6/1/2020: On Narrative

and the importance of blowing up culinary hierarchies.

My conversation with Bryant Terry last week brought to mind the idea of narrative capital. He noted more than once that dominant narratives around things like urban gardening and veganism code them as white, as hipster, as modern reactions to industrialized food, despite the Black roots of both in his own life and in U.S. history.

I’ve written before about how the mainstream uses easy shorthand to dismiss any uncomfortable truths and erase histories that don’t serve their stories. I think all the time of a chapter opening in Robert Simonson’s A Proper Drink that points to the stereotypes of cocktail bartenders as white guys with mustaches and suspenders, which conveniently leaves out people like Audrey Saunders and Giuseppe Gonzalez. That convenient leaving-out is an erasure in service of simplicity, a simplicity that allows people not to think too hard, not to ask too many questions, not to care too much. It allows anyone outside the convenient narrative to be viewed as an exception, as a brave representative of diversity against a white, cis male backdrop the media itself created. With cowardice as the norm, any baby step in the vague direction of liberal notions of progress and inclusion looks like a leap.

I first came to the phrase “narrative capital” in Alyshia Galvez’s excellent book Eating NAFTA. She takes Noma chef Rene Redzepi to task for his exorbitantly priced Tulum pop-up and tone-deaf commentary on local ingredients and cuisine:

“For Redzepi, who presumably is not up to date on Mexico’s centuries-old culinary, economic, social, and political battles over corn,” she writes, “the price and availability of maize flour, and land rights, it’s simply that tortillas have yet to have their story properly told: ‘Maybe the story-telling has been wrong. And therefore also their appreciation for it.’ We can only wonder who ‘they’ are, those who do not appreciate the sublime tortilla. Perhaps Redzepi refers to Mexicans, who no longer eat as many tortillas, or he might mean the diners willing to spend obscene amounts of money for hand-rolled pasta and potentially also for corn tortillas. Redzepi and his friends have ventured into the heart of darkness, identified an underappreciated treasure, and brought it back, to elevate it, pay homage to it, and change its narrative, but it is not clear that his project benefits those who consider tortillas their own.”

The narrative of foods and cuisines are significant, because they’re often the only way many people will experience them. Travel is expensive; time-travel is impossible. What we all have are stories and recipes. Think of Toni Tipton-Martin, who rewrote the history of American gastronomy in The Jemima Code, giving primacy of place to Black cooks. It’s the narrative of corporate plant-based meat that allows its stock price to jump. It’s the capital provided by constant media visibility that allows the few to stand in for the many (indeed, it’s the machine that decides whether you’re disposable). It’s the understanding of sourdough as the world’s only naturally leavened bread that creates a culinary hierarchy that mimics how power and privilege function on a global political and economic scale.

And that’s the thing, right? Allowing culinary hierarchies, via narrative capital, to mimic the ways power and privilege function on a global political and economic scale. That’s why it’s so important to rewrite histories, to question assumptions, to not let simplicity and the liberal obsession with representation win when we can pursue something much more revolutionary—something much more honest.


This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature chef, poet, and writer Omar Tate of Honeysuckle pop-up. We’ll discuss his work and the brilliant way he’s been able to control his own narrative. Subscribe here.

Published:
At Tenderly, I wrote about three variations on the same muffin recipe.

Reading:
I had a weekend deadline for a piece on meat—what else is new!!!—so next to me right now are In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America by Maureen Ogle, Meathooked: The History and Science of our 2.5-Million Year Obsession With Meat by Marta Zaraska, and Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America by Joshua Specht (which I reviewed last year for The Baffler).

I’m also doing a simultaneous read of a bunch of food memoirs to try to… figure something out about food memoirs, but I’m not ready to discuss them yet. Generally, I try to read about food only during the week and save the weekends for pleasurable reading (rarely do the two intersect, I’m afraid!), but this weekend, pleasure eluded me. Anyway, please tell me about your favorite food memoirs!

Cooking:
I made a raw tart and put the recipe on Instagram, but wrote up a more detailed one for Tenderly. I made a vegan pesto with local basil and pumpkin seeds. I put the vegan pesto on a variation on an eggplant parm hero, served on baguette pain-stakingly made by my boyfriend; I held up the sandwich upon assembly and said, “Look at this Sopranos shit!” Frankly, I did not cook anything too interesting this week—as I said, pleasure eluded me in favor of duty.

Recommending:
The 2013 song “L’Aerotrain” by the band Exsonvaldes, of whom I am a new gigantic fan.

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