It’s time to rid the food world of the colonialist tactic: steal, rename, claim.
Padma Lakshmi, the host of the popular food competition show, Top Chef, isn’t shy about her feelings of the white, male-dominated food world.
In a recent New York Times interview, Lakshmi expresses what a culturally, equitable food world would look like to her:
I would like to see the food section of papers like The New York Times not be so white.
Through food, you can tell a lot about not only a person or a family but also a community. You can trace history through foods. You can trace colonization.
Prior to reading Lakshmi’s interview, I’d been thinking a lot lately about the lack of diversity in the food world. Yes, there are many Black chefs, who are doing great things in the culinary world, by bringing their own spin and diverse influences, but you don’t see them much on the network and cable food shows (I’ve often wondered why).
Lack of diversity
I’m an avid watcher of food shows and consider myself a die-hard foodie, with a passion for all things food-related—it’s in my blood, born into a family of stellar, southern cooks.
Yet, when I watch my favorite shows: Chopped, Iron Chef America, and Top Chef, I don’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling one might get from seeing a person of color represented as host or judge. Sure, there are a few familiar faces like Marcus Samuelsson, Aaron Sanchez, Sunny Anderson, and a handful more. But, are these few the only chefs qualified to represent people of color — reminds me of how the same African-Americans are predominately touted during Black History Month: Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, as if no other Blacks are worthy of mention.
Frankly, I get a little teed off from the lack of diversity in the food world — it seems so blatantly obvious that people of color are minimally represented in this arena. Where is the recognition of the great contributions they’ve made to the food world?
Lakshmi points out in her interview:
“Top Chef” hasn’t necessarily had the greatest track record in the area of diversity. In 17 seasons on the air, “Top Chef” has had five Asian-American winners, but only one Black winner, Kevin Sbraga.
Why don’t we teach African-American cuisine in our cooking schools in this country?
Why is there such a lack of diversity in the food world? Certainly, there are people of color who’ve mastered every food technique or cuisine possible. But you wouldn’t know this by watching the network and cable food shows.
Lakshmi, a native of India, voiced her own frustrations and obstacles with pitching her new show, Taste the Nation, to networks.
“Taste the Nation,” a show about the diversity of our country, and they said no. I started to think, Maybe I’m the only one interested in this stuff. It’s the same thing when I see other, white women being published constantly, and their books selling, and I know that their recipe is a watered-down version of an Indian recipe or a Moroccan recipe.
Race, food, and cultural appropriation
As a foodie, I’m a diverse eater — exploring different types of cuisines. What inspires me most about the diverse foods I eat is the connection to the people and cultures behind them — you can’t separate the two.
When I’m watching my favorite shows, I can’t help but think about my ancestors, the enslaved cooks, who worked long hours in the kitchen preparing meals they weren’t allowed to eat — let alone feed to their families. They were forced to take the worst food ingredients on the plantation and turn them into delicious meals for their families. Since those atrocious days of slaves cooking on the plantations, Black families have cooked versions of those same meals.
I think about Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, formally trained in the French culinary arts, who cooked at his Monticello plantation. Their names are probably never uttered, alongside Julia Child, in a culinary school. Where’s their recognition for their contributions to the American culinary landscape — steal, rename, claim?
I’m not advocating that food shows only have people of color as hosts or judges, but they should at least make an effort to represent the diverse populations, which make up America.
Lakshmi further says:
I’m just saying that a couple of sentences at the top of a recipe would place it in context. I love the commingling of cultures.
But it would be great if a recipe that went viral were placed in the context of its own history. It’s not taking anything away from creativity to do that. It is acknowledging that these things didn’t come out of a vacuum.
Look at the people who get things greenlit. For the most part, they’re white. That’s what it feels like. When I walk around New York City or El Paso or Las Vegas, I see a whole bunch of different kinds of people.
If we want to have an open and honest dialogue in America about race, let’s break bread and start the discussions over food.