Plated

On a recent late-night Internet bender, I found myself deep in a thread of comments responding to a story that was circulating the food world: the appointment of the new San Francisco Chronicle Food Critic, Soleil Ho. Ho, who will be replacing long-time critic, Michael Bauer, has spent years working in the food space. She’s worked in kitchens, hosted a podcast (Racist Sandwich, based in Portland) and written for major food media outlets. To the San Francisco Chronicle, she’s a distinct voice that will, “…confront questions of ethics and social justice.” In my opinion, she’s going to bring fresh analysis to the Bay Area dining scene. But in many of the reader comments responding to Ho’s appointment, I didn’t see the embrace of her freshness that I expected, rather a criticism of her views of dining, wherein, as one fears, “ it’s not about the food, just the political correctness of the place.”

To me – and many of my 20-something-year-old peers – there’s a burgeoning tension in our relationship to food. I think it’s the tension between eating and tasting. As I interpret it, eating is an act of necessity, of our animalism, where we consume calories to live. Eating is something we do in front of the basketball game, sitting in traffic, in general modes of less-conscious consumption. It is, in many ways, just a thing we do.

Tasting is more complex but also more challenging to actualize. Tasting is both the physical, sensory experience we have with our food, and the mental, contextual understanding of our place at the table. Tasting takes into account the stories of our palettes and of our foodways. It is detecting fruitiness in our coffee, and realizing the role the Ethiopian coffee industry has played in distributing that variety of bean. It is embracing a warm, handmade tortilla, and understanding the context of NAFTA that has enabled a flow of goods between America and Mexico. It is waiting in line at Wendy’s and thinking about CAFO’s ( Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). And, as Ho emphasizes implicitly in her writing, it is experiencing the pleasure and wonder of a meal out, but recognizing the condemnable, unjust practices that exist and are bred on our farms, in our kitchens, and within our value chains.

In a time of hyper-stimulation, where stories come from everywhere always, we latch onto those with happy roots and happy endings. We allow and sustain distance from the stories that don’t make us feel better, and in this context, don’t make our eating experience better. In this vein, it becomes important to find a healthy balance between when we choose to eat and when we choose to taste. It would be naive to believe that all of us can find time thrice a day to converse, dissect, and feel the often expansive weight of our food. Because it is in that weight that there lives significant discomfort; we separate ourselves from the story of our meat arriving onto our plate because we don’t want to remember that for us to eat it, an animal had to be killed. And it is in that weight that I see this tension, between when and how we choose to eat or taste.

This tension reappears between Ho and her critics. There are those who choose not to consider the story of their meal, and there are those who need to know the story to enjoy the meal. To some, a lasagna is just some noodles, ricotta, and tomatoes. To others, it’s a story of immigrants, heritage wheat, a grandmother’s tomato sauce. There is comfort in the dish as it stands alone, but also a stimulation in exploring what is not at the table, or on the plate. To pose these as binary would be a massive simplification; there are complexities and values in both, independent of each other.  And, as it is healthy to have a balance of the two, it’s also important to remember that the other exists and is valued more deeply by some, and less by others.

In exploring this with a dear friend, I felt his resistance to associating feelings of discomfort with food. He explained that he had enough to feel discomfort towards, that food needs to be separate and should be an experience reserved for happiness. At first I tried to push back. We tried talking through Simran Sethi’s quote, “Wherever you are, map it onto foods you love.” I offered my own extrapolation, that we can reduce the distance between ourselves and our foods, and the stories of our foods, by connecting a meal or an ingredient to a person or a place we know. For instance, my relationship to sweet potatoes is linked to my relationship with people I know who grow sweet potatoes. My friend argued that we can’t connect an image to every conversation, that we could not empathize with so many of the troubling stories and threads of our food system, and more simply, that we don’t have the capacity to form personal connection with everything we eat, nor should we.

We pushed back and forth, but we agreed on this :

~ In every corner of the world, there are people in kitchens ~

We chose to embrace this as fact, but also as a reminder that when we talk about food, we are also talking about things that are universal and always. Language. Family. Love.

Though, as I continued to explore the depths of the comment threads on The Washington Post, GrubStreet, and Eater Magazine responding to Ho and the San Francisco Chronicle, I felt stirred.  To recognize that not everyone has the capacity or energy to react and engage with all of the stories of their food, good or bad. Sometimes – often – we need to just enjoy our damn burger in silence. Sometimes food is our escape from the discomfort we feel elsewhere. But sometimes, and for those of us who are able and willing to explore this discomfort, I think we should try to do so. I would even argue that we have a responsibility to do so. To lean into this tension. And see where it goes. To listen to the people across the table saying things you haven’t before heard. To favor difference over sameness. To be open to our food, and be aware, whether we are engaging with it or not, that there is a story on our plate.  

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