Corporate America, White Privilege, and The Battle Over Breadsticks
I wrote an article earlier this week from a prompt provided to me by Spoon University, “My Family Never Let Me Eat _____ Growing Up”. Immediately, I thought of how the first time I was “allowed” to eat at Olive Garden was with my high school cross country team. I was wholly unimpressed, likely because I grew up in an Italian family, and the Italian food we could get at home was better than any food I could eat out. The article made it to the MSN home page, something that I was not expecting.
I received A LOT of hate from primarily male baby boomers who called me elitist and a snob for not liking Olive Garden, many of whom had incredibly aggressive comments directed towards me for my opinion. And, they had a point, albeit one that was made incredibly poorly made through internet rants over a relatively silly opinion piece. Me not wanting to eat Olive Garden due to my family’s background was maybe a little snobby, but it was also tied to a rich culture that I am so very proud of.
That being said, it’s no secret that America runs on fast food and chain restaurants, but the effect of chain restaurants is disproportionate depending on their location. They pay their staff minimum wage (or less if they’re tipped), and they make sub-par versions of different cultures’ food and sell it for far higher prices. They move into poorer neighborhoods, serve unhealthy food, and often put mom and pop restaurants out of business. Unfortunately, this results in a class dynamic in which Olive Garden or Red Lobster, or Chili’s, (which I love, by the way) becomes the nicest, most accessible restaurant in the area. This brings me to something I want to clarify. My intent was never to shame or belittle those who eat at chain restaurants, because 1) I am definitely one of them and 2) there is nothing wrong with thinking chain restaurants are good, but instead to question a system, both economic and societal, that reduces different cultures to one poorly-made dish and some clichéd wall art.
Italian food and Italian culture cannot be disconnected. They are hand in hand, and Italian-Americans generally take offense to when others bastardize their culture in order to make a profit. I can almost see my grammy cringing when I tell her that my friends eat jarred pasta sauce, and I cannot imagine a holiday, religious or otherwise, that wasn’t concentrated around eating. This sentiment is shared through most other _____-American communities, who feel that their food is part of their identity. I found an article from another Spoon University contributor from the same prompt about how her Taiwanese mother wouldn’t let her eat Panda Express growing up .
There is a significant privilege in being able to eat home-cooked meals rather than having to eat out for convenience, lack of access to groceries, or because family members are working. Many of my family members, with the exception of my parents, are blue collar. My great-grandpa didn’t speak English until he was 6, and I remember very recently going to my grandpa’s retirement party after 30+ years of working at a materials company in Denver. My mom tells me stories about her childhood in which she would eat at her grandparent’s house, where they’d stuff her full of pasta because she was “too skinny”. Cooking was, for my Italian family, a sense of pride. To be well fed was to be successful, to eat home cooked Italian meals in the comfort of their North Denver home was to realize the American Dream. Food was what connected us to our past, to our ancestors, as many of the other cultural aspects we had were wiped away by Americanization.
Food was the last thing we held on to. My great-grandpa refused to teach any of his kids or grandkids Italian. It was a source of shame. Now, it seems almost silly to think that. Italians aren’t a minority, we’re just white. And this whiteness allows us to benefit from a significant amount of privilege. No other aspects of our culture have been ruined by corporate greed or exploited for mass consumption, because of said whiteness. In that way, my irritation over fake Italian food is just that, an irritation. It doesn’t threaten my existence or cultural values, it doesn’t threaten my safety, and it doesn’t have an affect on any other aspect of my life.
My dissing on Olive Garden in this article did very well come from a position of privilege, one that I did not fully recognize while writing it at a Starbucks in my hour between classes. But it also comes from a place of pride, from a place of sarcastic remarks by my family members about what people think is “Italian” food but is really just reheated breadsticks, and from a place of respecting the memory of my Grandpa Joe, who would be incredibly upset to look down from heaven to see his grandkid eating a piece of undercooked rigatoni.