Aliza Wong is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University. She lives in Lubbock, Texas, with her son and husband, but hails from Portland, Oregon.

Politics and food

The two are intertwined

July 8, 2008

We live in a day and age when the longing for tradition and ritual, hope and change have become political buzzwords. At the same moment that we yearn for “simpler times,” we complicate our lives with multitasking, instant gratification, and cynicism.

On the one hand, we want to be responsible, to be green, to be locavores, to be healthy, happy, harmonious. On the other hand, we want to be connected, to have conveniences, to be hooked up, linked to, synced with. And my prediction is that as this election year moves forward, the confusion and conflation of what it means to be living in this nostalgic modern world will only become more clearly mottled.

As a historian, I teach about politics and culture. One of my goals, my hoped-for “learning outcomes” (which I am required to put on my syllabus), is that my students become increasingly aware that politics informs virtually every facet of the past, present, and future. I use many examples to prove this to my dubious students. I introduce them to the research of my colleagues who examine the ways in which politics have penetrated beyond wars, diplomatic relations, and parliamentary debates.

I use the work of Patrick McDevitt, who illustrates beautifully how sport could be appropriated to discuss masculinity, nation, and empire. I assign the work of Eugenia Paulicelli, who examines the ways in which the Italian fashion industry was developed under the fascist regime as a way of competing against French dominance in an age of ultra-nationalism. I bring in the work of my friend, Carol Helstosky, who compellingly demonstrates that the construction of an Italian cuisine was linked directly to the political machinations of the Italian government.

And my students get it. By the end of the semester, they are bringing in examples from reality television, YouTube, newspapers, novels. Politics envelops our lives.

A political pie, made with love.

And nowhere has this become clearer than in our food — in our production, our purchasing, our consumption, our preparation, our tradition, our patriotism.

I’m an historian. I don’t need to be reminded that food has always been political. The feasts of ancient Rome that celebrated imperial victories, where people drank to excess, ate, and purged, where food was recognized as part and parcel of sensuality, were inherently political.

Royal food-tasters sampled all the delights before they were consumed by the king. They were the last line of defense against poisoning by enemies both within and without the kingdom — food and politics linked together in one mouthful.

In Tuscany, the bread remains unsalted, a symbolic protest against unfair taxes on salt in the Middle Ages. Legend has it a revolution was started because Marie Antoinette thought the people should have their dessert first. The foods of the New World introduced to the Old, curry as a contender for most popular English plate, Chinese restaurants on the tourist road in Venice — all are examples of empire, diaspora, new colonists finding new colonies.

And we don’t have to look so far into our past. Is a certain coffee shop’s mascot mermaid too graphic? Lawns or food? Urban homesteading, raw milk, chickens, probiotics, farmers’ markets? Bottled water, processed foods, trans fats, school lunches, freedom fries?

Foie gras. Veal. Bacterial mozzarella di bufala. E. coli. Salmonella. Food shortages. Ethanol and corn. Rice. Wheat. And now Rachael Ray, terrorism, scarves, and donuts.

I know this is all important. I teach it in my classes. I instill it in my students. I try to live our culinary lives as politically responsibly as we can in West Texas. And yet, as I stretch my pizza dough made with organic, milled flour, as I place the thin slices of tomatoes from my neighbor’s yard, as I tear the fresh mozzarella made somewhere in Texas, as I pull it out of my oven, hot and bubbling, slice it, and put it in front of my son, I forget. In that moment, politics or no, it’s about the hunting and the gathering. It’s about the nurturing and the providing.

In that moment, it’s just about the love.

There are 2 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Fasenfest on Jul 8, 2008 at 11:15 AM PDT

Yes, sometimes recognizing the politics inherent in the simplest acts can be overwhelming. I agree. But I think we are all making up for lost time. Once we get back to understanding how political our personal choices are, we might set about adjusting our lifestyles to the point where we’ll not have to think so hard about everything. At least that’s what I’m hoping for. It has certainly been politics and eschewed economic systems that has started me on my journey as a backyard gardener and food preservation instructor but every now and then (more now then not) I stop to smell the roses.

So thanks for teaching our children how important it is to have historical perspective. Sometimes I worry they will grow up thinking the world is a video game or that reality T.V. is actually about reality.

2. by awong on Jul 9, 2008 at 10:34 AM PDT

I complete agree - I think once we all begin to realize how truly and deeply politics are imbedded in our every day decisions is the moment in which we can really begin to to not only advocate political and social change, but really BEGIN to change. And I also believe that it is once we recognize the politics of our choices and begin to take responsibility for them is when we can go back to enjoying the daily pleasures of producing and providing.

I consider it a privilege to be able to teach. And my students are a great joy in my life. I’m thinking about teaching a course about the history and politics of food next summer, about consumption. I wonder how well that would go over here - but it’s a fascinating topic. And I would include urban homesteading as a contemporary form of food politics. So many of you all inspire me.

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Dinner Guest

The gamification of cooking

Earning points

Most of the time with cooking and eating, the rules are clear.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice