Thursday, April 25

Director's Cut: Food and Immigrant Life

"Director's Cut" is a weekly blog series written by SFA director John T. Edge.  

I’m just home from a visit to New York City, where I attended a conference on Food and Immigrant Life: The Role of Food in Forced Migration, Migrant Labor, and Re-creating Home. Hosted by the New School, the conference examined the relationships between food and migration and framed immigration and food service employment as cultural as well as social justice issues.

After a day of listening to smart, engaging talks, I ate a great dinner at the Brooklyn restaurant Nightingale 9. There, Arkansas expat Rob Newton constructs dishes like shrimp and pork boudin, served on a bed of Vietnamese greens, topped with toasted rice powder.

During my short visit to New York, I learned lots, picked up a few programming tips we plan to apply to SFA events, and began conversations with the New School that I hope will lead to future collaborations. Here are five takeaway moments, in no particular order: 

Monique Truong reads at Thacker Mountain Radio in Oxford the evening before the 2012 Southern Foodways Symposium.

1) The Vietnamese-American novelist Monique Truong read her response to Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, saying that, as an immigrant, “I have benefitted from and been the target of the effusive hospitality and the recalcitrant racism of the South.” (Click here to listen to Truong deliver a love letter to Red Bridges Barbecue in Shelby, NC, at the 2012 Southern Foodways Symposium.)

2) On that same panel, Tiphanie Yanique, a poet and fiction writer from the U.S. Virgin Islands, read a short story, “Kill the Rabbits,” that was, in part, a paean to brown sugar. One line that stayed with me: “White sugar seemed smooth and fake, like a girl in my fifth grade class who wore too much makeup.”

3) During a presentation on the role of Chinese restaurants in American culture, Yong Chen of U.C. Irvine declared that, in the 20th century, Chinese food went from being reviled by mainstream audiences to becoming the most popular so-called ethnic cuisine in America. (That quick transformation reminded me of how Southern food, long maligned by outsiders, has experienced a recent renaissance.)

4) Krishnendu Ray of N.Y.U., speaking of Indian restaurateurs in America, talked about how authenticity can be a resource for less empowered restaurateurs. For example, if a new immigrant restaurateur takes down the sign written in English and removes the English-language menu, the authenticity telegraphed may appeal to American consumers in search of something real.

5) Saru Jarayaman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door: What Every Diner Should Know About People Who Feed Us, argued that restaurants and other food service companies should take the high road to profitability. She questioned the policies of the National Restaurant Association, which she believes keeps restaurant worker wages artificially deflated. Going for the jugular, she referred to the National Restaurant Association as the other NRA.