Interview with authors of Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We can Do About it (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Tracey Deutsch, in conversation with Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott

TD: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me. Can you tell me about how you came to be interested in home cooking?

SE: I am an Assistant Professorof Sociology at the University of British Columbia and I think of myself as studying…inequality through the lens of food. My interest is in family dynamics and their interactions with social programs and policies. Food is a wonderful lens to understand contemporary dynamics around family and inequality.

JB: I am an Assistant Professorof Sociology at Ithaca College. I’m interested in health and illness, and how inequality operates through the body. That is how I got interested in the project. People think very literally, e.g., “You are what you eat,” and our health isreally dependent upon food.  But food has moral and symbolic meanings and those are attached to health as well.  I am interested in examining those contradictions and how they relate to inequality.

SB: I am an Associate Professorof Sociology at North Carolina State University. I was an agricultural engineer before I went to graduate school in sociology, and my early work relates to food systems, farming, and inequality. My work, over time, came to focus more on consumption, but I initially came to it from the food production side of it.

TD: That is an interesting transition that not many people do, coming from the ag side of things.

SB: Yes. Food systems, though, involve producers and consumers. Even when I was more interested in production, I was thinking about how food is perceived and marketed, and likewise when we think about consumption, I think about how that it is tied to how food is produced and distributed.

TD: Would you all summarize what you see as key contributions of the book, and what you were most surprised by in the research of it?

SE: The book is in conversation with dominant messages about how we need to reframe our relationship to food and what is wrong with our health and engagement with food. The book does this through a detailed, fine-grained portrait of what it takes to feed a family today. We are telling stories to better contextualize and complicate [understandings of]… food, health, families and inequality.

The thing I found must surprising was that we interviewed families with no cash income to families who were upper-middle class, and everyone felt like they couldn’t eat the way they wanted to and that they were coming up short in meeting some of these feeding ideals. 

SB: I think that the book is in this broad conversation, which has become widespread over the last 15 years, that the food we put in our shopping carts or on our plates will solve all of our problems. We are trying to show that [telling people to eat/cook differently] is not going to address these bigger inequalities that inform how people eat and feed their families. 

One thing that certainly surprised all of us was how much this work resonated with people. We wrote a short article back in 2014 that was the kernel that became the book. It got a lot of attention, both positive and negative. A lot of people wrote to us to say, “Thank you for talking about this work we have to do every day: work that’s not visible and that people are not talking about or giving attention to,” and then we also had a lot of pushback too from people, who said, “How dare you question the family dinner?!” It made it clear that the discourse of family dinners—as themost important thing we can do—is really so dominant.

JB: I’ll echo what Sarah and Sinikka said.  And I’d add that one of the things I loved from the beginning about the project was that we are able to offer an intersectional analysis. I think that is hard to do with qualitative studies. Folks have offered a great analysis of gender and food and the invisible division of labor, and in recent years we have seen a gender and class analysis. We focus on race and ethnicity at the same time we focus on class and gender.

I don’t know if I was surprised, but I was heartened, by just how resilient mothers are. Across the economic spectrum, mothers have a lot of common concerns.  They all experience food as pressure. And it was really amazing to see the ways that mothers were being creative and working hard to put a meal on the table. At the same time, seeing that prompted us to say, “Ok, we need to change this model of putting the burden of food work on women’s shoulders alone.”

TD: Can you talk about the push-back: where does it come from and in the forums?

SB: I was just tweeting this today, so I was thinking about it. Someone had published an article in The Federalist in which they called us “nanny-staters.” They critique our book on family meals by saying that what people really need is not government intervention, but to let go of “learned helplessness.” 

They agreed with some of our points—for example, that we may need to let go of the idea that we need to cook from scratch every night and with only fresh ingredients. But their final point was, “No, you can do it—if only you would do this way [the right way].” So, people will say, “If you chop your vegetables on the weekend, then it would be easy [to cook from scratch],” or “If you ate more beans. . . ” or even “If you don’t have a working stove, you can cook with your crockpot. . ..” We get so much pushback from people saying, “It canbe done, and here is how.” 

I think our central point is that people aretrying so hard, and they feel like they aren’t measuring up. Families need support instead of being told to work harder and do more. We know that parents don’t have as much money or as much free-time as they did in previous generations, so they need support. 

SE: That is definitely it. From the first article, someone wrote saying “They are going to have us standing in line at food trucks!” Research shows that when we encourage these individual solutions for complex problems (like chop your veggies and prep your meals [in advance]) then people think that individuals are responsible for their own problems and can solve them themselves. And that engenders this arena of judgment and blame. We are trying to push back against that and then the pushback we get is, “People can try harder.” 

JB: I have received pushback in my daily interactions. I was on campus getting some coffee and chatting with the person next me, and we ended up talking about food.  I said that I had just come out with a new book and maybe he would be interested in it. He wanted the quick, elevator speech. I was telling him about the book, and he was nodding his head. He had kids and could really relate to the difficulties of feeding a family. And as soon as I talked about the cultural tendency to blame poor people and those using food stamps, this frown came over his face and he said, “I am a retired police officer and I dealt with poor people a lot. And they do put a lot of crap in their grocery carts.”

And in those moments, that pushback is coming from a place of experience. But we have to ask, “What is that experience, how broad is that experience?” In those moments, it is difficult to respond. You don’t want to invalidate someone’s experience. But you want to suggest that there is another way to understand the situation. 

TD: And you might also say “Why are you so concerned about the crap that poor people eat as opposed to the crap that middle-class people eat”?

JB: Exactly, and it’s always coming from that place of “we are spending taxpayers’ dollars,” and people feel that imbues them with a certain moral authority to judge what other people put in their cart. We try to challenge that in the book.

SB: And we aren’t trying to challenge the idea that poor people never eat junk food, because everyone eats junk food. We are trying to challenge the stigma and judgement that people attach to the choices that people make. 

TD: I think that is what is so exciting about the project you are doing. Because it goes across class and race and immigration status. It gets at how food is used to shame all people. In ways that reinforce hierarchies.

Could you also talk about the place of gender in the concern that people could do more if they just tried harder and within the book itself? Is it a concern with what women are doing in particular? Or is it not gendered?

SE: I would say that these messages are not always explicitly gendered but they are implicitly gendered. They show an image of a woman serving a family…smiling in the kitchen with children.  Lots of articles about our book that have accompanying images [feature] women in the kitchen. They are coding this domain as women’s domain and the work as women’s. Empirically, it isthe work women do. 75% of women say they are the person responsible for provisioning and cooking food. We also know that mothers are judged more than fathers for what they feed their children. This arena of judgment is directed at mothers who are coded as the arbiters of families’ health and well-being and even their togetherness through idealizations of food work

SB: I think poorer mothers are especially subject to this kind of shame. Part of our research involved going on shopping trips with people, and we saw people peering into people’s grocery carts or looking at people when they got out their EBT card and judging them. Experiments have shown that poor people are judged for buying sweets, because that is considered a luxury…but at the experiments have also shown that when poor people are buying organic food, this is seen as  a less moral choice, because it is wasting resources (whereas when wealthier people buy organic, this is considered a more moral choice). Poor mothers can’t win.

TD: I am struck by the importance we attach to individual diet and food. This can make it difficult to talk about the work of putting food on the table. It can make it seem almost selfish to raise the question of inequalities in household labor. The pressure is on for people to “do the right thing” about food, but no one questions how hard it is do that.

JB: I think it’s not surprising that it’s women’s labor that we are not questioning. It’s women that do the work, and people tend to take women’s labor for granted. The essentializing messages reinforce the invisibility of the labor and the idea that we shouldn’t complain about these things: All families need to eat and so we should just do it. But who is the “we” doing it? Women know the work they are putting into it, so lots of women have responded, “Finally someone acknowledging this work!” It’s so much work to go the grocery store and shop and cook at the end of the day

Some of the pushback though, is from women, who say, “Well I have found these great time-saving tips and tricks, so if other women would just do this they could too put these meals on the table.”

SB: We understand that people have understandable concerns about food safety and food systems and what we are eating, so it is appealing in this context to say, “We can change something about the way we shop and eat.” We get that, and we all buy into that sometimes. But this approach can’t solve all of the problems [in the food system]. Poor moms told us they were also concerned about contaminants in their food but couldn’t afford to shop organic, so they had to let those messages go in one ear and out the other. This approach is inaccessible to a lot of people. And [we ask], “Is this approach also distracting from some of the bigger inequalities we need to address?”

SE: Tracey, I think this is where your work and the work of historians can help us to see that cooking and provisioning have never been easy. We see throughout history that when women have the option of getting help, whether hiring domestic help or relying upon processed foods, they take that option. We are not just in a new era where we are all going, “It is hard to cook!”

TD: I would agree. What is striking to me as a historian is that how long we have been telling women that they should be cooking the way the women before them cooked. Even though the women before them were alsobeing told that they should cook like the women before them. It’s a long history of being anxious about how women are cooking and their decisions to not cook. 

SB: And a really long history of being told that the way they are doing it thistime, is the way to make it (finally) work.

TD: One of my favorite teaching techniques is to pull out one of the turn-of-the century home economics columns from a local newspaper and have students read about the advice women were getting about how to cook more easily and how to afford food, then compare it to something like a Rachel Ray video [and see the similarities].

SE: I love it. 

TD: The similarities are just stunning.  I am interviewing the three of you on a digital device. [That’s an example of how] we’ve been able to rethink many kinds of technological practices, but not our ways of cooking.

SE: And that does show it taps into this much larger anxiety about women, family, and children. 

TD: I did want to ask you, have you noticed an upsurge of interest among academics in affect and care? I’ve seen this among historians and in gender studies. Are you seeing that in Sociology and if so, why do you think that is happening now?

SE: I was just at the Eastern Sociological Society’s Annual Meetingand I was chatting with someone who said she had had an alarming conversation with a graduate student who said, “Care work, does anyone study that anymore?” I was shocked, but I’ve always been interested in this. So I don’t know if I could articulate an uptick in this. Sarah and Joslyn, what have you experienced?

JB: I know that in the sociology of health and illness, care work has been a continued area of study in terms of the work of caregiving for those who are chronically ill. It’s definitely foundational to the health and illness literature.

SE: It might also be because we have had this cognitive turn and now you can’t talk about food without affect or emotions or care.

SB: I feel like it’s hard for me to know. Sociologists have been interested in this a long time. One of the books closest to ours is Marjorie Devault’s Feeding the Family and that was published in 1991 and based on research from the 1980s. She commented on our book [at the Eastern Sociological Society meeting]; it’s a different book in a different time frame, with different contextual factors related to inequality and social support. But she said she was struck by the commonalities related to the gendered division of labor and judgement. [At the same time], in sociology, interest in food was not really a thing even ten years ago, so that hasincreased.

TD: It is interesting to think about how the interest in food may have led back to other questions about domesticity, labor, and the home. I’ve been struck lately by how many talks I attend where people are naming care as an area of interest for them. In a way I didn’t see even a year ago.

SB: It could be different in sociology and history.

TD: Thank you so much for your book. I can’t tell you how long I have hoped that someone would do a project like this one. When I have tried in the past to point out the valorization of the family meal, people get that that is a discourse that circulates across class and race, but they thought I was crazy when I said it circulated in gendered terms, too!

SB, JB and SE: Laughter.

Liquid Sunshine

Nicholas Williams

I recently encountered an odd thing: a glass bottle of water that promised all kinds of health benefits if you drank it regularly. Trying to sell water because of some supposed health benefit was not surprising since most brands of bottled water today claim to boost health in some way. What wassurprising, though, was the purported source of these health benefits—radium. 

Courtesy of Collections at The Bakken Museum, Minneapolis
Courtesy of Collections at The Bakken Museum, Minneapolis

Cole’s Radium Springs Water, ca. 1925-1932

“This water contains 15 mache units of radioactive energy per litre per second when bottled at the springs.

It is used as a remedy for rheumatism, eczema and other skin diseases, nervous diseases, gouty conditions, stomach and kidney disorders and as a general tonic to improve health.”

The bottle I had encountered was not radioactive. Although the water had been drawn from a radioactive spring, that radioactivity would have completely dissipated by the time the bottle reached a store.

This bottle was from the late 1920s and gives a glimpse into a strange health fad that swept the U.S. in the first few decades of the twentieth century: drinking radioactive water. I became interested in this bottle after encountering it in our artifact vault one day. Why would people have drunk radioactive water? 

It turns out that people not only drank radioactive water on a daily basis; they were eager to do so. Radium water was one of the biggest health crazes in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Its popularity died off when industrialist and millionaire socialite Eben Byers died due to radium poisoning in April 1932 after drinking Radithor—whichwasradioactive—daily for years. His death was widely reported in papers across the country, dampening—but not killing—public hopes that radium would turn out to be good for health.

By Sam LaRussa from United States of America – Radithor, CC BY-SA 2.0,

By Sam LaRussa from United States of America – Radithor, CC BY-SA 2.0,

This radium health craze began with Marie Curie’s discovery of radium itself. Not long after the discovery in 1898, scientists and doctors began experimenting with how this new element interacted with the human body. They quickly discovered exposure to radium reduced the presence of cancerous tumors and promptly created early forms of chemotherapy. One method—known as “the sipping cure”—involved infusing water with radium. A patient with cancer would drink a dose of the radioactive water every 20 minutes for several hours. Doctors were widely in support of this method, at least for treating cancer.

The popular press took the experimental practices of doctors investigating cancer and ran with them. But rather than see radium as a potential healing agent, the broader discourse became about how radium provides energy more generally, adding to what the body already had. Instead of just destroying unhealthy cells, the argument went, radium could also strengthen already healthy cells. 

Newspaper accounts circulated widely, telling of ordinary people becoming extraordinary after drinking radium water. One such account told of a down-and-out young man dissatisfied with his life. After drinking a vial of radium water, he felt full of energy and literally began glowing. Suddenly, employers and lovers alike courted him en masse. Radium gave his life energy.

Another account featured the “Sunshine Dinner” held at MIT in 1904. This dinner became legend in newspaper reports across the country. Guests were given cocktails with small vials of radium. The lights were turned off and the cocktails glowed like fireflies in the dark room as guests toasted and drank. Most guests reported that the event was interesting, but they did not believe there was any particular health benefit from the radium. Newspapers, however, injected this story with more imaginative power. These “liquid sunshine” cocktails, as they became known, had energized the dinner guests as though they had taken a bite out of the sun: their bodies glowed and they began sweating sparks. In short, journalists said, their bodies had been supercharged.

These accounts contained as much—and usually more—fiction than fact, but they spoke directly to a host of anxieties in this era. In a historical moment when virtually everything seemed flipped upside down, many people were thrown off kilter. Faster forms of transportation and methods of communication compressed the world and sped working life up, especially when combined with new technologies and industrial practices, like the assembly line. Efficiency experts were also telling everyone from housewives to lawyers to students to work efficiently to prevent fatigue from wasted energy.

Radium promised a way out of all these problems. It promised to rid society of these growing anxieties about productivity. 

It’s no coincidence that another radium craze happening at this same time was the radium watches. The early twentieth century was probably the first time the public became obsessed with time—keeping time, being on time, being efficient with time—and so watches and clocks proliferated. Some of these watches featured numbers painted with radium to glow in the dark—to keep time even in total darkness.

As the historian Carolyn Thomas de la Peña explains in her book The Body Electric,three themes emerged as central to how people (mis)understood radium in the first decades of the 20th century. First, radium promised to overthrow the laws of thermodynamics since radium seemed to continuously give off energy without entropy. Second, radium created energy far in excess of anything previously imaginable. And finally, that abundance of energy could be absorbed by the body to not only provide an immediate boost to mental and physical energy, but also to make that boost permanent.

There was just one problem: radium ore was extremely expensive, potentially the most expensive substance on earth at the time. Only the very wealthy and well-funded research laboratories had access to it. Ordinary folks could not host their own “Sunshine Dinners”—each one of those “liquid sunshine” cocktails cost thousands of dollars. If the supposed health benefits of radium were to reach the masses of enthusiastic believers, there needed to be a less expensive alternative.

The high cost of radium led to two developments: the first was a host of products that claimed to be radioactive, but which were simply marketing gimmicks. Adding the word “radium” would probably make anything sell faster at this time. Many opportunists made a lot of money selling such snake oil.

The other development was radium water, which promised a way for ordinary people to finally have a taste of the “liquid sunshine” before only accessible to the wealthy. At first, radium water was sold in bottles, filled from hot springs soon after scientists discovered that such hot springs were radioactive. Cole’s Radium Springs Water was one example. 

When consumers learned they were not getting truly radioactive water, they wanted a better alternative. That alternative was the radium ore revigator, a ceramic jug lined with real radium ore to make freshly radioactive water each day by infusing the water as it sat overnight. Several hundred thousand of these revigators were sold between about 1924 and 1932. 

“The millions of tiny rays that are continuously given off by this ore penetrate the water and form this great HEALTH BENEFIT–RADIO-ACTIVITY. All the next day the family is provided with two gallons of real, healthful radioactive water…nature’s way to health.” Radium Ore Revigator Brochure

Radium Ore Revigator
Courtesy of Collections at The Bakken Museum, Minneapolis

The American Medical Association, fearing the public was being swindled by fraudulent products, established guidelines that radium water infusers needed to generate more than 2 µCi of radon per liter of water in a 24-hour period in order to get AMA approval. Most devices did not generate this much radiation. The radium ore revigator did not meet this demand in spite of having real radium in it. 

Radithor, on the other hand, contained 2 µCi of radon in each ½-ounce bottle. Eben Byers, the millionaire socialite, drank upwards of 4 ounces of Radithor each day until his death from radium poisoning in 1932.

The death of Eben Byers also signaled, for the most part, the demise of radium water and the idea that radium had health benefits, or, at least health benefits that outweighed its dangers. To most modern observers, the whole radium water episode appears insane, a case of people doing crazy things to their own bodies just because some other people claimed it was good for them. 

But this fad—as well as every other health fad that promises miraculous health benefits—speaks to much deeper desire to break out of the limits of the biological body, to transcend the body’s inherent vulnerability. Instead of a body that is frail and vulnerable to injury, fatigue, and disease, these fads promise new bodies, bodies that won’t fail us or break down. At times when medicine is focused on curing the sick and mending the broken, these fads asked whether we could avoid that sickness and brokenness completely. 

This has been one of the defining drives of modernity. This relentless focus on productivity and breaking free of the limits of the biological body has fueled both scientific research and popular imagination. It’s an obsessive mission to produce bodies that can always do more in a time where work and productivity reign supreme.  

Nick Williams is a UMN food fellow and Assistant Curator at the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, where an encounter with a bottle of Cole’s Radium Springs Water sparked his interest in this history.

In Conversation: Soleil Ho, Simi Kang, and Tracey Deutsch

Entomophagy: past, present, and future

November 15, 2018

The “Thinking Food” folks took advantage of Soleil Ho’s time in Minneapolis to chat with her about food studies, racism in the food industry (and in the food writing industry) and the ways that the 2008 recession shaped her career path.

At the time of the interview, Soleil was the host of two podcasts, Racist Sandwichwhich focuses on race, class and gender in the restaurant and food industry, as well as Popaganda, which she does in conjunction with Bitchmedia and which offers feminist analyses of pop culture. Since that time, she has also become the author of a book, Mealand will begin a full-time position as restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chroniclein 2019.  Simi Kang, a longtime “Food Fellow” who is writing about commercial fishing and the politics of Asian American food in Louisiana in her dissertation interviewed her, along with Tracey Deutsch, associate professor in History and doer of critical food studies. The interview has been edited for clarity.

T: Simi and I wanted to talk with you, Soleil about your really innovative work. How did you come to be the kind of food writer you are?

SH: I was educated at Grinell College (Iowa) and a lot of my work focused on cultural studies, broadly understood.  I studied the history of revolution in Latin America, power dynamics globally, feminism and gender studies—all these things were mixed up in my head.  After I graduated, I was struggling with what to do with all of that in the real world. This was especially keen, since I graduated when the 2008 recession hit. The most viable path towards employment was in the food industry, so I started working at a farm in Alexandria, MN and also in restaurants as a basic prep cook. If I’d stayed in academia or gotten the usual “bachelor degree” jobs that used to exist when folks got out of school, I wouldn’t have had the same interaction to people across class lines. Instead I found myself in the position of explaining to people the things that I had learned, as we all did our work.  I used food as a metaphor to get around the hurdles that social class posed. For instance I progressed in my culinary career as a chef, I just would get drunk late at night and rail against Henry Kissinger to my staff—that kind of thing. That was just my life. (laughter). Eventually I moved to Portland and met my podcast partner  and friend, Zahir Janmohamed.  He was and is a very successful journalist, he had worked in Congress for Keith Ellison; so he had a real reputation and career already.  But  we started talking at a party about general issues around food: racism in the food industry and food media, about women and sexual harassment.  And  we decided, mutually, to start about a podcast about it.  He wasn’t as aware of some of this stuff, and there was a lot I was trying to get out but didn’t know who to talk to.  Together we started Racist Sandwich.  We thought we’d do maybe ten episodes and now we are on our sixty-first.  It’s been going for two-and-a-half years.

SK: I loved this piece you published in Bitch about cultural appropriation, “Craving the Other: One Woman’s Beef with Cultural Appropriation and Cuisine,” The premise as I understand it, is that we are not allowed to talk about our own food, as people of color. We aren’t allowed to have agency over the ways we interact with that food—that is all mandated by someone else.  I love this piece and I teach it in almost all of my classes. Can you tell me more about how your thinking may have shifted around this or how you see this now?

SH:  I wrote this piece in 2013 and it was my first explicitly about race. People were enthusiastic about in a way that surprised me. In fact, it was solicited; the online editor of Bitchat the time, Sarah Mirk, encouraged me to do it for a food issue ofthe magazine. I’d written very low-key pieces about food before, but nothing really complicated. But I knew Bitchwas a feminist magazine and thought they’d be receptive to something like this.

The essay is about encountering people, in that time period, who were not Vietnamese but who knew about pho,and were parlaying their knowledge of Vietnamese food into thinking they knew Vietnamese people. I pointed out the problem with that line of thinking.  It’s not an uncommon problem.  Lots of food writers have said “if you know the food, you know the people,”  or things very much like this, e.g., to know a people, you eat their food.  Of course that isn’t true! There’s so much  don’t know about Vietnamese people and I eat this food practically every day.

So, in the essay, I used popular media to talk about this.  I included shows and songs that came out at the time (eg the song “Asian Girls” or the show “Bizarre Foods”).  Now as I think back, I would not have talked about things like “Asian Girls,” because it dates the essay. (Simi: I just show the video to them!). The essay is pretty evergreen otherwise; I still agree with most of it.

If I had more time and space, I would talk more about hierarchies and power dynamics within Asian-America. This was on the cusp of Asian-American food exploding as a cuisine.  Now, I’d delineate what it means that Vietnamese food is popular now, as opposed to Chinese.   And I’d ask why do people within the community have different reactions [to the popularity of Vietnamese food]?  For instance, there are tensions between my grandparents who could feasibly open up a store called “Oriental foods,” and me, who was horrified by that. There’s tension between the older generation who are fine with any recognition of Vietnamese food and people like me who are like “Oriental is racist.” We will look that gifthorse in the mouth! I ask my relatives all the time now, “How do you feel about this? There is quinoa and pho in the NYTimes?!”  They’re happy that at least there’s pho there, but I see it as problematic. I would love to focus more on changes between generations, because its more about us, and not just how do we look to white people.

SK: I’m also wondering about how when an Asian food is popularized in the United States, its often one region that becomes the image of that food, for instance, “Indian” food at many restaurants is very specific to a region.

SH: We are in a time in which regionalism is trendy in the food world. In NYC, we have X’ian versus Szechuan versus Fujianese].  Being able to distinguish regions is a mark of knowing Chinese food—of being a connoisseur. It’s fascinating to watch. 

I wonder if the same thing will happen to Vietnamese food. My father’s side of the family is from Hue, they’re from Central Vietnam, the food I grew up eating at their house is different than the food I grew up eating at my mom’s parents’ house. It serves a rhetorical purpose though, to erase the nuance…for white supremacy!

T: Right, but as you say it is also a rhetorical move to name the nuance and insist on the nuance, to position yourself as a knower, in order to claim cosmopolitanism 

SH: Yes, and to actually recognize the nuance at least acknowledges differences amongst people…which I think is a net good. It is so complicated. who is actually building that level of knowledge? For it to be equitable, it would need to be people from those communities leading the conversation. I am part of that, you are part of that…we are part of this legacy of people trying to shift these conversations around food.

T: One of the wonderful things you do on The Racist Sandwich is to insist on talking about labor and food and race in the same breath.  I wonder if you can talk about the work that Racist Sandwich does around this and also how you see food-writing generally dealing with issues of paid and unpaid labor?

SH: A lot begins with fact we are really steeped in neoliberalism.  And we (on the podcast) have fallen into this trap too. One of our important resources on the website is the PDX POC-Owned Food Directory.I insisted on that because I knew that people would want to do something after they listened to the show.  You want to physically do something in response to inequity (and then of course Instagram it). So, we started this, but inherent to this resource was the flawed idea that capitalism is the way to save yourself and the reallocation of capital will save the world—which is of course not true. We had a debate over this, but decided that if it helps materially improve the conditions of the people we care about, within our community, then it is ok. 

Which is to say our conversations about labor are ongoing.  We are about race, class, and gender.  Class is not a unique theme.  It informs our whole approach.  The work of Krishnendu Rayis really important to us, as we think about whose labor is more valuable. We privilege the voices of people whose labor has been devalued historically. I’m a socialist…and that is part of the deal, I don’t have to say [class and labor]. It’s the air I breathe.

T: I think that perspective really informs the programs you all do.  You don’t explain why you’re talking about labor, you just do it

SH: The thing about food media, especially mainstream food media, is that you have to justify your coverage; like this is the “diversity issue,” or now we are all talking about sexual harassment.  But this should just be what you talk about all the time.  Writers have a fear of alienating their audience, which is understandable because you need all the readers you can get, but I think it’s a waste of the potential of food writing.  Because you have access to people, you can have these conversations about bigger things that are really interesting but a lot of people don’t know how to talk about it. Editors, and people who decide what goes onto these pages, often have a supreme lack of imagination.

SK: What a democratic way of saying that. It seems like mainstream coverage of food labor is polarized between undocumented workers who are framed in a clichéd ways as pitiful subject—and celebrity chefs.  And there doesn’t seem to be much gradient otherwise.  Those two frames are pretty sedimented.  There isn’t a lot of in-between.

SH: And there is a sense of benevolence that accompanies this coverage.  It’s a symptom of the lack of diversity of the staff.  Also, since most food writers are freelancers you don’t get to take as many risks. It’s way easier to write list of Thanksgiving side-dishes than it is to go out and talk to laborers in a field and risk your career and your time and personal safety (because there’s a lot of anti-labor violence). It is so much easier to respond to the PR email about Guy Fieri and get that interview with him.  You get to be safe.  You don’t have to know a different language.  All of this contributes to what we see now. The important thing to emphasize is that the current perspective is the product of so many problems and faults that we take for granted.  Food is a lifestyle topic so a lot of people read food writing and accept it as that is the way it is. That is why my approach is so steeped in media analysis. I follow and cultivate relationships with people at Bon Appetit  and in the foodie world because I want to know what they are thinking. I want to have these conversation and cultivate some hope.

T: And I think part of creating that hope is the work you do to denaturalize those systems.  The work you all do is always about denaturalizing that way of reporting about food. 

T: I also want to make sure we talk about the new projects you all have going on.

SH: Today we released an episodeI’m really excited about.  It’s about Palestinian liberation and how food politics plays into that.  For instance, the question of who owns products/companies like Za’tar hummus.  We talked with organizers of NYC-based Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement about the whole concept of gastrodiplomacyand how Israel is using the concept of the new Israeli cuisine. It  exposes so much that you don’t think about. The story behind it is so complicated. A ubiquitous item such as hummus has so much complexity. We interviewed Amanny Ahmad, a Palestinian chef and artist, and Ora Wise, who works with Amanny, and we had the privilege of having the poet George Abraham.

T: Tell us about the book you have coming out?

SH: It is a graphic novel called MEAL: Adventures in Entomophagy.  It’s about a group of people trying to open an insect-centered restaurant in Minneapolis and how they work to market this in a way that is respectful of the fact that for many people this [eating insects] is a normal thing. Insects for me are fascinating.  They exist at so many debates over national sovereignty, and globalism, and trade.  Who has the power of determining the course of this insect or this cultural product? Who is going to be exploited for it? There is a lot of rhetoric about insects being the future of food right now, but we don’t talk about how insects are thepastor present of food.  And that is really important, since most of those people are in the global South, living in conditions very different from the US…It’s a really worthy conversation to have.  And having it in graphic form makes it very accessible.

T: What an intriguing book, Solei!

Thank you for spending time with us. We look forward to speaking and hearing more from you.

Twin Cities Food Syllabus

Indigenous Food Systems (John Little)

The Twin Cities is located on and near the traditional homelands of the Dakota and Ojibwe Tribes. Due to a federal relocation program in the 1950s to the 1970s, there is a significant urban Indian population in the Twin Cities area. As a result, the Twin Cities has a variety of Indigenous food systems, programs, and even two restaurants. Native people have struggled to maintain control of their traditional Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, which have been in use for centuries and which connected them to this place. In particular, researchers, including individuals from the University of Minnesota, have encroached on and sometimes appropriated, wild rice and other Indigenous food sources. More recently, scholars have documented Native resistance to settler colonial food systems. As part of that resistance, Native people have begun to open up their own restaurants, offering decolonized meals. Nevertheless, as Native chefs and entrepreneurs become more recognized, their resistance is often problematically romanticized. 

Elizabeth Hoover, “We’re not going to be guinea pigs;” Citizen Science and environmental health in a Native American community. JCOM: Journal of Science Communication, 14(1), JCOM: Journal of Science Communication, 2016.

Amanda Raster and Christina Gish Hill. “The Dispute over Wild Rice: An Investigation of Treaty Agreements and Ojibwe Food Sovereignty.” Agriculture and Human Values34, no. 2 (2016): 267-81.

Dana Vantrease. “Commod Bods and Frybread Power: Government Food Aid in American Indian Culture.” Journal of American Folklore126, no. 499 (2013): 55-69.

Lynn Armitage. “Sioux Chef Has a Plan: Introduce Traditional Native Cuisine One Region at a Time,” Indian Country Today, 1 September 2016.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, “Sioux Chef Lands A First Home: Water Works,” Foodie: The food & and dining blog, 15 September 2017.

Indigenous Twin Cities Resources: 

Dream of Wild Health

Wozupi Tribal Gardens

Sioux Chef

Racial Geography of the Twin Cities (Hannah Ramer)

As a state, Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the country in terms of income, poverty, home ownership, and education. This inequality is inscribed on the landscape, visible in neighborhoods that are largely segregated by race and class. Spatial inequality in Minneapolis-St. Paul has been shaped and enforced both by state actions – such as racial covenants in property deeds, federal redlining, the siting of interstate highways, and exclusionary zoning – as well as through individual and mob harassment and violence.  Spatialized racial inequality shapes how racialized bodies are able (or unable) to grow, acquire, cook and eat food, and the challenges that some persons encounter when navigating urban space to do so. These readings touch on the deep roots and persistence of spatialized racial inequality in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the possibilities for alternative food practices to both challenge and perpetuate racial inequality.

Historic Home Owner’s Loan Corporation Neighborhood Appraisal Map 

Mapping Prejudice —

Rondo Neighborhood in St. Paul

Anderson, Elijah (2004) “The Cosmopolitan Canopy” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.595: September, 14-31. 

Slocum (2008) “Thinking race through corporeal feminist theory: divisions and intimacies at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.” Social & Cultural Geography. 9:8, 849-869. 

Alkon. A.H. and C. G. McCullen. (2010) “Whiteness and Farmers Markets: Performances, Perpetuations…Contestations?” Antipode. 43:4, 937-959. 

Slocum (2007) “Whiteness, space and alternative food practice.” Geoform. 38:3, 520-533.

Rethinking Food Deserts, Food Sovereignty and Food Justice 

Minneapolis and Saint Paul contain several neighborhoods that have been labeled “food deserts” –areas without places to buy fresh food.  The label “food desert” has been criticized, though, by activists and community members who point to the need for people to have control over food—not simply proximity to retail.  These readings encourage deep thinking about the role of sovereignty in food justice movements, demonstrate the need for more reliable food systems in the cities, and offer examples of some of the efforts to create anti-racist, just, urban food systems.

Kamal, Rana. (2017)  “Minnesota Among Worst States for Food Deserts.” The CW Twin Cities. Published July 23, 2017. Accessed Sept 2, 2018.

Carolyn Sachs, Feminist Food Sovereignty

Cadieux, K. Valentine and R. Slocum. (2015) “What does it meant to do food justice?” Journal of Political Ecology.22, 1-26.

Slocum, R. and K.V. Cadieux (2015) “Notes on the practice of food justice in the U.S.: understanding and confronting trauma and inequity.” Journal Political Ecology. 22, 27-52. 

Bruening, M. et al (2012) “Feeding a Family in a Recession: Food Insecurity Among Minnesota Parents” American Journal of Public Health. 102:3, 520-526.

Goldstein, M. et al “Urban Agriculture: a sixteen city survey of urban agriculture practices around the country” Turner Environmental Law Clinic, Emory Law. 

Hendrickson, et al (2006) “Fruit and vegetable access in four low-income food deserts communities in Minnesota” Agriculture and Human Values. 23:3, 371-383. 

Saadeh, Cirien. (2018) “North Minneapolis Takes Back Food Systems Land through Urban Agriculture.” Twin Cities Daily Planet. Published July 28, 2016. Accessed Sept 2, 2018.

Animals in the City (Tracey Deutsch)

Animals like goats, pigs, and chickens were present in urban backyards through the first decades of the 20th century.  Zoning and cultural changes meant urban livestock and poultry was scarce by the postwar period. Recent efforts to construct local foodsheds and to integrate sustainability into urban life have re-introduced animals into sometimes-unwelcoming spaces.

St. Paul Stockyards:

Baran, Madeleine. (2011) “Goats in Minneapolis?” The Cities: MPR News Blog. Published April 28, 2011. Accessed Sept 2, 2018.

O’Connor, Debra. “Backyard Chickens Welcome, Watchdog says, so long as Owners Follow Rules,” Pioneer Press. June 9, 2012. Accessed Sept 2, 2018.”

Trudeau, Daniel. (2006) “Politics of belonging in the construction of landscapes: place-making, boundary-drawing and exclusion” Cultural Geographies. 13: 421-443. 

Blecha, Jennifer. (2007) “Urban Life with Livestock: Performing Alternative Imaginaries through Small-Scale Urban Livestock Agriculture in the United States” Senior Thesis at University of Minnesota. 

Urban Gardening (Hannah Ramer)

Urban gardening has a long history in the Twin Cities, and gardening efforts have been undertaken for a variety of reasons: for subsistence, city beautification, education of school children, to reduce the cost of living, a sense of civic or patriotic duty, and to maintain cultural food ways.

Urban gardening is tricky to study, because while gardens are a physical presence on the landscape, they are also ephemeral.  For the most part gardens require re-planting each year and constant care over the season. On top of that, gardens are often viewed as a temporary or interim use for chronically vacant land, but not the ‘highest and best use’ in a prosperous city. So, while the desire to garden is a thread that runs throughout the region’s history, the ability to access land for growing food becomes a constant challenge as the urban population of the Twin Cities grows. Studying gardens is also difficult because – like many everyday activities – formalized and top-down gardening movements (for example, Liberty Gardens and Victory Gardens of WWI and WWII) are well represented in the archive, while gardening activities that were more individual, ad hoc, and/or conducted by groups with less social status and power are absent or not well documented.  

In City Bountiful,Lawson provides a readable, broad strokes history of urban gardening movements in the US, with vignettes of local efforts, including a few in Minneapolis. In many ways, the national story that she tells is reflected in the Twin Cities, though gardening efforts were shaped by the particular histories and contexts of the region. The rest of the readings focus on what urban gardening projects in the Twin Cities can tell us about urban gardening movements more generally. This section also includes a list of some organizations in the Twin Cities focused on urban gardening. This set of readings and links is meant as a preliminary resource to stimulate further thought and we welcome additions.

Lawson, L. (2005). City bountiful: A century of community gardening in America.Berkeley, California: University of California Press. (Minneapolis Garden Club p. 109-110).

Glasser, Ruth. (2017) “The Farm in the City in the Recent Past: Thoughts on a More Inclusive Historiography” Journal of Urban History. 1-18. 

[This article uses Waterbury Connecticut as a case study, but makes larger arguments about why urban agriculture is largely missing but closely intertwined with urban development, agriculture, and immigrant history]

Eighmey, Rae Katherine (2016) Liberty Gardens, 1917-1919.

Rae Katherine Eighmey (2005) “Food Will Win the War”: Minnesota Conservation Efforts, 1917-18. Minnesota History. Vol 59, No. 7, pp. 272-286.

Kurtz, Hilda. (2001) “Differentiating Multiple Meanings of Garden and Community.” Urban Geography. 22: April, 656-670.

Lautenschlarger, L. and C. Smith (2007) “Understanding gardening and dietary habits among youth garden program participants using Theory of Planned Behavior” Appetite. 49:1, 122-30.

Lautenschlarger, L. and C. Smith (2007) “Beliefs, knowledge, and values held by inner-city youth about gardening, nutrition, and cooking” Agriculture and Human Values.24:2, 245-258.

Collins, Jon. (2013) “Beyond the Feel-Good of Urban Agriculture” Walker Art Center Magazine Accessed Aug 31, 2018.

Lang, Ursula. (2014) “Cultivating the sustainable city: urban agriculture policies and gardening projects in Minneapolis”. Urban Geography. 35:4, 37-41.

Youth Farm– several sites in St. Paul and Minneapolis

Dream of Wild Health– St. Paul/Minneapolis + Hugo

Urban Farm and Garden Alliance – Rondo/Summit-U area of St. Paul

Frogtown Farms– Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul

Appetite for ChangeNorthside Fresh– North Minneapolis

Project Sweetie Pie– North Minneapolis

NoMi Roots – North Minneapolis

Growing Lots Urban Farm– Seward neighborhood of North Minneapolis

Tamales y Bicicletas– East Phillips in Minneapolis

Home Community – urban gardens– South Minneapolis

Mashkiki Gitigan– Phillips in Minneapolis

Immigration and Farm Labor (Simi Kang)

Sin Fronteras (immigrant food and food sovereignty) “Growing Organic food Sin Fronteras,” New York TimesApril 25 2016 and Farmer to Farmer podcast featuring Eduardo Rivera

Seth Holmes, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies

Minnesota Food Association

Hmong American Farmers Association

Labor along the food chain – forts, factories, restaurants, and retail  (James McElroy)

The physical and mental exertion of food production, procurement, preparation, delivery, and disposal, in the Twin Cities as elsewhere, is unevenly distributed.  The labor put into the food around us is often underappreciated in our day-to-day interactions, and historiography has played a part in rendering food work and food workers distant or invisible. 

Take the public commemoration of Minneapolis’ history of industry processing.  Read an overview of the growth of the flour mill industry in the city “Minneapolis Flour Milling Boom,”, Then, consider William Milliken’s 2012 critique of the Mill City Museum, “Where’s the Working Class at the Mill City Museum?”, and the lack of attention given to the people who made those city-defining mills go.

Millikan has written an insightful monograph that demonstrates that the power of organized workers early in the twentieth century was such that employers, including the prominent flour mills, founded associations that responded with increasingly violent and repressive measures to roll back the power of trade unions in Minnesota.

More recent scholarship on the history of work involving food cultivation, processing, and sale in and around the state of Minnesota at the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth has made visible groups that had been marginalized in earlier moments of labor historiography.  Crucially, this work expands our conception of who, historically, are the “working class.”

Around the turn of the 20thcentury, Minnesota’s sugar beet industry attracted migrant workers, including those from the U.S. South and Mexico.  Many workers would leave the unsteady, precarious, and psychically-demanding agricultural work for wage work in industrializing urban centers in the Midwest. 

Recent scholarship has challenged colonial claims of sovereignty in and around Minnesota by incorporated indigenous food procurement into a framework of labor that amends the institutional exclusion of Native actors from histories of work and labor.

Systems of unfree labor introduced by European settlers in what would become the Twin Cities date to at least the founding of Fort Snelling in the 1820s. Racial slavery in the Northwest Territory, while not effecting plantation production as in the U.S. South and the Caribbean, undergirded the status of white settlers, soldiers, and travelers who utilized the bounded legal status of others to garner aspirational and material security right up to the start of the Civil War.  Work on the history of enslaved persons at Fort Snelling is still emerging, but it does not require much historical imagination to conceive that the work of unfree servants included bringing food in from the field and preparing it in the base, particularly since it is believed that a kitchen below a master’s quarters was at one time used as a dwelling for enslaved people. 

Historian Tracey Deutsch reminds us that our contemporary retail spaces are places of work not just for store employees but for shoppers as well.  To understand why grocery stores appear and operate as they do, one must look to the historical work of food procurement done by women and how grocers and policymakers responded to those activities over time.  This is true for Twin Cities’ numerous co-ops, independent grocers, and conventional supermarkets.

In our contemporary moment, paid work within the food chain has not always meant protections for illness and child care, the stability to actualize personal and familial goals, or a living wage.  Author Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book Nickel and Dimedin part documents the precarious housing and living arrangements in addition to the survival strategies of those getting by in the low-wage economy in the Twin Cities.

The inadequacy of jobs in food service, retail, and production has galvanized movements of workers.  Recently, the effects of that mobilization have been reforms to minimum wage laws in the Twin Cities.   

“Fast food Workers Strike and Rally on Labor Day in St. Paul for $15 Minimum Wage”

Follow the ongoing efforts of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL)

The upshot of the historical separation of labor from the story of food is undervalued –or unvalued – work around food.  More attention paid to the labor along the food chain might germinate a rethinking of those systems of value and a recognition of potential and potent alliances working to materialize a change of direction regarding human work and the work of food in the Twin Cities and beyond.

William Millikan, A Union against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

Zargosa Vargas, Proletarians of the North: A History of Mexican Industrial Workers in Detroit and the Midwest, 1917-1933. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Chantal Norrgard, Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

“The African American Experience in Early Minnesota,” in Incarceration in the Archive, a student-produced digital exhibit and resource guide focusing on unfreedom in the history of Minnesota. Credit to Stefanie Kowalczyk.

William D. Green, “Eliza Winston and the Politics of Freedom in Minnesota, 1854-60,” Minnesota History57, no. 3 (2000): 106-22.

Christopher P. Lehman, Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2011.

Shannon Prather, “Fort Snelling Story Widens with Stories of Slavery,” Star-Tribune, August 1, 2018.

Mary Wingerd, North Country: The Making of Minnesota, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Tracey Deutsch, Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America. 1st ed. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.

Food Co-ops (Tracey Deutsch)

Minnesota has long been a leader in cooperative enterprises.  It is home to large agricultural coops as well as smaller consumer coops.  The history of coops is not terribly well documented, in spite of their importance in social movements, immigrant communities, and many people’s everyday lives.  The information here is weighted towards the 1970s, although consumer coops existed much earlier.

These readings reference an infamous moment in Twin Cities history, the “coop wars” of the 1970s, in which some coops attempted to exert central control over their own members and to use warehouses and other resources. Many coops resisted and worked to maintain decentralized and more democratic structures.  This relatively small moment in the history of cooperation generated a lot of writing; we encourage you to add to this list and to include other sources as you find them.

Phil Anderson, “Flour Power: People’s Company Bakery,” Minnesota History(Summer 2014)

“Seward Co-op and the Co-op Wars” Collection Finding Aid and Historical Note. Minnesota Historical Society. Accessed Sept 2, 2018.

Collins, Jon. “When Twin Cities co-ops went to war over margarine” (2014) The Cities: MPR News blog. Published Mar 24, 2014. Accessed Sept 2, 2018. 

Lindeke, Bill. “The Seward Friendship Store sparks return of the co-op war” (2015) Twin Cities Daily Planet. Published July 10, 2015. Accessed Sept 2, 2018. 

Food and Art (Nick Williams)

With as many museums and cultural institutions as are in the Twin Cities, it makes sense that some of them would explore the aesthetics and meaning of food. The links below will take you to photos and essays by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Walker Art Center. Together, they speak to the very different forms that cooking and eating can take: efficient, experimental, communal, and even a half-mile-long dinner table in the middle of Victoria Street in Frogtown. For all of these readings “Art” is meant to be expansive; it speaks to the expressive and communal aspects of food perhaps above all else.

Also included here are several blog posts meditating on arts events that took place in Minneapolis and the larger questions they raise about food in public life. These events were about creative expression, writing, and performance, and about the possibility for food to be a way to be vulnerable in public.

The Frankfurt Kitchen

The Walker Kitchen Lab

Seitu Jones and The Community Meal

“Reclaiming Our Food” at The Loft Literary Center (March 2017)

Soul Food Monologues, UMN-Morris (March 2017)

Soul Food Monologues, Hook & Ladder Theater, Minneapolis (August 2017)

Food and Agricultural Science (Nick Williams)

The Twin Cities has been a hub of agricultural science since their founding thanks to the presence of a land-grant university –promoting  scientific research in agriculture –and programs like the Extension Service and 4-H.  This section’s gravitational center is the University of Minnesota. 

The first set of readings speak to these histories of science and agriculture, both in Minnesota and elsewhere, as well as the more problematic parts of these histories. The most striking—and dangerous—part of these histories is the ease with which agricultural scientists and plant breeders moved from selecting ideal traits in plants to selecting ideal traits in humans, using the same logic they used to intentionally breed specific plant traits to openly support eugenics.

The second set of readings explore the famous starvation experiment at the UMN during WWII, in which conscientious objectors volunteered to starve themselves so scientists could study the effects of prolonged starvation and rehabilitation.

Agricultural Science, Plant Breeding, and Eugenics

  • Colin R. Johnson, Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013)
  • Gabriel N. Rosenberg, The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
  • Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000, 2nd ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)
  • Barbara A. Kimmelman, “The American Breeders’ Association: Genetics and Eugenics in an Agricultural Context, 1903-1913.” Social Studies of Science vol. 13 (1983).

University of Minnesota Starvation Experiment:

Foodways and Immigration in the Twins Cities (James McElroy)

From the groundswell of historical work published over the last two decades on migrant foodways and cuisines-in-transit – a body of scholarship that is rich in both description and theory – we can better appreciate how integral food has been for community preservation, identity formation, adaptation, and survival.  Examining the foodways of migrant and diasporic people and the cultural meanings behind what is eaten within these communities has allowed scholars to challenge popular historical memory and tell unexpected stories.  A non-exhaustive list of some works that stand out include in this regard includes: 

Yong Chen,Chop Suey, USA the Story of Chinese Food in America, New York: Columbia

University Press, 2014.

Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of

Migration, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Marcie Cohen Ferris, Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South, Chapel Hill,

N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Frederick Douglass Opie, Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, New York:

Columbia University Press, 2008.

Alongside the academic literature, memoirs and cookbooks produced by diasporic communities not only reflect the importance of shared meals to familial and communal ties, but, in their dissemination, can themselves be repositories of knowledge that retain and circulate strategies of adaptation and survival, both past and current.  Home to many historical migrant and diasporic communities, the Twin Cities are full of chronicles that highlight the centrality of food culture for groups of people who have journeyed across continents and oceans to settle in large numbers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Two thoughtful and inspiring memoirs remind us that food can be key to sustaining connections across great distances and serve as a node around which survival and adaptation strategies coalesce.  In Evelyn Fairbanks’ memoir recalling the once thriving Rondo community of St. Paul, food practices attend familial, religious, and community-sustaining activities over the course of the narrative, whether it was traditional Sunday dinners, fishing the Mississippi River, or packing a picnic basket for a train ride to Georgia to visit relatives.  In The Days of Rondo, food stories illuminate the multigenerational experiences of the Great Migration in the Twin Cities.

Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomeris a personal memoir recalling the experiences of a Hmong family’s journey as refugees from Southeast Asia due to the intervention of the U.S. military to settlement in the Twin Cities.  At several junctures, the story documents how negotiations around food proved defining not only for the survival of Yang’s family, but for the transformations of identity and belonging taking place.  After arriving in Minnesota, meals mark the spawning of a new American identity, as when pizza is ordered to celebrate the move into a new home, but also persistence through the combination of old comforts with newer favorites, as when Kao helps to arrange a meal for her ill grandmother – fawm kauv with a bottle of Sunny Delight:

Evelyn Fairbanks, The Days of Rondo. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Press, 1990.

Kao Kalia Yang, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2008.

A recently published cookbook makes clear that adaptations in cuisine continue apace in the Twin Cities.  A collection of Somali and Somali-American students, with the help of the Wariyaa program organized by the Minnesota Historical Society, have produced a culinary guide to preparing heritage staples while incorporating the modifications necessary due to the climate of Minnesota and ingredients’ varying availability:

Wariyaa, Soo Fariista/Come Sit Down: A Somali American Cookbook, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2018.

Now taking place, from June 23, 2018—June 9 2019, is “Somalis + Minnesota”, an exhibit on Somali history and culture at the Minnesota History Center in the 3rdFloor Gallery.

Minnesota History Center

345 W. Kellogg Blvd.

St. Paul, MN 55102

#ChangingtheNarrative of Indigenous Food

by Megan Red Shirt-Shaw and John Little

When envisioning “traditional Native American food,” the conclusion for many, who may not understand that different communities celebrate different traditional staples, is frybread and the “Indian Taco.” Whether it’s Thomas Builds the Fire describing his mother ceremoniously making and ripping it apart to feed over “100 hungry Indians” in the film Smoke Signals, or  the length of the lines at the Denver March Powwow, frybread has been seen as a common food source by Native people for community celebrations and gatherings. However, in more recent years, many Native entrepreneurs throughout the United States have worked to change the frybread narrative. These individuals have begun to develop their own food creations based on better understanding of traditional diets.  They integrate these into a panoply of dishes, from honey pear gorgonzola ice cream to buffalo super nachos. This blog highlights how these individuals are expanding and changing the narrative of Indigenous food resources.

One of the most well-known food creations has been the Pine Ridge Reservation based Tanka Bar. According to their website, “Tanka products are built on our ancestors’ knowledge of the Ideal Portable Energy for endurance, top performance and healthful life. Based on traditional wasna and pemmican, we combine high-protein, prairie-fed buffalo and tart-sweet cranberries.” More than just a healthy snack, the Tanka Bar company promotes healthy lifestyles, suicide prevention, and currently has more than thirty employees on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is typically noted for its lack of economic opportunities and low employment rates.

Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, is another well-known food advocate. His company and alias, The Sioux Chef, caters a variety of food resources and recently announced plans for a Minneapolis based restaurant. Their mission states, “We are committed to revitalizing Native American Cuisine and in the process we are re-identifying North American Cuisine and reclaiming an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible.” This collaborative consists of Dakota, Lakota, Anishinaabe, Navajo, and Northern Cheyenne and other tribal members that range from food fanatics and chefs to ethnobotanists and food preservationists. From appetizers of bison meatballs to full-on entrees of wild rice bowls, seed crusted walleye, and honey roasted sunchokes, the Sioux Chef can feed anywhere from 15 to over a 100 individuals (or those cousins who randomly show up at your door). The Sioux Chef only uses ingredients that have not been contaminated by pesticides or herbicides and are non-GMO.


One of the longer known Native eateries has been the Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery in Denver, Colorado. Tocabe was rebranded in 2008 from its previous life as Grayhorse: An American Indian Eatery, originally established in 1989. The Native owned restaurant is celebrated as, “a clean, warm, open space with connections to American Indian cultural elements, infused with a contemporary atmosphere.” Tocabe’s signature dish is an Indian Taco; however, the assembly line-style restaurant moves away from the normal ingredients of tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, and ground beef, and allows individuals to place more nutritious and fresh ingredients on their taco such as wild rice, corn, cucumbers, and various other vegetables. The restaurant also markets multiple kinds of bread, including a gluten free version. Similar to the Sioux Chef, it also only uses ingredients that do not contain pesticides or herbicides, and are non-GMO. In addition to Indian Tacos, Tocabe is known for its slow cooked bison ribs and rotating soup options.

Last but not least is the Native owned Central District Ice Cream in Seattle, Washington. Founded in 2017 by Darren and Kristine McGill, who continue their long line of food industry power (the two have also helped found Nate’s Chicken and Waffles and an award winning food truck in Portland) in the Northwest. Central District is known for its monthly rotating,unique list of ice cream, milkshakes, ice cream bars, and popsicles. Like many of these businesses, Central District works with Native American communities to raise awareness about local issues. Most recently, Central District partnered with Louie Gong’s Eighth Generation, a Native owned and operated store in Pike’s Place Market that promotes Indigenous artists, for his one year business celebration.

These four Native owned businesses have paved the way for future Indigenous food creators, chefs, and advocates. Three of these businesses began in cities and communities that were relocation centers for Native people during the 1950s and 1960s. As a result of relocation, Indian Centers and urban powwows have served as sites for Indigenous gatherings that often center around the Indian Taco and frybread. Thus, the Indian Taco has been promoted as the traditional food of Indigenous peoples throughout the United States.  It is particularly meaningful, then, that these cities now are sites for expanding notions of Indigenous food. These food advocates provide hope and while challenging the misconceptions about frybread by working to #ChangetheNarrative of Indigenous food creation, consumption, and revival under settler colonial systems.

“Do You Have to Work Later?”

by James Mcelroy

A family, a table, warm food – these seem to be the basics of Thanksgiving.  That Thursday, and the string of days imbued with sentiment in the weeks that follow, can occasion the extension of familial ties to friends, acquaintances, and, for the most generous, to strangers.  Around a table large or small, people gather to share a course or several.  The exchanges that mark the occasion often involve more than the food: conversations that may veer into the contentious, but also kinder sentiments realized, perhaps, by a day away from work. For some, the performativity may straddle the thin line between ritualistic comfort and the rote. (Photo: via the AP)

For many, the spirit of the holiday overshadows the politics of that week.  The other side of the wholesome celebration is, after all, a deliberate nationalist project the purposes of which are much less often interrogated. On the occasion of its 2017 iteration, let’s ask a question or two before indulging in the gravy, stuffing, and pie.

It’s been my recent experience that a popular topic of conversation around that Thursday table, as well as in the media this time of the year, surrounds the hours of operation of certain brick-and-mortar retail spaces – apparel, appliance, and electronic and electronic stores – on Thursday evening and Friday morning.  Intertwined with Thanksgiving is Black Friday, a nationalist project of its own sort, and one that used to enjoy several whole hours of removal from Thanksgiving.  Once there existed a peaceful pause in the November predawn chill, goes a common lament, before wholesome family sacrament transformed into absolute consumerist frenzy.

The first to breach this barrier between hallowed holiday and capitalist chaos was Sears in 2010, when the department store opened its doors to customers on Thursday evening.  Since then, the creep, or more accurately the steady recession of Black Friday hours into Thursday, has been a source of anxiety for some and produced a backlash among others.  That’s just a shame, maybe an aunt or uncle opines over the turkey and cranberry sauce.  Don’t they care about their workers?  “Do you have to work later?” was, for a number Thanksgivings in a row, a question of concern posed to my cousin who worked part-time at an electronics store, the answer to which was always an affirmation marked by casual acceptance.  Yes, retail workers work holidays, and yes, if you’re employed by a store chances are your Thanksgiving experiences are necessarily inflected with that embodied knowledge – the soreness in the legs of a supermarket worker following the five busiest days of the year, or perhaps the early, unelaborate meal eaten away from the family to allow for the rest necessary to be back at the shop by 9pm.  And, certainly, retail workers are far, far from the only people laboring away from loved ones that Thursday: soldiers, nurses, drivers; police and firefighters; restaurant and theater employees; so many others.

Why, then, do the working conditions of retail clerks occasion attention and apparent concern regarding the Black Thursday trend – working conditions generally unthought of by many for the rest of the year?  Several stores in the last few holiday cycles have eschewed the obscenely early opening time, and they would like you to know that they really do care to have their employees spend Thanksgiving with their family.  An alternative reality might be that, operationally, opening stores for Black Friday at midnight or earlier on Thursday has not proven cost effective for many stores.

The answer may lie in the discomfort with, or the latent anxiety exposed by, the news reports of the first Black Thursday contraventions, stories that (as good news stories do) put faces and names to events. Those faces and names were the workers seemingly most affected by the stores’ adjusted scheduling.  Scenes of Black Friday mobs had for many years provoked a mix of bemusement and consternation, but represented an accepted anomalous moment for the outrageous acting out of commercial impulses.  But, what if that madness could no longer be contained and channeled through the authorized period of the weeks leading up to the Big December Shopping Event?  Worse, what if that pathos pierced our secular version of “Holy Thursday”?  Might such a transgression threaten to portend a psychic confrontation with the question, what exactly are the limits of American capitalism? And, when should we start to talk about this?

Anyone who has worked for a grocery store during the Thanksgiving holiday can laugh at the absurdity of the notion that commercial hysteria was ever in any real way deferred until after Thursday.  And, if there was a cause for concern that retail workers would like more people to give a shit about, it would be their wages, their job security, and their health insurance, not whether they have to work at 4am on Black Friday.  Contrary to the discourse that normalizes certain kinds of work as “unskilled” (which not only creates condescension but more importantly an outright delusion about the nature of work, and therefore militates against  solidarity, a unity needed now more than ever), the cause for alarm is not the character of the clerk’s workday.  Rather, it’s the routine by which those at the margins of employment, and those who live in precarity, are ignored in all other instances; those who are the least supported by the nation-state and American capitalism on Thursday and Friday are the people without whom a “holiday experience” would be impossible.  In the presence of family and over some warm food on a table, these questions and conversations – though less comfortable – are worth exploring and could shake up the rote this year.