Bonding Over Food (Sometimes)
Travel and travel writing are sometimes narrowly defined, especially in the context of bookstore genres. Entire shelves full of travel guides describe things to do in various places around the world. There are tons of cheesy memoirs about people who “find themselves” in some exotic place — Eat, Pray, Love (Gilbert, 2007) comes to mind. But I’ve never been one to stay inside the lines. Arguments could be made to include all kinds of non-fiction writing in the travel category — perhaps even some kinds of fiction, too. Cultural critics who study travel writing have discussed mapping, list-making, data-collection, merchant logs, diaries/journals, letters, autobiography, ethnography, and journalism — among others — as forms within or adjacent to the field. Poems about travel are common, too. There are picture books from far-away locales; calendars, day planners, and screensavers offer portals to other worlds. TV shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race depict (mostly) Western travelers competing to conquer the world (or just an island).
In my travels outside the U.S., I’ve only visited countries in Western Europe and North America. While each of those places was unique, I never felt disoriented culturally, and I always felt like I was on a level field with the local people (except in Tijuana). As long as I didn’t speak, there was nothing obvious to set me apart as different. I have a clear memory of my visit to France, where my husband and I walked miles and miles through neighborhoods in Paris, nowhere near the classic tourist thoroughfares (I was scouring the city for murals and street art.). I bought dresses from a local boutique where the proprietor spoke no English, but by the time I left we were practically BFFs. We even stopped at a Parisian-Texas barbeque joint and bonded with the French chef over smoked brisket (more on this in a moment).
For many (perhaps most) people in the United States, global travel is out of reach. When I lived in Los Angeles, ten miles from the ocean, I met people who were born there, yet had never stepped foot on a beach. A lot of the people I knew there were oblivious to the San Gabriel mountains a few short miles from downtown. In wintertime, if you just open your eyes, snow-capped peaks sometimes hover above the horizon — cityscape below, cobalt blue sky above. There is so much difference within the United States itself, a citizen traveler could wander for a lifetime without exhausting all the opportunities for new experiences in unusual landscapes and with distinct regional, local, and micro cultures. Immigrant communities from everywhere are scattered all across the nation, too, and their influence can’t be ignored.
Critic Casey Blanton (1997) points out that Thoreau’s travels were exclusively domestic: “His own life was in fact a quest for life’s meaning, the nature of transcendent reality, and travel became a metaphor for the way he wanted to live. In this way. . . staying at home became a form of travel” (p.18). Even at home, however, Thoreau (1850) was trapped between a colonialist mindset and collectivist dream. He builds his cabin on someone else’s property, and then claims, “When my eye ranges over some 30 miles of this globe's surface,—an eminence—green and waving with sky and mountains to bound it,—I am richer than Croesus.” He feels he can “own” property with his eyes. Critic David Spurr (1993) describes the traveler’s gaze similarly when he remarks, “the commanding view is an ongoing gesture of colonization itself, making possible the exploration and mapping of territory which serves as the preliminary to a colonial order” (p.16). Westerners seem to think in binaries of having or not having, winning and losing, good and bad — even when, like Thoreau, they try to avoid it.
Back to Brisket
Southeastern U.S. staples like barbeque, cornbread, and whiskey were often influenced by African cooking methods brought to the Americas through the slave trade (Pollen, 2013). Because slaves did most of the cooking, their cultural traditions were combined with locally-available ingredients that transformed into today’s “soul food.” To describe the process of slow-smoking meat over open fire, Hausa people from West Africa used the term “babbake” (Twitty, 2015), which, not surprisingly, sounds a lot like the American word “barbeque.” The French barbeque pitmaster I met in Paris had blended already blended cultures with his own.
Cornbread is another Americanized version of a common African food. Millet bread was made from ground seeds and grains mixed with hot water; in North America the traditional grains were substituted with corn. Sometimes it was fried using techniques slaves learned from Native Americans (Loftlin, 2017). Jack Daniels whiskey was first made in Tennessee, where White distillery owner Jasper Daniel combined old Scottish distilling techniques with African charcoal-filtering methods introduced by his slave Nathan Greene (Risen, 2017).
As a kid growing up all over the South, I didn’t understand why this style of cooking was claimed by Black folks, when my White family cooked and ate all the same things. I didn’t know that I was a living example of Mary Louise Pratt’s (1992) idea of “transculturation” in which cultures change due to their encounters. She goes on to emphasize the imbalance of power that often arises when cultures clash in the “contact zone” (p.6). In this case, White southerners took credit for and attempted to erase African culinary contributions to White lifestyles in the South. Similar stories of cultural appropriation are everywhere you look.
For some reason, it’s the food-oriented transculturation that I seem to notice most often. I lived in Portland, Oregon for a while, which is where the food truck phenomenon originated. In 2017, the local independent newspaper, Willamette Week, posted a short, positive review of Kooks, a new food cart devoted to breakfast burritos. An image of the two White female business owners was accompanied by this quote:
"I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did," Kooks co-owner Liz Connelly told WW. "They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn't tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn't quite that easy" (Korfhage, 2017).
Local activists were furious, and demanded the women send payments to the Mexican women who shared their recipes and techniques. The outrage escalated when a crowdsourced list was circulated to call out “white business owners [who] wield economic and ‘cultural capital’ advantages over POC business owners, so they are ‘punching down’ by appropriating cuisines from people who are disadvantaged by comparison.” More than 60 white-owned ethnic restaurants were on the list before it was deleted. Kooks went out of business, and other restaurant owners were harassed with death threats. Another (female) chef wondered if the reaction would’ve been the same had the breakfast burritos been made by white men (Korfhage). I want to know.
Biscuits & Gravy
Contact zones are obviously contentious spaces, but they can also be spaces of collaboration and mutual benefit. In order to undo — or at least change — our culture of colonization, I often think that Americans should spend more time and energy cultivating self-awareness of our diverse cultures at home. If citizens of all backgrounds (especially those of European descent) widen our perspectives, it could go a long way towards healing the seemingly impenetrable chasms between us. Legacies of European imperialism continue to marginalize our neighbors and sow political divisions within communities across the U.S., to say nothing of their consequences abroad. SInger-songwriter Kacey Musgraves (2015) seems to question the colonialist urge to dominate others in lyrics about a small Texas town. She sings:
“Taking down your neighbour won't take you any higher
I burned my own damn finger poking someone else's fire
I've never gotten taller making someone else feel small
If you ain't got nothing nice to say don't say nothing at all
Just hoe your own row and raise your own babies
Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies
Mend your own fences and own your own crazy
Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”
Musgraves asks us not to judge our neighbors and instead focus our attention on making our own positive contributions to the communities we engage with. She remains inside Pratt’s (1992) cultural “contact zones,” which the song reminds us are everywhere. And Blanton (1997) points out that contact, connection, and interaction occur at every scale (5) — from individuals, families, and neighborhoods to cities, regions, and nations. And Kacey Musgraves reminds us that one group doesn’t always have to dominate another. We can have our biscuits and our gravy too, if we make space for equitable exchange and mutual “transculturation” at every level.
Blanton, C. (1997). Narrating the self and other: A historical overview. Travel writing: The self and world. Twayne Publishers.
Dodsworth, L. (2020). 30 Wanderlust-inspiring books for travellers (photo). On the Luce travel blog. Accessed from https://www.ontheluce.com/30-books-for-travellers/
Gilbert, E. (2007). Eat, Pray, Love: One woman’s search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Riverhead Books.
Holt, A. (2018). Sam Wilson checks on whole hogs at Scott's Bar-B-Q (photo). Washington Post. Accessed from https://www.heraldonline.com/living/article215013125.html
Korfhage, M. (2017). The battle over Kooks Burritos led to death threats and international outrage. We invited Portland chefs to weigh in. Willamette Week. Accessed from https://www.wweek.com/restaurants/news-restaurants/2017/06/06/the-battle-over-kooks-burritos-led-to-death-threats-and-international-outrage-we-invited-portland-chefs-to-weigh-in/
Loftin, C. (2017). Evolution of cornbread. Ark Republic. Accessed from https://www.arkrepublic.com/2017/12/18/evolution-of-cornbread/
Musgraves, K. (2015). Biscuits (song). Pageant Material. Mercury Nashville. Accessed from https://www.musixmatch.com/lyrics/Kacey-Musgraves/Biscuits
Pratt, M.L. (1992). Introduction: Criticism in the contact zone. Imperial Eyes. Routledge.
Risen, C. (2017). When Jack Daniel’s failed to honor a slave, an author rewrote history. The New York Times. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/dining/jack-daniels-whiskey-slave-nearest-green.html
Spurr, D. (1993). Surveillance: Under Western eyes. The rhetoric of empire. Duke University Press.
Thoreau, H.D. (1837–1861). Journals. New York Review Books Classics
Twitty, M.W. (2015). Barbecue is an American tradition — of enslaved Africans and Native Americans. The Guardian. Accessed from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/04/barbecue-american-tradition-enslaved-africans-native-americans