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Politics and food

(post, Aliza Wong)

We live in a day and age when the longing for tradition and ritual, hope and change have become political buzzwords. At the same moment that we yearn for “simpler times,” we complicate our lives with multitasking, instant gratification, and cynicism. 

On the one hand, we want to be responsible, to be green, to be locavores, to be healthy, happy, harmonious. On the other hand, we want to be connected, to have conveniences, to be hooked up, linked to, synced with. And my prediction is that as this election year moves forward, the confusion and conflation of what it means to be living in this nostalgic modern world will only become more clearly mottled. 

As a historian, I teach about politics and culture. One of my goals, my hoped-for “learning outcomes” (which I am required to put on my syllabus), is that my students become increasingly aware that politics informs virtually every facet of the past, present, and future. I use many examples to prove this to my dubious students. I introduce them to the research of my colleagues who examine the ways in which politics have penetrated beyond wars, diplomatic relations, and parliamentary debates. 

I use the work of Patrick McDevitt, who illustrates beautifully how sport could be appropriated to discuss masculinity, nation, and empire. I assign the work of Eugenia Paulicelli, who examines the ways in which the Italian fashion industry was developed under the fascist regime as a way of competing against French dominance in an age of ultra-nationalism. I bring in the work of my friend, Carol Helstosky, who compellingly demonstrates that the construction of an Italian cuisine was linked directly to the political machinations of the Italian government. 

And my students get it. By the end of the semester, they are bringing in examples from reality television, YouTube, newspapers, novels. Politics envelops our lives.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="A political pie, made with love."] 

And nowhere has this become clearer than in our food — in our production, our purchasing, our consumption, our preparation, our tradition, our patriotism. 

I’m an historian. I don’t need to be reminded that food has always been political. The feasts of ancient Rome that celebrated imperial victories, where people drank to excess, ate, and purged, where food was recognized as part and parcel of sensuality, were inherently political. 

Royal food-tasters sampled all the delights before they were consumed by the king. They were the last line of defense against poisoning by enemies both within and without the kingdom — food and politics linked together in one mouthful. 

In Tuscany, the bread remains unsalted, a symbolic protest against unfair taxes on salt in the Middle Ages. Legend has it a revolution was started because Marie Antoinette thought the people should have their dessert first. The foods of the New World introduced to the Old, curry as a contender for most popular English plate, Chinese restaurants on the tourist road in Venice — all are examples of empire, diaspora, new colonists finding new colonies.

And we don’t have to look so far into our past. Is a certain coffee shop’s mascot mermaid too graphic? Lawns or food? Urban homesteading, raw milk, chickens, probiotics, farmers’ markets? Bottled water, processed foods, trans fats, school lunches, freedom fries? 

Foie gras. Veal. Bacterial mozzarella di bufala. E. coli. Salmonella. Food shortages. Ethanol and corn. Rice. Wheat. And now Rachael Ray, terrorism, scarves, and donuts.

I know this is all important. I teach it in my classes. I instill it in my students. I try to live our culinary lives as politically responsibly as we can in West Texas. And yet, as I stretch my pizza dough made with organic, milled flour, as I place the thin slices of tomatoes from my neighbor’s yard, as I tear the fresh mozzarella made somewhere in Texas, as I pull it out of my oven, hot and bubbling, slice it, and put it in front of my son, I forget. In that moment, politics or no, it’s about the hunting and the gathering. It’s about the nurturing and the providing. 

In that moment, it’s just about the love.

reference-image, l