“Why does everything have to be so political, man?” an acquaintance once said to me while mowing through a house special bowl of noodles at Phnom Penh Noodle Shack. “Good food is good food,” he continued, reaching for a fried stick of cha quai to dip into his broth, each chomp becoming intersected with his attempts to dismiss the overall conversation. “I get why some people get annoyed with you. Leave the politics out.”
I’d heard it before, many times, in many different ways, with many different cuisines but basically they have all been telling me to “Shut up and eat.”
This time, with this acquaintance, my head, cocked in frustration, belied the wheels of my discomfort turning toward anger because of what he was saying—or rather, what he refused to hear. After I mentioned how very special that particular bowl of noodles was—the sole reason Long Beach is blessed with a Long Beach Cambodian community, the largest outside of Cambodia itself, is that it fled the Khmer Rouge genocide—he dismissed that as simple history.
Yes, that is history. But history tightly wrapped in politics since it’s arguable the Khmer Rouge would have never come to power if Prince Norodom Sihanouk, ousted in a US-backed coup, hadn’t urged his countrymen to support Pol Pot’s communist insurgents. That’s history also. And politics. And now, here we sat, eating noodles.
And yes, I get it; food brings us together. I am a firm believer that food is possibly the easiest way to connect different or disconnected people.
It was over an appreciation of doro wot while I was volunteering in Bagamoyo, Tanzania that an Ethiopian immigrant finally opened up to me about her experience being HIV positive in sub-Saharan Africa.
It was over chicharrones and too many caguamas that I listened to my significant other’s family discuss the merits and detriments of becoming Americanized, and though they never reached full agreement, they did it with respect.
Yes, food is a connector.
But it is also true that the foods Americans love most—Mexican, Black, Italian, Jewish, Chinese …—were brought here by people either stolen from or fleeing their home countries to arrive in this new, often less-than-hospitable nation. The same people who have been told their food and culture would never translate to the American palate and, ironically, whose influence worldwide is affecting food systems elsewhere (It was over a platter of prosciutto and bowls of cacio e pepe that an Italian told me of the sadness he feels about his culture slipping into an Americanized, manufactured world more obsessed with materiality than the process of making handmade pasta.)
These are same people who’ve been told to “speak English” or use it in their menu in this country. In fact, just the other day, a man gave a one-star review to a local Mexican mariscos restaurant because the menu wasn’t in “English.” Apparently, he required a translation of “tortilla,” something that becomes even more mind-boggling because I can only imagine what he expects when he goes to an Italian restaurant requesting a translation for “spaghetti”… let’s be honest, he doesn’t ask for a translation of Italian food because he doesn’t expect that from European restaurants.
Whether it’s regarding who produces it, picks it, cooks it or what it’s called on a sign or menu, food is political.
The only people who can comfortably talk about “leaving politics out” of food are the ones not deeply affected by the history that adjoins it, people who find the very word “politics” makes them uncomfortable. And food has a history that is anything but comfortable.
That belief led me to create an online food group. I would be disingenuous to say I am not proud of the Long Beach Food Scene’s 12,000-strong membership. It is a space that isn’t just about food or food in Long Beach, it’s about people, memories, experiences, and how those things are often interwoven with what and how we eat and its members are the ones that truly foster that.
Because of that, I am transparent about the operations of the group. I am constantly updating the members with numbers, insights, prodding them about what they would like to see more or less. Household regularity for a social media group.
Recently, I posted how we lost 52 members over the course of two days: 30 on the day a popular post about treating Black-, women-, and people of color-owned businesses with respect; another 20 or so when a popular post discussed the horrible treatment servers had been receiving from patrons refusing to wear a face mask.
I deduced that this was the result of some of them finding these things to be “political,” and that was OK by me.
I let the Food Scene members know about the loss and its correlation. Most responded well but one particular comment stood out: “Ok cool. Now let’s get back to no politics. Please for the love of all that’s tasty!”
It was echoed by another: “I thought the topic was LBs awesome food scene… But then again I thought the NFL was about football… Silly me🤔”
And yet another in a separate post: “Food is only political if you make it political […] Please don’t make this about politics, there is no need and for many of us, it would change the whole vibe. Let’s keep it our happy place where we come together because of something we have in common, not to cause dissension over things we don’t. Let’s not spoil a good thing.”
In other posts, similar comments came, and what they really meant by “leave the politics out” was “I don’t want to feel uncomfortable.”
Again, I get it, food makes us comfortable, so much so an actual category of “comfort food” exists.
All I’m saying it is impossible to remove food from the world in which it exists and the history from which it has come.
Soul food. Taco trucks. Chinatowns. Little Ethiopia in L.A. Little Saigon in Westminster. Little India in Artesia. Viet-Cajun food. Those yummy Cambodian noodles. All of these are, deep down, historical-political but mistaken by some as “just yummy food.”
But yummy food doesn’t just magically appear in a place thousands of miles from its origins or without a struggle behind it. The many things you taste were birthed out of hundreds of years of political, cultural, and social upheaval.
I can only speak for myself but once you learn of these things, it becomes difficult not to consider them when you eat the food, whether it’s the soul food that comes from Africans forced into enslavement. When you have the honor of diving into some soul food in L.A., like Dulan’s or Hotville, food inextricably part of Black American culture, food tied to more than six million Blacks fleeing the South between 1916 to 1970—sometimes referred to as the Great Migration—to seek jobs and a new way of life in the Northeast, Midwest and Southern California.
Likewise, one can enjoy a bowl of gumbo, but also be mindful of the Gullah Geechee, of people from West Africa kidnapped and forced into enslavement who introduced beans and rice, shrimp and grits, and gumbo to the Western Hemisphere. They still maintain and active presence in South Carolina, where they practice, in the most traditional way possible, the dishes of their ancestors.
The taco that defines this region does so not only because of our proximity to Mexico but because that proximity was achieved by European and American colonizers who stole land. There is the impact of the imperialization of its lands by Cortez, the introduction of Western religion and the effect it has had on its indigenous people who face Mexico’s dark history of colorism. There is the commodification and commercialization of resources like corn by corporations like Monsanto, who own the genetic code of the crops they sell back to Mexico’s own people. (This isn’t to mention #Goyaway, the boycott against the Goya food company after its CEO praised America’s very anti-immigrant president.)
First, this is Long Beach AF. Second, the Cambodian community here in LB has a rich history w/ fried chicken: that or donut shops were their segue into American business as refugees post-genocide. Louisiana Asian Kitchen makes perfect sense in LB speak. Not sorry you don’t get it https://t.co/k7R6JNN16L
— Brian Addison (@BrianAddisonLB) November 15, 2019
Now back to those Cambodian noodles, that moment when someone dismissed an entire history in the single swipe of a fried breadstick. What my friend didn’t seem to understand is that I was not trying to bring him down, far from it. You see, every time you eat noodles from Noodle Shack or a donut from Knead or a bowl of bor bor from Monorom, it’s a beautiful display of culinary art and cultural resilience.
I very much understand that life is political. I am a queer guy who grew up in a small, heavily Christian, white mountain town and my partner—whom I lovingly call “My Dude”—is an immigrant from Jalisco who taught himself English at 16, owns a home and still gets called “stupid” when he misuses a word or is told “You’ll never understand” because he speaks English as a second language—despite the fact his English usage is better than most Americans.
And just like the directly political things you, our neighbors, My Dude, and myself face on a daily basis, food is one of those things that cannot be simply disentangled from the humans who created it, foster it and, perhaps most importantly, share it.
Food cannot be magically removed from its history and just be yummy. But bless your heart for thinking otherwise.