A Reminder That Food is Political!

A deli window with a sign that says "we accept food stamps EBT" with Doritos and Lays bags behind it, and toothpaste below.
(Photo Clementine Gallot via Creative Commons, March 2009)

I often post explicitly political things on this blog and the associated Facebook page. I do this for two reasons. One is that this blog has never been, and will never be, politically neutral. It is irresponsible to talk about the food people eat without concern for how that might be affected by people’s lives, and all the things that affect their lives. The other is that, by and large, the readers of this blog like the political commentary – even if they do not always agree with it. Some are even drawn to it. That said, a few people have complained, either because I refuse to endorse their racism or their politics of cruelty, or because they believe food should be not political. “Food should unite,” one messenger told me. “It shouldn’t be subject to politics.”

Well, you will just have to deal with the political bent of this blog. Food is deeply political! In some ways, it is the basis of politics itself – what else spurred any form of governance other than the need to make sure people’s resources were managed, including food! (For good or for bad.) When we eat, we say all sorts of political things. What we eat is closely connected to our status, what sort of “traditions” we pass on to our kids, and who we see ourselves as. Even more so, what we do not eat does the same thing. Beyond that, what we are able or not able to put on the table spurs us to political action. The knowledge of how that ability might change informs how we act politically today. And the identities that we take into politics is shaped by food. Think about how much our own Jewish identity is shaped by food – and then think about how much Jewish identity gets shaped in politics. Think about how many racist things are said in the name of food being “too smelly” or “too gross.” Think about how someone’s life might be shaped by those remarks. And think about how often politicians use food as an excuse to gain power, to take away power, or give power.

Your food cannot be isolated from political discussion. It is a hard truth, and many people wish to hide behind the privilege of not needing to think about this. If you are a migrant child in a cage with irregular food access, an elderly person unable to access food because of an inaccessible environment, or a poor person unable to buy certain foods because of limits on what you can use food stamps for, you do not have the luxury to assume that food is not political. The same rules apply for an observant Jew in a country that has banned shechita, the Jewish child teased for matzah at school, or the Jewish prisoner forced to eat treyf because of the abysmal nature of prison food systems. Even when you can sit at a dinner table normally again, that knowledge never goes away.

So I ask you, if you are uncomfortable, to sit with that discomfort at your next meal. Think about the workers that grew the crops in your food, and why your food cost as much or as little as it did, and why you are eating that specific thing. Were you ever teased for eating it, if you brought it to school as a child? Did anyone call the cops while you made it? Have you always been able to afford it – and what enabled that? That will help you understand how food is, in fact, deeply political.

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On Food Security and Jewish Customs

Many of those around me have noticed that I have a hard time throwing food away. It takes something being rotten or most definitively off for me to throw it out; even then, I feel a little twinge of guilt. This guilt is not from sermons about food waste – I am well-read enough to know that waste has actually gone down significantly with modern agriculture, and I am also generally able to plan shopping and food storage to minimize any unneeded waste. Rather, it is because I carry quite a bit of baggage and secondary trauma about the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen who starved in the camps, and whose food practices were forever shaped by those years of deprivation. As a result, my mother and I have a lot of thoughts about the potential of food – and throwing away any of it sends shivers down our spines. It is also why we stockpile food – a subconscious “just in case.”

These sorts of historical and transmitted traumas have influenced Jewish foodways for a long time. How many cooks view food is directly related to their own experience of lack, or for those like me who have been more fortunate, lack experienced by our relatives. Sometimes this happens in terms of food storage: how much do we keep? How little do we throw out? Sometimes this happens when we cook: how many portions do we cook? And sometimes it happens to our guests – not letting them “go hungry,” getting them to eat something. Subconsciously, it is a response to trauma experienced or inherited. And around that trauma, a culture of relentless squirrelling away, huge outlays of food, and stuffing guests’ faces has been built.

A deli window with a sign that says "we accept food stamps EBT" with Doritos and Lays bags behind it, and toothpaste below.
Essential – even for a deli like this. (Photo Clementine Gallot via Creative Commons, March 2009)

Even now, many Jews do not have enough to eat. A night volunteering at a kosher soup kitchen or food pantry in New York or Chicago is evidence enough. (I highly recommend Masbia, which is the nexus of a huge community.) If anecdote is not enough, allow the statistics to speak: 10% of American Jews struggle with food security. A higher proportion of Jews in Israel and some other countries do. These struggles do not just end when people have enough to eat: food insecurities, as we see from history, inform how people will eat in the future.

And the proof of this is in the way we relate to food today in the Jewish community. One reason we seek to have groaning Shabbat tables is because we remember the times in which our ancestors simply could not have that. One reason there are so many cultural strictures against wasting food is because we are only seventy years out from a huge starvation event – the Holocaust. (Genocide was accompanied by hunger and forced starvation.) Many of the popular foods among American Ashkenazi Jews today – challah, babka, cold cuts, and more – were prized by immigrants in the early 20th century precisely because of their rarity at home.

This history is why I also have little patience for the nostalgic, sentimental narrative around Ashkenazi cooking as a product of “poverty.” For most Ashkenazi Jews, challah was an occasional treat, as were things like brisket, p’tcha, or pretty much anything with meat. Ditto for other Jewish communities and meat. The daily fare of poverty was a lot plainer and probably not something those in developed countries in our era would willingly eat. When we say bread “came from the earth” in the blessing hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, we are partly commemorating the fact that wheat was once threshed on floors. This idea is explicitly stated in ancient and medieval commentaries such as Bereshit Rabbah. Bread had impurities that were dirt or stones. Bugs were commonplace in food before the modern era. Starvation was only unknown to the wealthiest in the community – most people experienced some hunger at least once in their lifetime. A lack of food security, not just persecution, drove millions of Ashkenazim to emigrate from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. The cuisine that became everyday was the cuisine of festivals, because that was the cuisine that meant plenty to our ancestors. And the fact that we eat so much – and so often, and that we store so much? That is the actual aftereffect of generations of poverty, or the memory of grandmothers in concentration camps, or remembrance of famines past.

For more on the history of hunger in the Jewish world, I highly recommend Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America and John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied.