Saturday, February 06, 2010

Can A Menu Be Racist?

A canteen chef in America has found herself at the centre of a race row after serving up a soul food menu in celebration of Black History Month.

Leslie Calhoun’s specialties for staff at the NBC studios included fried chicken, collard greens and black-eyed peas.

The menu was spotted by musician Questlove, who posted a picture to his 1.2 million followers on Twitter, with the words "Hmm, HR?" It went shooting round the Twittersphere, and quickly sparked a food fight between people with clearly far too much time on their hands.

The issue – which seemed to be centered on whether it was racial stereotyping, and therefore racist, to suggest black people eat fried chicken all the time – was greeted with an equal measure of incredulity and consternation.

In one corner, there were the boggle-eyed, foaming-at-the mouth types, jabbing their fingers at how it was all political correctness gone mad. They questioned whether it would be equally racist to put potatoes on the menu for Paddy’s Day, or pizza and lasagne for an Italian night.

One comment began: “I went to Nam to defend this country and look at what has happened. Obama, Tiger Woods, and (Al) Sharpton should all send that chef a personal letter of apology.”

In the other corner, were equally outraged folk, slamming culinary racial stereotyping, especially in such a predominantly white canteen. Seeing middle class media types tucking into their finger-licking chicken and cornbread was tantamount to “blacking up”, one person argued.

Comedian Wanda Sykes entered the fray on the Jay Leno Show, saying, "Hey big chin, what is happening at NBC? Is the whole damn network on medical marijuana?”

Questlove clearly regretted the row he’d started. An hour after he circulated the menu, he tweeted: "i think i need a twitter break. i done started something. and now i must put out fire."

But despite his way with words, the row continued and the sign was taken down, and the only thing people could really agree on was how it would have been much worse if the chef had been white.

NBC’s black chef then defended herself to the New York Post, saying she couldn’t understand why people might find her menu racist, and it was only food “that I eat myself".

She added: "Questlove, who I serve every day and who enjoys my food, requested the neck bone [cooked in] the black-eyed peas and fried chicken, then got off the line, saying, 'This is racist.'

"The next thing you know, people were taking pictures of the sign and asking all the other black people in the cafeteria if this was racist. They said that it wasn't."

It might all seem a bit trivial compared to the problems, of say Haiti. But it’s strange how emotive food is to national identity and culture – we are what we eat. And how often it is used in race-based slurs. Sausage-eaters, les rosbifs, limeys, cheese-eating surrender monkeys, spaghetti slurpers etc.

I got a glimpse of it once, when I was staying with friends in California. I was introduced to a German at a dinner party, who joked about how “everything in Britain is boiled”.

“Boiled!” I cried, recoiling in pain, the word much louder than planned.

I don’t why. I’m not particularly nationalistic or proud, but anger rose up inside me from somewhere, and I let rip about how British cooking had undergone a complete transformation in recent years, and there were some brilliant restaurants in Blightie, and besides all they ate in Germany was sausages and potato salad, and why anyone would consider the elegantly-named schweinshaxe a delicacy was beyond me.

Equally, and perhaps understandably, incensed by my disproportionate dissing of the legendary German cuisine, he put his hands to his ears and made a strange bellowing noise, and said all our cows were mad. I was about to turn to the thorny issue of Nazi Europe, when the other dinner guests jumped in.

And it was all over a fairly innocuous comment about the British preference for stews. The German had even winked as he said it. But somehow it had seemed racist, or at least intended to offend, and at the very least irritating.

Dinner Party Rule Number 8: Never discuss politics, religion, or food.

A disappointed Ms Calhoun told how she’d been begging NBC bosses for years to let her make special dishes to celebrate Black History Month, and only got her wish last year. The plan was to have one special meal every Thursday during February.

Apparently, next week, she’s got poodle hot pot for Korean night.


Fat Les said...

In the film Precious, the eponymous young lady was seen tucking into a stolen bucket of fried chicken and her mum refused to have her pig's trotter dinner because the vital collard greens were missing. So how come no one complained then?

Excellent post as always. Love your blog.

Klanman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
theundergroundrestaurant said...

I don't understand why this menu is offensive. It's souil food. Elvis ate it too but much southern cuisine was developed by black cooks during the time of slavery. Some of it comes from native indians...ways of using corn for instance.
To the contrary, it's something to be proud of...
Are Jamaicans ashamed of their food?
Are Africans?

Heguiberto said...

your writing is fabulous, congrats!
I have listed you in my blogroll.
as for the posting I think it is always best to stay away from anything that can even remotely evoke racism.