The Austin Chronicle

The Take-Out

Who gets to own the story of food?

By Brandon Watson, July 1, 2016, Food

I tend to receive a few negative comments whenever I blur the focus of food writing in this space. I do get where some of that comes from. It can be jarring to run into a confessional when one expects to read about beets. I get that people can be interested in my opinions about cuisine without really wanting to give a thought to the person that does the eating, but, for me, those things are inseparable.

Food (and by extension writing about food) tells our history as much as music or film, perhaps more so because it is something we all share. And it matters who gets to do the telling and how. It matters that the Food Network sends its male hosts out for adventure or competition but keeps its female hosts mostly at home. It matters when white women become the face of Southern hospitality and white men the face of barbecue. It matters that the lavish meals of the rich have a literature, but not the meals of the poor. And it matters that a dinner can be romantic as long as it is not shared by two people of the same gender.

I suspect some people's discomfort with my occasionally very personal way of looking at food has something to do with that latter part. Of course there has been plenty of overt homophobia in comments and even more that is coded, but I think a lot of that has more to do with cultural programming than hate.

It's generally OK for women to talk about emotion in reference to food. That belief is bland enough to be repeated in comics and on greeting cards. But men are supposed to simply devour. They may talk about it with a certain heterosexual lasciviousness, but they are certainly not welcome to bring up how something makes them feel. When a man admits he's eating because he is stressed or sad (I suppose it is fine for a man to eat when angry), he is emasculated. And a man who acts in any way like a woman is less than. Still.

But there's so much flatness in that machismo. How food defines us is in some ways more pertinent than how it tastes – especially among marginalized people whose shared rituals can be the only respite from a society that still insists that there is only one narrative worth writing. Being able to start from a blank slate is the privilege of those who have never had to defend their existence.

But bread will always be comforting to me because of the poppy seed loaves my mom allowed me to get when I grocery shopped with her on Sunday afternoons. The smell, the pleasure of ripping in, made me forget about the Monday coming and the things we couldn't afford. Kalamata olives will always represent some awkward attempt at sophistication, one of many ways to explain away the swish in my step. The foods I taste on first dates are as enmeshed as the first kiss.

Too often people change natural behavior to make other people more comfortable. I suspect that's something shared across vilified groups. In the current era of racist politics, in the wake of Orlando, in a country that still isn't fully woke, it is not just important to tell our stories, but to never apologize for the way we tell them.

It's not what we put in our mouths; it's what comes out of them.

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