metropolis

Outside Acapulco restaurant on 9th Street, below Washington Ave.

It’s Sunday morning. You’re a bit hungover: bleary, maybe, but above all, hungry. You pull on your jacket, then scrounge for your wallet and sunglasses before taking those first tentative steps down 9th Street.

Walking south–just before you get a whiff of the storefronts where Vietnamese customers buy live chickens and doves (but well south of the throngs of yuppies waiting for a gratuitously overpriced frittata at Sabrina’s on Christian Street)–you’ll hear the thud of ranchera music blasting out of street-facing speakers. Even hungrier now, the earthy fragrance of fresh masa and blackened guajillo peppers beckons you southward…

___________

(Thanks for letting me indulge in some second-person novelistic pretension.)

___________

But seriously, take a walk through the putative “Italian Market,” south of Washington Ave, until you hit the section now dominated by Mexican restaurants, tiendas, distance-calling/internet shops and paleterias.

If you can, go on a Sunday, when the tacquerias run by immigrants from Puebla (in south-central Mexico) are selling barbacoa–slow-braised goat that’s been seasoned with cumin, garlic and ground chiles. Eat it with a stack of warm tortillas, dipping little bundles into a soup made rich from the goat’s juices. Garnish with roasted poblanos (rajas) and some lime or just with a bit of onion, cilantro and salsa verde. Repeat.

While you’re eating, think deeply about why, exactly, you’re there. It may have started with an off-hand tip from Drew Lazor  (the City Paper food writer), but consider why you thought a curious lack of Yelp reviews might bode well. Could this be the new spot, one step ahead of the more adventurous South Philly foodies?

Horchata.

But that question begs still more: What kind of authenticity-seeking are you up to–and what are the costs? What type of erasures–of the chef’s ethnic and regional origins, of her own experience of modernity, of the complicated history behind supposed “original” and “pure” food–are you endorsing?

Above all, which privileges (class, education, cosmopolitanism) are you re-affirming by looking for the next-most-authentic-place?

Is the ability to taste, enjoy (and talk about) such a range of cuisines–from this barbacoa feast to the fishy stank of Cambodian porridge–just the post-modern equivalent of Victorian bourgeois self-superiority? Are you no better than the English couple from the illustration in Diner’s book, mocking an Irish woman for serving “undressed tomatoes”? Or are you something different altogether?

Taking another sip of horchata only muddles the issue.

Peasant Food: Fare Fortuna, Trovare l’America

I happened to skim Eater Philly while I was reading Hasia Diner’s book, and one line from Philly restaurant tycoon Stephen Starr leapt out at me as fodder for our conversation.

Well, I’ve been obsessed with opening a red sauce Italian place. Not the high-end stuff, but the peasant food.

This is boiler-plate for foodie-types these days. I watch Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern exploring the world’s food and extolling the virtues of peasant food. I think we kind of know what they all mean when they refer to peasant food. They mean food that is simple, mostly local, and highly resourceful. Peasants use every part of the animal, pack maximum nutritional punch into meals that have to be put together with limited time and marginal tools. The food is hearty and unpretentious. Think of pho, which incorporates the cheapest, toughest, most mysterious cuts of meat, or feijoada which stretches meager portions of meat into abundant bean stews. Or of course, a table spilling over with pasta and tomato saucy (gravy, right?) and bread and olive oil and mozzarella. Just like all those peasants in Italy used to eat, right?

I think Diner’s strongest section is on Italian emigration. I like how she details the deprivation of most Italians’ diets in Italy, and the structural reasons for it (strong class distinctions, a regressive tax system, and client-patron relations.) A cohesive sense of Italian identity came only in the United States as Italians from diverse regions settled in American cities and ate together: “Feasting upon dishes once the sole preserve of their social and economic superiors enabled them to mold an Italian identity in America around food.” (54)

I would relish the opportunity to watch Hasia Diner upbraid Stephen Starr, explaining to him that “pasta and olive oil, along with meat and cheese, defined a good life, a life of choice,” in the United States, rather than a scene of pastoral subsistence in Italy’s countryside. (57) Perhaps Starr should model his peasant food Italian restaurant on those predecessors to American Italian restaurants, boarding houses for single male laborers, and amend “Italian” with the suffix “-American.”

“Di Milkhome tsvishn Tshap-sui un Gefilte Fish”

I was reminded of this image, which circulated the internet this past Christmas season, when I read in Diner’s book about the early Jewish social pattern of going out to Chinese restaurants. Diner writes (205-206):

In 1928 Der Tog, a New York daily Yiddish newspaper, ran an article entitled, “Di Milkhome tsvishn Tshap-sui un Gefilte Fish” (The War between Chop Suey and Gefillte Fish). Although slightly tongue-in-cheek, the article’s juxtaposition of the Chinese dish with the symbol of Jewish cultural continuity as embodied in food hinted at challenges to Jewish practice.

It is kind of a throw-away paragraph in the chapter, but I imagine she included it because of the enduring salience of the connection. The above image generated much reposting and knowing LOLing.