Does Food Actually Unite Us?

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' is the latest example of the hackneyed idea that food is the great unifier.
June 29, 2020, 11:00am
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It's true that everybody eats. Though the specifics of how and what we eat differ across cultures, countries, class status, and whatever else separates us, the fact that we all must feed ourselves is the foundation for an entire niche of food content. In shows like Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, Dave Chang's Ugly Delicious, Andrew Zimmern's What's Eating America, and most recently, Padma Lakshmi's new Hulu series Taste the Nation, food is relational; as unlikely companions band together over the act of eating, food becomes a way to find commonality and an entry point to political discussions that would be otherwise hard to broach.

The brainchild of Lakshmi, who moved to the United States from India at the age of four, Taste the Nation has the stated premise of being a show about immigrants: from the Mexican American community in El Paso, Texas; to the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina; to the Indian immigrants who've created the Little India in Jackson Heights, Queens; to the German descendents in Milwaukee; to the Peruvian enclave of Paterson, New Jersey; and more. Lakshmi talks to people from all these groups about why they eat what they do, and what stories food can tell about their communities.

Ultimately, the fact that everybody eats is mobilized to suggest that food is the great unifier: I eat tacos, and you eat tacos; therefore, we can find common ground through our shared appreciation of tacos, no matter our points of division. The language of "food unites us," as it's sold in shows and stories like these, suggests that because we eat similarly, our beliefs must be more similar than we think. Through food, we are all American—or at least, that's the tale these shows want us to believe. But as nice as this idea is—as much as it inspires a wholesome image of a communal American table—who is this narrative meant for, and who does it ultimately serve?

Perhaps the most heavy-handed suggestion of food's ability to unite comes in the first episode of Taste the Nation. Lakshmi sits with the owner of a restaurant in El Paso, Texas as Border Patrol helicopters circle overhead. His restaurant has long been staffed by workers who cross from Juarez daily, but he supports President Trump. Lakshmi refrains from pushing back too hard on his politics, which means that their conversation doesn't go far past acknowledging how much the restaurant needs these workers and their food. Here, food operates not quite as a unifier, but as the crux of a business model dependent on the dynamic between the United States and Mexico.

Food is complicated; Taste the Nation acknowledges that, but through stories like this one, with the owner's dissonance between his restaurant's operations and his conservative ideology, the show suggests that the food these workers make somehow transcends personal and political lines, especially as it's eaten by white locals. An optimist could see this as proof that food allows disparate groups to understand each other, but as Jenny Zhang wrote in Eater, even the owner's resistance to changing his views despite his years of employing Mexican workers undercuts the buoyant promises of "breaking bread."

Shows like Taste the Nation, which use food to go deeper into migration, colonization, and assimilation, prompt people to think more deeply about the ways our cultural histories shape what we eat. Still, every idea that challenges the norms of white American culture is couched within the easy notion that food cuts through it all, and that through food, we can transcend these issues. Via the act of consuming, it implies, white Americans can better themselves.

"The ability to cook diverse food, to eat food from different places and cultures, is too often described as an enlightenment project, as a way to 'becoming' something else," Eric Ritskes has written on his blog Anise to Za'atar. "It is seen as a way to become more attuned to diverse ways of being, to even become less racist, more understanding, a better person, to dismantle biases, or to be less xenophobic." Ritskes' framework relies on what author bell hooks put forth in "Eating the Other," and, as hooks wrote, people within mainstream white culture can step out of it without changing the status quo.

As it's said over and over again, "food unites us" becomes a self-congratulatory aphorism that doesn't prompt white Americans to do anything particularly challenging. There's a performative emptiness in the idea as we think of who is being united with whom, and why those divisions exist in the first place. These stories provide a platform for the immigrant experience, but the effects of the white American gaze are clear, as food becomes a means for validating lives that look unfamiliar.

In Taste the Nation and Ugly Delicious, the show's hosts are people of color, and the stories they choose to amplify are guided by their experiences in the United States. As these stories are packaged for broader markets, the focus returns to white American validation as setting the standard, and reinforces the notion that our goals as "others" should be to prove our similarities. The conversation about the politics of food remains focused on the lowest common denominator.

At its heart, the call to action of the "food unites us" rhetoric is based on the exchange of goods as people consume foods outside their culture. That exchange benefits existing and unequal systems, as immigrants are valued through the ways their labor or cultural products enrich the lives of others. But our personal affinities for certain foods are not meaningful indicators that we revere or respect the people and cultures that created them. As food writer Alicia Kennedy has commented: "I should be able to fuckin’ hate burritos (I do not) and still recognize everyone’s humanity, every person’s intrinsic worth and dignity."

This tale coddles people in positions of power into thinking that the basic urge to consume is enough—that buying a taco and loving it is a meaningful step toward racial justice or equity. A similar story has played out in the recent push toward supporting Black-owned restaurants. (MUNCHIES has promoted such a list.) Given the circumstances of the current political uprising, "what relief does this transaction actually bring?" the writer Ruth Gebreyesus has asked. "At best, it scratches the itch of ego-driven guilt."

The intentions of creators like Lakshmi are lofty and hopeful, but as we repeatedly ask white Americans to see that Black people, immigrants, and other marginalized groups are "just like them," the conversation doesn't move very far forward. With everyone else seen in relation—forced to prove their worth over and over by virtue of what we can provide—the plea to see humanity through the supposedly uniting power of food turns increasingly staid.

It ignores the ways that our differences keep food a point of disconnect: how Black chefs are overlooked in the American culinary canon; how Black restaurant workers are paid the least in the industry; how the coronavirus pandemic has made the jobs of immigrant farm workers even riskier; how prejudice gave rise to the disproportionate closure of Chinese restaurants during the pandemic. It's dangerously naive to suggest that our shared appreciation for certain foods can bridge these massive structural gaps.

Yet the narrative that "food unites us" is one that purposely does not ruffle feathers. It requires little effort from the people doing the consuming, and it poses little threat to the status quo. Its politics assuage people's existing actions and suggest that the steps toward equity are as easy as enjoying a meal. As Ritskes wrote, even "Donald Trump and the people that support him eat tacos, all the while still building a wall to keep Mexicans (and Hondurans, and Guatemalans, and…) out."

At some point, these narratives should move past the idea that food must be a point of similarity. Humanity—as immigrants, as people of color, as whatever group needs to prove our worth—should exist regardless of what foods we bring to the table; it's our humanity that unites us, with our food and the flavor it brings serving as a pleasant addition.

That narrative isn't as easy to swallow, though, because it requires us all to do more than simply buy and eat.

Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.