Election Cake, or: Food in the Time of Trump

I guess we could say the election cake had been an omen. 

A trend of last year, prior to the election, many celebrated bakers, professionals and home bakers alike, got onboard to produce versions of the historical election cake, a treat of boozy fruit and spices that is naturally leavened. Under the (somewhat) clever banner of "Make America Cake Again", the election cake was to be a celebration of civic duty, local foods, and putting some spirit back into an election cycle that, in many cases, seemed to reveal divisive and frustrating tears in American society. The cakes on instagram were light-looking, moulded pound-cake looking affairs, elegant shapes topped with powdered sugar, stately, baked constructions that alluded to civitas the way that Jeffersonian architecture does. Restrained yet inspired. 

So perhaps the fact the cake fell flat was no surprise; the levain i used didn't take, and the entire cake turned into a flat puck of gooey, just baked pancake batter studded with rummy currants, a veritable let down as humorous as it was heavy against the the roll out of the evenings events. The cake was a comic let down; the election itself, a tragic one. It was a reminder that history is never, in itself, a progressive treadmill of consistent progress. That there is still darkness in this world. And while the lessons picked up from baking mistakes leave little room for rancor and a lot of room for learning, the lessons of that night, and all that came with it, were a little less clear cut, the anxiety and disappointment of a different flavor. And having at that time began again in the hospitality world, it made the work I did there, and with food in general, seem inconsequential and almost trivial in light of the things going on around us. 

Food has a way of seeming frivolous; photos of cakes, jam making, farmers market ingredients can seem superfluous as healthcare edges towards possible elimination or as executive orders get thrown about like cheap confetti on everything from environmental deregulation to preventing transgendered individuals from serving in the armed forces. And a lot of the time, the culinary IS a triviality; after all, it's eating and sustenance. But it can serve as escape of people wanting a distraction from the reality of what our political and civic landscape is at this point in time. A couple of hours respite away from the TV, and the seemingly insurmountable amount of harm that is happening close to home and further away. And there is legitimacy to wanting that -- cooking and food can be therapeutic, a social bonding experience with food as a medium or excuse to get people together. It allows one something to investigate, build skills, and otherwise feel empowered in a space and time when one can feel disempowered or lacking the agency to make changes to bigger issues of the day. Saul Alinsky, in his "Rules for Radicals", even points to the necessity of taking breaks; that even full-time professional advocates and folks doing what I call "warrior work" need things that revitalize and re-energize the emotional/psychological labor they engage in. We aren't endless wells of energy, despite some of our best notions of ourselves. We need a break. 

This is in part why I think people respond so negatively when folks attempt to reconcile the disconnect between food and the politics underlying it; one need only look at Food52's attempts at dipping their toes into the realm of looking and analyzing ethnicity and appropriation in the food world to more in depth pieces on Eater or individual food blogs attempting to break open the breech and use their influence to talk about the issues related to their writers, and the way they in turn influence what they do on the plate. But there's a vociferous cry of "just stick to writing about food" that is never as neutral as the writers of those comments make them out to be -- they are the folks for him this is as much an entertainment as it is an escape from consequences. In some cases, there is simply straight up racism -- no one wants to think about the complexity of the cultural appropriation of tortillas, or how white southern chefs may be doing more harm than good when it comes to their promotion of southern slave foods. But in a latter, more trying case, some people just don't want this to be part of their picture -- they're consumers of food and food media, and the realm is sacrosanct for a consumption that doesn't questions their immediate needs/wants. And for those folks, they can afford the privilege enough to not care about the world around them, or choose not to, consumers of food in the truest sense -- as an activity of acquiring a product in ever increasing quantities, regardless of cost or consequence.

This is a flaw, when so much of our food culture is wrapped up in many of the same economic, ecological and social issues of our time. The racial character of Southern food, who gets to profit off of Mexican ingredients, the ecological damage of current farm policy, culturally appropriate foods and SNAP, or even the more obscure issues of urban planning, green space, and food accessibility are all woven into questions of the now. The human cost to farming and hospitality services, and the current governments policy on immigration; the current status of the farm bill and the ACA are both tied to well being within our communities for food access versus handouts to the incredibly rich (and less reach but no better deserving); even just the food that gets put out at the White House dinners -- these are all reflective of issues of our civic culture, our collective ethos, and demand action that relates to much of our overall food environment.

Andrea Reusing, of Chapel Hill's Lantern Restaurant (that I've long admired -- I still have the Gourmet Magazine clipping from their profile ages ago during the Reichl era), touched on some of that this week in a piece she wrote regarding the hollowness of "Farm to Table" cooking when it came to labor. In her piece, she denotes that the labor -- both in the kitchen and in the field -- is often degrading, poorly paid, and rarely protected, and most farm-to-table restaurants or people identifying with that trend are equally hollow, using it as window dressing and feel-good-ism without doing much of anything. It's a half-truth -- there's a lot of eyeroll-emoticon like behavior by a lot of restaurants who ID as farm-to-table, reflecting a view not dissimilar from online food media consumers. But it's also a sweeping pile of nonsense, because people have been working at various levels -- from the CIW in Florida, Fight for 15, to various farmers markets authorities across the country -- working to improve workers conditions, food access, and a variety of other causes. Restaurants should, as she points out, support these efforts, and guests should be willing to support the cost of those endeavors, in part through the slightly higher prices one would be paying at any restaurant. 

The problem being all of these efforts aren't incredibly centralized; they are not systemic. Each cause is fighting at a particular vector, reactive to that individual topic, at which point nothing seems to get resolved, or seems to succeed in a partial victory. Systemic efforts are hard -- not only rectifying the harms of existing policy, but overhauling current regulatory regimes in order to improve outcomes for all stakeholders -- requires an intense amount of work. And portraying all of these issues as being morally indicative and weighted by individual actors (restauranteurs, guests, or even individuals such as you or I) ultimately belies that while there is some truth to it, it also weakens the idea that there may need to be the intervention of a larger authority or collection of stakeholders than simply ourselves. It's one thing to collect compost in your household (which is great! totally do it!), but its far better when municipalities mandate it and write good policy to enforce it. Most of us should pay more for food, but we also should be shifting the way the subsidy payment system works, to level costs, and frankly, after 30 years of declining real wages for most American labor, jobs programs and basic income assistance isn't a bad fight to be thinking of either, because demanding people pay more for food with declining wages is a classism that we should not abide by. 

This all requires both a systemic action (such as working on Farm Bill reforms and other large projects at the federal, state, and local level), but also requires a communal vision, a civic vision, for politics and policy, and even our individual actions. And this means getting people onboard with the notion of politics as a part of everyday life, which also means shifting the norms around "just food" and having that be about a "just food" system, so that the latter becomes to norm, the "farm-to-table" being a given, but in a real, substantial way, and not just as marketing ploy. Building a civic vision around good public policy (that then informs good civic culture) is an incredibly broad project, and requires a long view. And it means having some grace and hospitality when it comes to engaging with the entire population, because it is something we will have to engage the entire population on if we want to see movement or traction. To build a movement that isn't just about the moral righteousness of food choices or consumption, but building one where we can be producers of our own food choices in real and meaningful ways, and build community, economies, and good environmental planning around it, is a real thing. Creating a society where we can talk about pie and not worry that the environment, workers, or our health have been negatively effected and be able to show off on the internets is possible.

That doesn't mean it is easy -- it means it requires work. The lesson pulled from election cake was easy. The lesson pulled from election night took a little more consideration. But I learned that the internet is a shitty place for activism, and being present in our communities and in places of activism was a better move than only being peripherally involved as I had been in the Obama era. (it's also a great way to meet people, feel proactive, and get out of  your comfort zone.) Phone calls to reps was one thing; but I also started attending meetings of the DSA in NYC, and have been putting together a subcommittee for food and agriculture, a subset of the Urban Planning and Housing committee. I'm encouraging friends, relatives, and strangers, when and where I can, to get involved in the ways that make sense for them, and for the causes that make sense to them. And I've been having more uncomfortable conversations these days -- and forcing myself to have them -- with folks who would rather retreat into their lives than participate in a broader community action. It's small actions, amounting to bigger things over time, and shifting our energies into productive daily actions.

I'm also still cooking -- this summer I've completed a month of Tuesday jamming sessions, that have been one part meditative therapy, and one part honing recipes and getting the Diaspora business plan in motion. I still go to the market and take informative pictures that I post to instagram, go dancing crazy late at night, and I still go to restaurants that I like and support and cook dinners with friends, because these are what make us human and stop us from completely going spitballs crazy. If I sat and did nothing but farm data for days, I would get unhinged; we need mental breaks, and things we enjoy, in order to better pursue our work. In the time of Trump, use of time, our mental time and energy, has been the biggest lesson I've taken away. Using it better, to do better, especially on behalf of food and agriculture issues, has been something I've been striving towards. Because it touches all of us. It can empower all of us. And because no one should feel guilty about posting a picture of cake.

My election cake was an epic fail. My response to this election is not letting the same happen to the place I call home.