Dirty food

All You Can Eat

What does food mean? Is it simply sustenance that keeps us alive by providing our cells with the necessary compounds and amino acids, or is it something greater? Can food move people? Can it define a culture or even begin to? Can it define a person and can a person define it? I expect that I will debate these issues for the rest of my life.

One of my core beliefs has been that food unites people. I champion the cause of the meal as the solution or a road to a solution to a lot of life’s problems. But things aren’t that simple. Sometimes food is just food, and sometimes it is greater than that – and not always for the better.

Take a look at restaurants in East Austin and West Austin. You might see a difference. Food can divide people. It can simply be a symbol of differences in culture, and it can be the difference that causes a gap.

When people refer to African Americans eating nothing but fried chicken, collard greens, chitlins, and watermelon, they are using food as a weapon. Somehow, fried chicken and watermelon become bad things in these moments. The last time I checked, those were two of my favorite foods. Does that put me in the same category? No, but the combination will have a negative connotation for a very long time.

photo / rick 

I could go on about this being a tragedy for those who would avoid such foods because they would be missing out on possible tastes and experiences, but there is a greater problem. When I was little, I would hear people making fun some African Americans eating fried chicken and watermelon. It was inferred that there was a negative connotation. “But I like those foods. What’s so bad about them?” I would ask. People would tell me that I didn’t understand and that I would know when I was older.

They were right; I didn’t understand.

Moments like that kept me away from certain foods. A relative told me to never eat at a taco stand because all of the food is dirty and I would get sick. And supposedly some places will give the bad food to me because I’m white. This thought always makes me smile when I’m in line with 20 other Caucasians. There must be a lot of bad food. I’m sure that somebody somewhere has gotten a sinister taco or kebab due to his or her race. I’m also sure that more minorities receive the same or worse treatment more often. My kitchen experience taught me that race doesn’t determine whether your soup is tampered with. Even being rude to a waiter won’t do much because cooks hate waiters and don’t care about their troubles. Insulting the kitchen or making stupid remarks will warrant a special garnish in your soup.

Luckily, I somehow tried “dirty” Indian food and alley tortas. I didn’t get sick – they were delicious. Come to think of it, the only times I have been severely food poisoned were either from my mother, my own hand, or crème brûlée in France.

Ah, France. It’s interesting that poor foods like chitlins are looked down upon when a plate of snails will cost 15 bucks. I’m pretty sure that snails were eaten because there was nothing else to eat. So what’s the difference? Nationality? It’s true that the French aren’t – and never were – that popular in the US, but that doesn’t add up. Why do people shell out the dough for snails and turn their up noses at intestines? Do they not know that sausage is packed in intestines?

It must not be about where you’re from but who you are. Food has become another way to prejudice people. Most people experience other cultures first through their cuisine. When you like what people eat, they suddenly become similar to you. And once you figure out that the stories about taco stands and mystery meat at the Asian market are false, you start to question other things you’ve been told. Barriers start to fall.

People need to stop being afraid. Visit that soul food joint in East Austin or the Indian place on North Lamar that doesn’t have utensils. Don’t think about whether it unites or divides. Think about the only thing that matters: Taste.

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Anonymous's picture

Sometimes I eat my own shit. What?? Don’t come down on me— it’s a valid behavior. It’s just that I’m so lonely.

Bill Clinton's picture

Me, too. I’m so lonely. Help.

Monica Lewinsky, circa early '96's picture

That’s not what I heard last night ;)