Politics on Your Dinner Plate
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” Now might be a good time to remember that those lines, first made famous by Ecclesiastes and later by Pete Seeger, are mostly about food.
We are entering a long winter in this country and though these things have come to pass, not to stay, for those of us who eat and who care, the question we might ask ourselves is whether this love and passion we have for food can be bent toward protest in the meantime. Or should restaurants and recipes, like Broadway shows at least according to our newly inaugurated President, remain apolitical, sweet pleasure for the picking. One need only to open one’s eyes to see that food, of course, is as powerful an avenue for protest as the National Mall or the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
What we eat, who gets to eat what, who eats and where they eat it have long been some of the most bloodily contested topics in this country. One of the sparks that set the Civil Rights movement aflame took place at a lunch counter, when four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, demanded service at Woolworth’s on February 1st, 1960. And let’s not forget that it was cakes and pies baked by Georgia Gilmore’s Club from Nowhere and sold to the sympathetic or just plain hungry in Montgomery, AL that paid for the gas that made the bus boycott feasible. (John T. Edge is in fine form here on the topic.) Food as protest isn’t just throwing tomatoes but harnessing the power food has on our daily lives to bring about change.
There are about as many ways to engage with food as protest as there are to roast a chicken. Restaurants can be used as explicit loci of protests, as was the case with the sit-ins of the Civil Rights era or again recently when protesters crowded Jean-Georges in Manhattan to stage an organized “cough-in” to draw attention to the devastating effects of an ACA repeal. (The restaurant, a Trump favorite, is located in the Trump Tower.) Companies who support the insupportable can be boycotted and chefs themselves, like both José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian, can boycott. Chefs too can be boycotted. I, for one, am keeping a close watch on who cooks for the new administration’s State dinners, if there are any.
But another way to think about food as protest is to realize that food is amongst the largest household expenditures. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs it at $7,023 in 2015. And so every dollar spent on food can also be a ballot cast for the change you’d like to see. Whether it is redoubling your efforts to buy food raised sustainably and organically or supporting local agriculture through CSAs and farmers markets, these choices aren’t just an action of protest but an action of progress.
It might be supporting restaurants and enterprises which are safe spaces for women, people of color, immigrants, refugees and those in the LGBT community. It might mean noticing how many people of color are waiters and how many are bussers or back waiters and saying something when you see the disparity. It could mean avoiding restaurants you know do not pay a livable wage and, just as importantly, making it your business to know which do and which don’t. In the home kitchen, protest could mean drawing into the cuisines of the dispossessed to gain a better understanding and enlarge your sense of compassion. It could mean renewing a focus on eating habits that do not further doom our climate to apocalyptic warming. Protest could be less meat and more greens or it could be familiarizing yourself with the glories of offal so less goes to waste.
Whatever happens in these next years, we will eat every day. Let’s not be afraid to speak truth to power with our mouths full.