In 1947, children across Canada went on a chocolate bar strike to protest the 60% overnight rise of the price of candy bars from 5 cents to 8 cents, which, kudos to them for banding together and trying to affect change*, but it does make you wonder: how does pushing down the price of a commodity such as chocolate work out for everyone along the supply chain? If it’s anything like coffee, I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer is: not well.
For all that chocolate is ubiquitous and beloved**, to the point that children back in ’47 expected it not to be a luxury good but an affordable treat that should be readily available and affordable, what it comes from, where it comes from, how it’s processed – all of this and more are fairly removed from the final product. I don’t think I knew until very recently that anything other than the cacao seeds were edible from the pod, that the stuff encasing the cacao seeds isn’t a useless byproduct but a refreshing treat in its own right (and possibly the reason that the cacao fruit was picked up by people in the first place, since the seeds are bitter and wouldn’t have been immediately appealing, in theory). And if you were to ask me where cacao was grown, I’d probably have known to say Ghana, but not Côte d’Ivoire, nor immediately think of South America despite that being the provenance of chocolate (Ecuador and Brazil being the big contributors as far as cacao farming goes; I think the idea that we have the Mayans or the Aztecs to thank for chocolate is fairly widespread^*), though I’d probably have said India (thanks only to this spice company). If you’re thinking that maybe I just know a bit less than the average person about chocolate (or geography, or history), that’s probably fair – my knowledge of geography and history in general is abysmal – but which of the following would you wager is more strongly associated with chocolate? Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, Brazil and Ecuador, or Belgium and Switzerland (as in Belgian and Swiss chocolate)?
For Christmas, I gifted my partner, Quinn, a cookbook written by a favourite YouTuber of ours, Andrew Rea. The book and channel both are called Binging with Babish, each episode recreating iconic dishes from our favourite movies and TV shows. Missing the holiday food you have come to know, love, and crave? Try Ross’s Thanksgiving sandwich from Friends! (Yes, that sandwich.) Or, for something sweeter, Buddy the Elf’s delicious (?) dessert pasta! Want to “leave the gun, take the cannoli”? This cookbook has you covered, Coppola fans. Buon appetito.
As part of a sort of fun, communal New Year’s resolution, Quinn and I decided to make one recipe from the book every other week. Sounds manageable, right? We love cooking! We might love cooking even more than we love Uber Eats (marginally)!
Not wanting to bite off more than we could chew, our first dish was one of the simplest recipes in the book: a Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, a la Creed. We heeded the author’s advice from to skip the mayo as featured in the movie. Similarly to the author, we also used our artistic license to purchase a more moderately priced steak (the recipe called for ribeye).We popped those in the freezer, got in our PJs, and after 30 minutes began cutting the meat into thin slices, which is around the time I realized the preparation of this meal was more of a quick-and-dirty one-man operation, especially with our limited countertop space. While Quinn did a lot of the leg work on the meat, I laid out the toppings and convinced myself that I was Integral to The Mission. The whole affair took 15 minutes flat and it was one of the best sandwiches of my life. Here is a bad picture of it:
Not to hit you all over the head with the message that systemic racism is an issue that permeates basically every sphere – though it is and if you needed the reminder, here it is – but let’s talk a little about cultural appropriation and racism in the food industry (specifically at Condé Nast with their Bon Appétit magazine), because recipe sharing over social media has boomed in these past few months due to quarantine, and many of us have been baking and cooking a lot more than before and following new bakers and cooks/chefs for their recipes.
For anyone who’s thinking about why I’m dragging politics into food and cooking, because isn’t food just food? Food brings people together! People bond when eating together at the same table, right, and what better way to learn about other cultures than to incorporate their food into your life? That’s great and all, but let’s think about what happens when that food gets removed from the culture whence it (or its influence) came. When recipes such as the Internet famous Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric* by Alison Roman makes no reference whatsoever to perhaps Indian curries or maybe Caribbean curry or any other “ethnic” food culture she might’ve been inspired by – because did Roman invent this combo, or were there influences from other cultures that should at least be cursorily mentioned? Just think about what a surreal experience it must be for anyone who has grown up with something similar to #TheStew to see it show up without any reference to their culture, and then further see this disembodied aspect of their culture go viral… without any credit to their culture? Personally, I think basically everyone ultimately stands to gain by discussing the politics of food, first because as Socrates in the words of Plato said, “the unexamined life is not worth living” and there is lots to uncover and examine when it comes to food and the politics and histories of the dishes themselves in addition to the food industries and how they contribute to or are influenced by systemic racism; but also because the more you know about the food you eat and/or cook, I think, the more you learn to appreciate the food. As this article from The Atlantic (talking about food media in this quote, but on the topic of whiteness in the food industry as an article): “Devoting more coverage to the social and economic realities that drive the industry—rather than only discussing dishes in a vacuum—has allowed for more meaningful explorations of how food brings people together.” (Giorgis, The Table Stays White).