A few weeks ago, I very belatedly started watching Chef’s Table on Netflix. Admittedly, I picked and chose, and mostly only watched episodes about chefs of color. Even then, the neocolonial slant of commentaries by other top chefs about whomever was being featured was a tad grating (get it? Cooking pun?).
For example, in Volume Five, Episode Three, Thai chef Bo Songvisava is featured. She says in the interview that she did not find anyone to learn from in Thailand, as everyone has mostly shifted away from cooking from scratch, and she had to head west and train under someone non-Thai.
It dawned on me that she must be talking about urban Thai chefs when she makes that claim, as I cannot imagine that there is nothing to learn from, say, older women in the rural areas of so many countries, who maintain so many of the culinary traditions, but are not celebrated or remunerated for their hard work. This show is really into the architecture of plating and whatnot. I am not very interested in that stuff, nor do I need an orchid flower on my plate, or for my food to look like a Zen landscape. But I respect the heck out of Songvisava’s work ethic, and the way she sources ingredients and supports farms based in Thailand.
I understand also the wish for Asian chefs to be recognized globally. But it pains me to hear the interviews of the western chefs who critique their skills, or claim that certain cuisines are harder to shape into award winning fare that is seen as rarefied. And mostly that people like these specific featured chefs are somehow unique and better than people who have kept food heritage alive in simpler ways.
For one thing, Asian cuisines are absolutely very steeped in complexity, and people in the west have certainly not hesitated to appropriate from us without restraint. Plus, and very crucially, producers of shows like these must surely know that viewers from many backgrounds will be watching. We should be way past the regressive default of the western gaze. So how does it look to people of color with a sense of post-coloniality when food critics from former (and some still current) colonizer countries, with wealth built by robbing Asia and Africa, puff and opine about how we are somehow lacking in the resources it takes to train professional chefs who can use tweezers to drape seaweed on top of crab meat… It lands badly, I will say it. Make some reparations? Then we can talk.
Anyway, the episode in particular I wish to talk about is Volume Six, Episode Four. It is about a chef named Sean Brock who lives in Virginia. In essence, he destroyed his health trying to revive Southern cuisine, specifically the dishes and growing techniques brought by enslaved people to the American South. As one of the rice growers interviewed in the episode comments, freed Black people left the South in droves, and labor to grow these grains became scarce. But Brock and others like him see a value in restoring those practices so that what is distinctive about Southern cuisine can shine again.
So problematic. For one thing, we are seeing again what the pressure to be recognized will prompt in people. After having watched the show High on the Hog, who can watch without squirming a bunch of white men opine about Southern food? Food whose glory must clearly belong to Black Southerners?
Eater dot com has a similar critique, lest you think I am “too political” all by myself. “The episode…unfortunately positions Brock as the savior of dishes and techniques that originated from West African slaves, without sufficiently exploring the history of these foodways or what it means for a white chef with a fine dining pedigree to be folding them into his repertoire.” *
Working so many hours and at such a grueling pace, Brock developed a condition called myasthenia gravis. Temporarily blinded, he was forced to scale back in many ways, and has since learned, after a bad relapse, that he must control his stress and anxiety.
I have been thinking about this for ages. It doesn’t seem like something all people want to hear, but I am going to say it anyway, and I want you to hold in your mind the many things I have been saying about how people treat autistic people as charity cases so that their own lives will have a sense of purpose, while also taking up space instead of letting autistic people speak for themselves:
I believe that these ways in which people of privilege appropriate, plunder, and seek to redefine what is not theirs, they are evidence of a sickness borne of entitlement and rapaciousness, and I also believe that eventually the body caves under the weight of all that dishonesty and inauthenticity, and becomes prone to inflammatory diseases. As Rupa Maurya and Raj Patel state so eloquently in their book “Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice,”
“Inheritance transports the biological weight of the past through the present, into the future. Genocide, and the PTSD that ensues, leaves deep wounds, and the immune system keeps those stories alive in the body.” **
Maurya and Patel are writing about the medical impact of injustice on victims, and they focus a lot on victims of colonial injustice, including the descendants who inherit the trauma. But I am extrapolating to perpetrators. Even perpetrators who see themselves as benign, or well intentioned. There is a cost to the mind and body every time we engage in these actions. Our bodies know what our waking minds refuse to admit to. And the usual path to healing is more appropriation: “wellness” lifted from eastern spiritual practices, embraced by those who perceive themselves as progressive, open to other cultures; better than their God-fearing detractors.
I hope you remembered to hold autistic self advocacy in your mind. And I hope you see the parallels. If we insist doggedly on seeing only parts, and not the whole, no wonder people landed on a puzzle piece as a logo! Like being proud of that willful partial blindness.
There is an obvious cost to autistic people when people speak over them, and refuse to honor their support needs. But there is a cost to the larger society as well. Do you think you can meander through life not wanting to know about injustice as long as it isn’t at your doorstep, and your mind and body will never feel a twinge? We are all connected spiritually and psychically. And to the environment. Your joints and lymph nodes and lungs and other pathways flare up all the time, and remind you to pay heed.
No one can heal outside of community. Until we all provide that community to the disenfranchised, until we stop stealing, and lying about the erasure that is being perpetrated in our lifetimes, until we stop saying “stop politicizing everything,” the rivers of the earth, and the systems in our bodies will not cease to scream about what we are suppressing. What we are denying to others.
*Morabito, Greg. “‘Chef’s Table’ Recap: Sean Brock’s Long, Strange Journey Through Southern Cuisine.” eater.com, 1 March 2019.
**Maurya, Rupa and Patel, Raj. “Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice.” Kindle. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August, 2021.