What's Really in That Take-out Box?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

By now, most folks have probably heard of the many ways African-American women and men have contributed to American cuisine. Most prominent is the catchall phrase "soul food" -- an originally cultural/political term that today can refer as much to oatmeal as to fried chicken. Despite the watering down of the phrase, food and nutrition journalist Toni Tipton-Martin is not hindered from curating The Jemima Code, an exhibition designed "to honor the African-American cooks who nourished generations of Americans with meals prepared using fresh food from the garden, cooked with love at the kitchen hearth."

Similarly, Jennifer 8.Lee challenges us to move beyond the watering down or flattening of Chinese cuisine to think twice about what we are consuming. The food we know and eat as "Chinese" is almost completely unrecognizable to many Chinese people, least of all the men to whom many of these dishes owe their credit. Both Toni Tipton-Martin and Jennifer 8. Lee raise interesting points with their discussions on food culture. Toni, through the traveling installation and the forthcoming book, The Jemima Code: A Gallery of Great Cooks Share Their Secrets (University of Texas Press) and Jennifer 8. Lee, in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Twelve Books, 2008). Lee's book is said to take us on a journey to understand more about Chinese food and the people who make it.

But why should we really care who made either Chinese food or foods related to African Americans, or any other group of people for that matter? Why can't we just eat our Chinese food or soul food in blissful ignorance, caring not about their origins or the historical characters that helped to inspire the foods on our plates?

Jennifer 8. Lee has no qualms in telling us point-blank that fortune cookies are not from China! So, while we might take great delight in believing the oracle in our cookie confection is "authentic" the reality is murkier.-- Psyche Williams-Forson

Because, food is not solely a source of satiation and comfort. Food is a dynamic, tangible result of moments and movements of people throughout history that are and have been filled with tensions and contradictions. When Lee informs us that beef with broccoli, egg rolls, chop suey, fortune cookies, General Tso's chicken, and even the take-out boxes are not icons of Chinese culture she is pointing to our inherent tendency to simplify people's complex histories by ignoring what we do not have the time or inclination to consider. Erasing the pasts of other cultures is willful ignorance and we should not be comfortable in this. Doing so enables us to be oblivious when dog-cat-rat jokes are shared (as Frank Wu reminds us) or in the case of African Americans, watermelon and chicken images (with the face of the President of the United States) are easily disseminated.

Jennifer 8. Lee has no qualms in telling us point-blank that fortune cookies are not from China! So, while we might take great delight in believing the oracle in our cookie confection is "authentic" the reality is murkier. In fact, the history of the fortune cookie in America is often a subject of debate. Following one of these lines of discussion, Lee tells us Japanese immigrants brought fortune cookies to America. With the internment of the Japanese, the Chinese took over the production of the cookies and every since then they have been served as dessert, complete with the folded piece of paper on which is written a script of "Chinese" wisdom. Ignoring the political, social, cultural, and economic histories of Chinese and Japanese peoples in America means we can also overlook the complicity of America in the interment of a generation of Japanese citizens. And it also means we can collapse the diverse and complex histories of different sets of people into one.

Jennifer 8. Lee's discussion points also to the reason that our discussions of sustainability need to include more than an examination of the triple-bottom line of profit, social responsibility and environment. In focusing only on the three pillars we miss the importance of transmigrant histories and ritual practices. Culture, as the fourth pillar of sustainability, can no longer be overlooked. The modern food movement's mantra of "knowing where your food comes from" involves the past as well as the present. Given that food is not devoid of cultural contexts, we should always remember we are culinary tourist, even in our own backyard. Cultural tourism or the act of traveling afar to new countries, regions, or areas to experience new cuisines is actually longer really necessary. The varied and diverse histories of our ever-evolving country is an indication that new culinary adventures can be had right here on American soil. Taking the time to be what philosopher Lisa Heldke calls "a thoughtful eater" and "food adventurer" has the potential for opening up conversations enabling us to really learn about another's cultural fabric and not simply the aspects that are consumable.

If we took the time, and asked more questions about the foods we are eating -- where do they come from, who invented them, are they representative dishes -- as Jennifer 8. Lee encourages, we will find that we are ingesting new and intriguing life histories, experiences, and cuisines right in our own take out boxes.

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