I'm a Black Food Writer. Here's Why We Need More Like Me.
On the power of representation, and its ability to illuminate a shared history.
February 17, 2017
“Outside-the-perimeter” is Atlanta nomenclature for the burbs.
It refers to a 60ish-mile looping interstate that encircles the city. On the eastern side of the loop is Clarkston, Georgia, where I grew up: a modest multicultural town of thousands that, even among Atlantans, is not well known. Refugees from all over the world settled there in the nineties, so we were always flanked by Ethiopians and Somalis, Jamaicans with their heavily-spiced grilled chicken. I recall sour foods in unfamiliar packages at the Teyf household, who were from Russia.
Things changed in middle school. Against my wishes, I was sent to The Westminster Schools: a mostly-white, Christian school whose campus and endowment would humble most universities. There was no bus to Westminster, just my father driving us all the way across town, to the wealthy Northwest corner of the city. It was there that I really learned all the ways in which black was different. Even as I tried to assimilate, the reminders of otherness were strewn everywhere: in sports (where I was expected to excel), in finance, in social strata, in educational background, in music, and so on.
That’s a common thing for minorities, I suspect. In mostly-white communities, you become an ambassador for your race. The stakes are high, and you try hard not to screw it up for the ones behind you. This was how it felt to be a black student, and later, as a black restaurant manager, sommelier, and now, as a food writer. Whether you hate it or embrace it, the conflict is impossible to divorce. Even if you don’t acknowledge it, you are bound to it.
I left Atlanta just about as soon as I could. I was so eager, I moved to Oregon — a state I’d never been to, but whose Douglas fir-lined roads satisfied the primary criteria of getting as far away from home as possible. By 19, I had enrolled in culinary school in Portland. Every Saturday morning, I’d spend hours walking in circles at the Portland Farmers Market. It was in Oregon that I was exposed to the most defining revelation of my life: witnessing the connection between restaurant and agriculture. Before long, I had a sommelier certification and started managing restaurants. My youthfulness, and certainly my race, consistently baffled patrons asking for someone in charge, an expert.
A common part of the black experience is once you’ve reached any level of authority, it is often met with skepticism or surprise. Black chefs know this well: we must validate our presence, where others exist unquestioned. And what does it mean to be a black food writer? It means that you’ll never just be a food writer, you’ll be a black food writer. It will come up lots of times, maybe not every time, but in lots of ways, the way race does in just about every other facet of our lives.
People make all kinds of assumptions about food writers, but fundamentally, that they are academic, learned, polished. I am academic, learned, polished. But when people construct this image, they don’t see a black person, because, when they look around in real life, there are not that many black people writing about food. It then becomes even more important that I do — if only so those who feel unwelcome in this space see someone who looks like them and are compelled to go forth.
The state of food culture in this country makes it a unique time to talk about all this. Undoubtedly we’re living in a golden era of food, exemplified by knowledge, interest, and access, fanned by technology and travel. Over the last three decades, restaurants have evolved from convenience to fringe cultural interest to a primary form of entertainment for urbanites and millennials. Chefs, and to some degree, food professionals at every rung of the restaurant experience, have all been the beneficiary of expanding social capital and adoration. Working in food doesn’t mean what it used to — though, with a $2.13 federal hourly wage for tipped workers, there are reminders.
Working in food doesn’t look like it used to, either: from the 17th century until the latter part of the 20th, the notion of a white male as a professional cook was not only dishonorable, it was unfathomable. Many African-Americans left the kitchen because earning their civil rights meant they could pursue other careers, not just the one they’d been confined to.
In a matter of decades, restaurants have gone from the domain of the diminished — who couldn’t even enter the same door as the guests at the place they worked — to the domain of the revered. The exodus of black kitchen labor necessitated a supplemental workforce, and it doesn’t require intimate knowledge of food service to understand that many of those workers are from Mexico and other parts of Central America. As Anthony Bourdain famously said in 2007, “The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board.”
It’s made for a complicated convergence. U.S. kitchens staff much fewer African-Americans, though many of our nation’s formative foods and traditions come from their recent ancestors. Latino workers, we know, are the fulcrum of the kitchen. Without them, there would be no kitchen, no ingredients. Wedged uncomfortably in the mix is the ascent of European-trained chefs and their ultimate influence as arbiters of food culture. When the gaze of celebrity does not extend to all national or cultural boundaries, we are left to assume one of these ancestries is superior to the others. Even the most benevolent analysis of this imbalance leaves us with a gloomy conclusion.
Diversity improves culture. This is particularly true with food. But when a chef becomes an authority on a cuisine and does not resemble the people or place that brought it forth, we struggle, because it’s a perpetuation of painful erasure.
It’s often said that race is a difficult subject — and it is. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be talked about. It should be talked with appropriate empathy. Empathy, along with understanding the far-reaching implications of race in our past and present, helps us grow together. Understanding and eating the food of a particular culture is one way to achieve it. In seeing ourselves and our identities so thoroughly cloaked in our diets, food is a fantastic medium to keep us closely attached to a resilient and sometimes tortured ancestry. It is a visceral way to see oneself in a history you may not have realized was your own.
It is equally important to acknowledge the history being made in real time. To celebrate the vision of chefs like Nyesha Arrington, or Eduardo Jordan, or Therese Nelson. Preston Clark, Matthew Raiford, Bryant Terry. Tanya Holland, Nelson German.
Black history is human history. It is all of ours. And like the herring deftly reeled in by slaves on coastal plantations, destined for its salt-cure — preservation is essential to survival.