Food for Thinkers: The Rise of White People Food
In the opening moments of The Jerk, Steve Martin’s very white character, Navin Johnson—who was raised as a small black child—is served his favorite meal: tuna fish salad on white bread with mayonnaise, a can of Tab, and a couple of Twinkies. This is the food white people ate in the late 1970s, when the movie was made. If you’ve been out to eat at a new restaurant in a major American city recently, there is a good chance you have come face to face with the modern incarnation of Johnson’s birthday treat. It’s what I like to call White People Food.
White People Food has nothing to do with the relative melanin level of the person eating it. There are plenty of black and Hispanic foodies happily gorging themselves. They, too, in this case, are White People. And it has nothing to do with cuisine or the chef. In fact, Momofuku, the very quintessence of a White People restaurant, serves Asian-themed food and is run by David Chang, who is Korean. White People Food does, however, have a lot to do with money. Are you wealthy enough to afford cuts of [insert farm name] [insert special breed of pig] slow poached in [insert another farm name’s] [insert special type of milk] served with greens from [insert urban rooftop garden]? Then you are eating like a White Person. Do you feel really good about yourself while you’re doing it? Then you are a White Person.
To crib from Lenny Bruce, here are some food items that are for White People: Pork belly; "Farm-to-table"; hamburgers costing more than $6; specialty cocktails. Pickling is for White People (unless you are old and Jewish or live in the country). Same goes for making jam. While I’m sure that somewhere in Spain, tapas is Spanish food, if it’s called "small plates," it’s White People Food. Kale, spelt, quinoa: all for White People. Are you sitting cheek to jowl at a communal table? You are probably rubbing arms with other White People. Artisanal, heritage, heirloom: adjectives that reek of White People Food.
Why "White People"? Well, for one, most of the people eating this food are white people. More importantly—Momofuku and other sundry examples aside—most White People food is a sort of rustic New American, with no real ethnic background or heritage, a sort of monolithic blandness. And then there is the very ruling class back-patting self congratulation of eating local and sustainable food, a superiority that ignores the fact that most of the people you are feeling superior toward aren’t choosing not to eat that way, they simply can’t, and you can. To wit: White People Food.
Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying White Person. I eat White Person Food almost every time I eat out. And there is nothing wrong with any of the individual aspects of White People Food. The problem is that it’s become a monoculture for food writers and thinkers. In a world where—regrettably—not everyone can cook with or buy the ingredients required for White People Food, there are entire culinary worlds out there ready to be explored and celebrated. But for all anyone reading most food press would know, there is no other food that is not White Person Food. The joke goes that in France, they just call French kissing, "kissing." To read most restaurant reviews, you would think that White Person Food was just "food."
But it's not. Or, rather, I am guessing it's not. I wouldn’t know, because no one in the food press has told me otherwise, and if we’re paying people to be food writers, I shouldn’t have to do the work myself. Let's do some simple math: New York has 8 million people living in it. As of 2000, 36 percent of its residents were born in a foreign country (and those are the ones who are documented). Those people are bringing amazing food cultures to the city, and we're not hearing about them. Snobby Californians always make the claim that you can't find good Mexican food in New York. I find it utterly impossible to believe that each of New York’s 300,000 Mexicans are all wandering around cursing their luck at having settled in a city with 299,999 other Mexicans who also can’t cook. They are eating somewhere, and it's delicious, and I want to eat there, too. Sadly, my local food press keeps me gorged on a diet entirely made up of overpriced whole roasted fish and local mustard greens—the same meal I've had at countless, vaguely rustic-looking restaurants across Manhattan and northern Brooklyn. Why? Because food writers are White People, too. And why risk a dodgy taco at the end of a 45-minute train ride when there is the beckoning hearth of another White Person restaurant with a familiar chef just around the corner?
If you read The New York Times's weekly starred restaurant reviews over the last year, you would have been directed out of an area between 125th street and the Battery exactly five times. Of those five, only one is not in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Park Slope, or Carrol Gardens. Congratulations to Tanoreen (which is excellent, by the way). Reviewer Sam Sifton's 15 best meals of 2010 included one Williamsburg restaurant amid the 14 lower Manhattan choices. New York Magazine's Adam Platt's "Where to Eat in 2010" featured a grand total of 2 restaurants outside that zone (excepting a generous separate list dedicated to Brooklyn restaurants, all happily ensconced in those same four neighborhoods).Want to venture outside that comfort zone? You're on your own.
Now, the counter argument would be that food writers are simply playing to their audience. Most of the readers of these publications live in the parts of the city where most of the new, review-worthy restaurants serve White People Food. But it's all part of a cycle: White People Food is a prevailing trend because every hot new restaurant serves it, and restaurants are hot because they are reviewed. The only person with the power to break that cycle is the adventurous reviewer. If the restaurants reviewed were tiny taco spots in Queens, then maybe we would all be doing a little more adventuring, in our lives and with our palates.
This problem has been solved, at least partially, in Los Angeles, where Jonathan Gold has been cataloging the city's ethnic edibles for years. But New York lags behind. Robert Siestema has done an excellent job in the Village Voice for years, as does the Times's "$25 and Under" column (though let’s not get started on how often you could actually construct a filling meal for $25 at the places they choose). But none of these options approach what would happen to food culture if Sifton or Platt strolled into a new Somali joint on Staten Island.
So, I would challenge the reviewers and bloggers to think more of us, their readers. We have fallen into a rut of White People Food because we are lazy and we go where we’re led. Reviewers should be above that; they should push the envelope a little. We'll follow. And it will be delicious, and we’ll thank them. For the indignant White People out there, think of it this way: It's just as easy to be smug about going to the new, especially authentic Thai place as it is to be smug about how close to you that cow was raised. And I have a feeling that it's the potential for smugness, not the politics or the taste, that made us all like White People Food in the first place.