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Written by on February 27, 2020

Story by Chuck Tackett


“There is no more important time than right now to be telling stories about civics, politics, and culture through food. Food, after all, is the love language of our national discourse. Kitchen table civics and food politics have been absent from our dialogue at this level for a long time.”

– Chef Andrew Zimmern

For as long as I can recall, the practice of sitting down and breaking bread together was a sign of mutual respect. Even as a child, I was aware that showing disdain openly to food one was not familiar with was verboten.

It boggles my mind, even to this day, people who claim they do not like a certain food, without even tasting it. Usually, it was for some obscure reason, like color or texture. A great example of that is the vegetable okra, which is close to my heart. Being of Creole heritage, okra is also used in African cooking as well.

Throughout my life, when folks have found out I was from Louisiana, it never failed for them to let me know how gross they thought okra was because they thought it was slimy. I let them know my mother used it all the time when she was cooking gumbo. I never understood how one doesn’t like something if one has never tried it.

As I became older, I tried new foods, and I liked them. For example povitica, pierogis, Italian wedding soup, and cookies. I liked them and even if I didn’t, I would never think of disrespecting folks, by turning up my nose to them about their ethnic cuisine. Sadly, it has been my experience, when it comes to non-Eurocentric cuisine, that level of respect is not reciprocated. For example, I can’t stand the taste of Irish soda bread. I was told it was the caraway seeds. But if it was offered to me, I would put some sort of topping on it, or eat it with some sort of soup, to camouflage the taste. Some people, for example, would adjust ethnic food to fit their taste. A great example of that is how Americans have mistreated Mexican cuisine. Some of my Latino friends through the years would call that “Blue-eyed Mexican cuisine.” Not me. If I am going to consume ethnic cuisine, I want it to be authentic. One time in the early 1980s, I was in L.A. I was eating at this Mexican restaurant. For dessert, I ordered sopapillas. The elderly waiter laughed and bent down toward me and whispered in my ear, “Mijo, that’s a gringo dish. Try flan instead.” Needless to say, my face was wrecked, but I learned of a new dish.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s when I was involved with 90.1FM KKFI, Kansas City’s 100,000-watt listener-supported community radio station, that my view of the world regarding food, dance, music, news, and culture changed forever. My mind was greatly expanded regarding those subjects.

In that same time period, I learned how deeply political food could be. It was February, the month assigned as Black History Month. I was working at Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. Our office decided to celebrate Black History Month by having a smorgasbord of different foods that had nothing to do with the continent of Africa, or Black American cuisine. Our activity committee, if my memory serves me right, were all White. I went up to them and let them know they were disrespecting my culture. I told them of a Liberian restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas. I knew the owner and she could cater a buffet of Liberian food for us. I explained what it was, and the committee turned up their nose at me. Finally, they used the old standard line of “it was too expensive,” as a way to shut me up.

On the day of the event, I took a vacation day. I paid the owner of the Liberian restaurant to cater a buffet with my own money, and I met her there at the office. She brought my coworker’s tropical iced tea, Liberian style fried fish, Liberian style collard greens with cassava leaf, cornbread, and peach cobbler. The buffet was free. When my fellow workers found out I paid for it with my own money, they took up a donation I was paid in full. They had collected about $300. Needless to say, most of the office ignored the Activity committees’ spread. The moral of the story, boys and girls, you will not disrespect my culture. You will not dictate to me how I celebrate my culture.

Now let’s fast forward to 2020. Ethnic food in the United States has become more popular, as the demographics of the country have become browner and browner, with different ethnic groups, besides Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous, and Asians bringing their food and culture to the USA populace.

A couple of Sundays ago, starting on February 13th, a new limited series premiered on MSNBC titled, “What’s Eating America?” It was described as looking at politics through the lens of food. Celebrity Chef Andrew Zimmern was the host. He is noted for traveling all over the world and bringing the cuisines of different lands to his audience. Fellow celebrity chef and humanitarian Chef Jose’ Andreas joined Zimmern for the first episode. Both addressed the role of migrant workers plays in putting food on Americans’ tables. The chefs also went behind the scenes, to address U.S. immigration policies, and how the food industries used migrant and immigrant labor on a daily basis. They ate doing the jobs Americans refuse to do, yet Republicans, knowing that fact, use the talking point to lie about them, taking American jobs to sow division and discord.

A future episode will discuss how climate change is affecting some of the foods we eat. Other issues will be addressed in future episodes. They are scheduled on MSNBC to air from 9:00 pm to 10:00 pm ET on February 27th, March 1st, March 8th, and March 15th. Check them out, if you can.

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