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The Culinary Is Political

In a mobilized America, food and activism go hand in hand

Gabriella Gershenson

May 01, 2018

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Once upon a time, the culinary world was seen as a safe zone, a place where people could immerse themselves in the comforts of food and hide from the more complicated aspects of life. Well, that antiquated notion may have just died its final death.

Food journalists Kim Severson and Julia Moskin of The New York Times recently picked up Pulitzer Prizes not for their excellent recipes, but for exposing the sexual harassment that was rampant at Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield’s restaurants. And over the last year, the country’s most talked about chef, José Andrés, was singled out not for a pop-up restaurant or a viral food craze, but for feeding millions of Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria hit (which he continues to do), providing sustenance when the government did not. It’s no wonder that he is this year’s James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year.

But food and advocacy have long been intertwined. Just look at Fannie Lou Hamer and her fight for food sovereignty for African Americans in the Civil Rights-era South, or Frances Moore Lappé, whose book Diet For A Small Planet raised awareness about the environmental and social consequences of what we eat. But this past year, the links between food and political activism have become more robust than any time in recent memory. In all walks of the industry, people who previously occupied in-the-box roles are rising to the occasion, supporting communities and causes that they feel have been subverted by the Trump administration, society at large, or both. These days, when pastry chefs aren’t plating desserts, they’re fundraising for Planned Parenthood, or baking Protest Cakes. Chefs are crafting dinners not only to satisfy appetites, but to illustrate greater social points, such as the economic inequality between black and white Americans, to name one. Between the current government’s regressive policies when it comes to reproductive rights, the environment, immigration, and racial equality, and the growing prominence of social movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter, it’s not too difficult to find a worthy cause. 

Jessamyn Rodriguez, the owner of the non-profit Hot Bread Kitchen, which trains immigrant and formerly incarcerated women in the craft of bread baking, then places them in full-time jobs with benefits, didn’t start her business as a form of activism when she founded it in 2007. But she says today’s political context has effectively done that for her. “I never really called myself an activist when I started Hot Bread Kitchen—I never felt it was particularly political,” says Rodriguez. “But as the tides turn in this country and it’s gotten more xenophobic and more racist, the work has not changed, but it has become more relevant, and more political.”

But these days, it’s okay to have an agenda. Julia Turshen, a bestselling author and co-writer of many cookbooks (including The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook with Rodriguez), was spurred to action by the injustice playing out on the national stage surrounding the election of Donald Trump. Her resulting book, Feed the Resistance: Recipes + Ideas for Getting Involved, was published in short order, less than a year after he became president. The compilation of essays and recipes from a diverse group of activists and food professionals is as much about the importance of representation as it is about affecting change. “I wanted any reader to pick up the book and see themselves in it, whether it’s because of age or location or race or occupation,” says Turshen, who identifies as a gay Jewish woman. “That’s why I share so much about myself personally in my cookbooks. I talk about my wife and my marriage all the time. It’s so meaningful to have the opportunity to reflect and normalize that in a cookbook.” In April, Turshen started a database of underrepresented people in the food industry—primarily gender non-conforming, LGBT, and women of color—called Equality at the Table (EATT), her practical response to the problem of homogeneity that skews white male.

If sustainability was the passion of food activists during the peak of the farm to table movement, the issue of representation may be the most central in today’s politically-charged culinary conversations. This is something that Minnesota chef and activist Sean Sherman, whose cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, won a James Beard Media Award this year, knows a lot about. As a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe who was raised on a reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Sherman had to go to great lengths to learn about his own culinary heritage. “I couldn’t just go online and order The Joy of Native American Cooking,” says Sherman. He spent years doing field research to piece together the intricate and rich foodways of indigenous Americans, and is now in the process of opening a non-profit food lab that will, among other things, reacquaint people in this country with its original food system. 

“When I first started down this path, it was based on the realization that there was very little indigenous representation in the culinary world, not only here, but in my hometown,” says Sherman. “In Minneapolis, where I started my career as a chef, I could find foods from all over the world, but none of the food that came from the land, here, first.” Colonial policies that severed Native Americans from their traditional foodways was a way of cutting off their life blood, both figuratively and literally. Sherman’s food labs, which he plans to open all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico, are an attempt to reverse what he views as essentially a form of cultural genocide. “The goal is to create larger indigenous food networks, and make applicable the food knowledge that could bring back security of our own foods,” he says. 

Though food lends itself naturally as a conduit for change, people like Turshen caution against viewing this type of engagement as a passing phase. “It can’t be something you do for a short period of time,” she says. But, it doesn’t have to be heroic, either. “The important thing to remember is when we cook for one another, it’s a way to provide something necessary that makes a difference.”

The theme of this year’s James Beard Awards is RISE, and it is meant to celebrate the collective spirit of our community and the power of food. Whether championing causes, committing to values, speaking up for those who can’t be heard, or cooking their hearts out, our food community rises to meet the challenges, to complete the tasks, and to make this world a better, more delicious place for everyone. What do you rise for? Download an "I rise for" sign and share it with us Twitter and Instagram!

Learn more about the James Beard Awards.

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Gabriella Gershenson is a freelance writer in New York City. Find her on Twitter.