Yes, White People Can Sell Tortillas

Chris Newman
Dec 20, 2018 · 7 min read
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Tortillas in Oaxaca, (Ilhuicamina via pinterest)

There’s a magazine out there called Garden & Gun, and I’ll admit this up front: it’s a southern-lifestyle rag that’s been one of my favorite lazy reads for years. And now, I think the time has come to cancel my subscription.

The publication became known to me by way of my in-laws, who have introduced me to lots of things White people like, most of which involve dipping bourbon into things and things into bourbon. One day after an introduction to dipping a cigar into Woodford before taking a draft, I happened upon a Garden & Gun issue sitting on a coffee table at their house, and cracked it open mostly out of boredom.

My initial assumption — this was a magazine for redneck preppers with libertarian politics — could not have been futher from the truth: Garden&Gun is full of articles about shotguns that cost more than my education, ads for 4,000-acre estates and private jet services, and showcases of made-in-the-south wares like fly fishing rods fetching north of $5,000.

It’s a southern Goop, for people inclined to devil a jade egg rather than have sex with it.

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Do not let this chick near your hens (via New York Times)

I was attracted to the magazine for its food and cocktail recipes, chef interviews, and its often tear-jerking Good Dog column. It also, surprisingly, takes a casually right-side-of-history attitude toward most social issues.

Except one.

Sean Brock is among the more famous chefs in America, and probably the most famous in the South. But he’s famous for different reasons depending on who you talk to.

To many foodies and chefs he’s the godfather of southern-oriented New American cuisine, piecing together a culinary renaissance with little-known or (supposedly) forgotten ingredients, techniques, and dishes, all served from his four gastro-temples spread across three of the most humid states in the whole damn world.

To many Black and Indigenous people, he’s a White boy getting rich off Big Mama’s Sunday dinners, or worse.

Here’s an example:

Over a year ago, Sean posted an image of “Cherokee frybread” to his Instagram account and referred to it as “traditional,” thereby attempting to profit from three awful things:

  1. Misinformation: nothing about frybread, which is made from flour and sugar before being deep-fried in peanut oil, is traditional
  2. Dispossession: after the lands were stolen and hunting/fishing/foraging rights denied, indigenous people dubiously fortunate enough to make treaties with the U.S. were forced onto reservations where they had to subsist on government-provided shipments of flour, sugar, and other basic non-Indian staples, known to us as “commods.”
  3. Death: Commods — anathema to thousands of years of Indian dietary evolution — are, to this day, the key driver of stratospheric levels of chronic disease for tribes tied to the rez or rez culture

I roasted Brock (who, like everyone else in the world, makes vague claims to Cherokee ancestry) over this in the post’s comments, detailing the genocidal roots of frybread. His post disappeared almost immediately. Imagine my surprise when, months later, I happened upon an article in Post & Courier featuring Mr. Brock all but reciting my IG comment as his own:

For instance, he featured fry bread on the menu not because it’s indigenous to the tribe, but because it’s a symbol of the Native American struggle. It was created by American Indians from the Southwest who were forced to rely on government commodity goods during and after their displacement.

“This was not food that their DNA was designed to process,” says Brock. “It’s led to high cholesterol and diabetes. I enjoy the opportunity to tell those stories and raise awareness.”

(Update 12/23: some folks accused me of making this up. Luckily, I posted my response to Brock along with a screenshot of his post, in my own account, which you can see here, dated December 1, 2017. The Post & Courier article appears on December 12, 2017. That would be one spectacular hell of a coincidence.)

When confronted with appropriation or racial blindspots, most White folks will ghost or get defensive. What Sean did, however, was so next-level brilliant it was almost hard to be mad at him: HE STOLE THE CONFRONTATION AND MADE A PROFIT FROM THAT, TOO.

This guy gets called out for appropriation in public, buries the confrontation in the ground, and out it emerges three months later as a flower of self-inspired cultural awareness; a puff piece nestled inside a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper.

Sean’s very White self goes on in that article to extoll the virtues of three-sisters companion planting and the health benefits of traditionally indigenous diets, all from the peak of a small empire of brick & mortar restaurants while another Sean — one who speaks an indigenous language and doesn’t express his heritage as a percentage — has to win a freaking James Beard Award for his cookbook before even getting to CONSIDER opening his FIRST restaurant.

Sean Brock is a better farmer than I’ll ever be, wielding a green thumb that prints stolen money.

I’m exaggerating when I say Garden & Gun credits Brock with discovering the very existence of southern food… but only by a little. You’d be hard pressed to pick up an issue of the magazine without coming across an entire article or a throwaway line crediting him with “discovering” some “lost” culinary treasure that I’ve been eating at family reunions and cookouts since before I could talk.

It happened again when I picked up the Dec/Jan issue a few minutes ago, and I decided it would be the last time. I put down the magazine forever, and started writing this essay.

Cultural appropriation had grown into a front-line topic in the progressive zeitgeist, right up until Donald Trump became President and we all had to go back to basics: Nazis are Bad. The Civil War was about Slavery.

Food was a very common line of debate for this topic, which often featured incredulous minorities listening to White people make arguments of every imaginable classification:

  • Indignation/Self-Pity: “So what, only Latinos are allowed to make tacos now?”
  • Gaslighting: “What does traditional MEAN, anyway?”
  • Denial: “I learned how to make tacos IN THE YUCATAN, you prick!”
  • False Equivalence: “I mean, it’s not like the Aztecs discovered corn. They ‘appropriated’ it from someone else, too.”
  • Dismissal: “You lost. Get over it. It’s just a taco.”
  • White Savior: “By making these tacos, I’m raising awareness of the traditions of the poor people of Ayagualo, El Salvador. Five percent of our proceeds go to the Don Bosco Catholic Academy for the Blind, Brown, and Bereft. They’re using the funds to open a yoga studio. What are YOU doing to save Central American culture?”

And of course in all these lines of defense/attack, the fragile White folks that offer them heroically fail the miss the point:

  • It’s not that White folks are making a fortune from Mexican cultural assets
  • It’s that Mexicans aren’t making a fortune from Mexican cultural assets; and are, in fact, often punished for them

That second point can be summed up in a single photograph of Homeland Security Secretary and noted cager-of-brown-kids Kirstjen Nielsen dining at a Mexican Restaurant owned by White celebrity chef Todd English.

via New York Times

This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in two places: 1.) the Whites-only bro-culture that’s all but taken over increasingly high-end BBQ establishments and nose-to-tail butcheries, as Black chefs are relegated to truck-pulled roadside smokers, and 2.) the proliferation of New American restaurants, in the mold of Sean Brock’s “Husk”, that experiment with a diversity of cultural traditions on the plate but never in the ownership; Latinx, Black, Asian, and Indigenous chefs wielding the source material sweat it out in the relative obscurity of food trucks, whose existence many established restaurateurs have fought tooth and nail for years.

And of course the appropriation ends where it began, on the land itself, the overwhelmingly White-owned sustainable farms that supply these pricey eateries borrowing from a mix of ancestral traditions and techniques — many of which were outlawed to their originators — rebranded and appropriated as “permaculture” while marginalized people continue to face racialized challenges to reclaiming those traditions themselves.

It’s an intractable problem centuries in the making. What to do?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. But one can suppose that finding it starts with diagnosing the various causes of the disease:

  1. Our failure as a culture to discuss the past and present of race openly and honestly, attributable chiefly to the insistence that all discussion steer clear of discomfort for people who have benefitted from racism, deliberately or otherwise.
  2. Non-Whites are required to know the history and culture of White America, but the opposite is not true. Non-Whites MUST understand and empathize with White culture to achieve success in this country. White people have the option to remain blind to all but a passing glance of marginalized cultures and, fearing their own discomfort, they typically exercise that option.
  3. Economic self-segregation is re-cleaving society across racial lines; integrated schools — one of the only programs to ever narrow the achievement gap — are becoming downright rare as wealth inequality yawns, races urbanize in different patterns, and school choice becomes more prevalent. Throughout American life, the theory and signal value of integration waxes as its actual practice wanes. Want proof? Look through your friends’ social media feeds for displays of diversity in casual settings.

Number three is pretty hard, but addressing numbers one and two don’t take much more than a healthy dose of self-confidence and a willingness to listen. Those can be addressed on an individual level; they’re the things we can control and make a difference with today. The question is: who, today, will, so we can get a little closer to the promised land where White folks and Brown folks alike can sell delicious tacos, guilt-free?

Meanwhile… I’m cancelling my G&G subscription and making my own damn frybread.

Chris Newman is a farmer in Virginia’s Northern Neck. Visit the farm, Sylvanaqua Farms, on Instagram @sylvanaquafarms

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

Chris Newman

Written by

Working toward a sustainable future with Sylvanaqua Farms, the Accokeek Foundation, and GreenMaven. Support it all here:

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

Chris Newman

Written by

Working toward a sustainable future with Sylvanaqua Farms, the Accokeek Foundation, and GreenMaven. Support it all here:

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

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