Link Buffet: Definitions

. . . legal and cultural.

I’ve been meaning to post this forever, but in the Spring 2012 Dissent, Mark Engler offers a straightforward, informative overview of three movements toward ethical growing and buying, explaining how they are supposed to work and countering some less persuasive arguments against them: Hijacked Organic, Limited Local, Faulty Fair Trade.  He also looks at ways ethical food production is co-opted by big food industries–hence the title–and how a radical eater can make informed decisions, such as what “local” actually means when corporations like Wal-Mart are investing in “locally grown” foods.

More recently: you’ve probably heard that the American Medical Association voted to declare obesity a disease–i.e. a condition that needs treatment–even though their own Council on Science and Public Health advised against it. I am skeptical that any good can come of this, and Michelle at the Fat Nutritionist beautifully articulates why: there are many problems fat people experience that will not be addressed by this change, and many problems which will be compounded by it. Further, we should be careful–critical, even–of the motivations of any move that names millions of people sick and due for treatment (just as we should have been critical of any move that names millions more people overweight and obese.) Michelle has also been killing it on Twitter, particularly with her poignant list of things fat folks do need, which I would have Storifyed if I was fast and savvy enough–but you should follow her anyway, because no doubt we have not seen the last of obesity panic politics. Lesley Kinzel also offers a good rundown of the decision at xojane.
If nothing else, let this decision be an object lesson in the importance of language!

Sarah Emily at Tangerine and Cinnamon explores the ramifications of a particular instance of foodie-ism crashing into the boundaries of decency due to privilege blindness: a restaurant was established in the abandoned premises of a former advisory service center for Asian women in an underesourced neighborhood. The center’s storefront had been empty for years, but the restauranteurs kept the original sign and nodded to the premises’ past usage in their name (The Advisory) and interior decor (you can see more of that in this Vice article). Sarah Emily compares this controversy to a few other instances of foodie faux pas, and sees it as an reminder to us all to check our privilege.
I’m always in favor of thinking about and examining privilege, so I’ve been thinking about my initial response to the post: a slightly defensive “That’s not foodie-ism, that’s gentrification.” Of course, foodie-ism has its own blind spots: if to be a foodie is to care deeply about food quality and preparation, then the foodie’s privilege blindness is to overlook issues of unjust labor, unequal accessibility, and exoticization.  If your foodie-ism primarily manifests itself in your choice of restaurants, I’ve argued elsewhere, then your problem is conspicuous consumption. Restaurant styling has always seemed to me to be a literal incarnation of conspicious consumption, as it’s all about visually displaying a particular relationship to food and eating–whether that falls in the range of familiar dining spaces (from classy dining rooms to cafeterias) or pushes at the boundaries of acceptance eating spaces and walking the line between edgy and gimmicky.

Onion-shaped restaurant in a redwood forest. Seems legit.

Onion-shaped restaurant in a redwood forest. Seems legit.

In fact, restaurant styling has a long-standing tradition of doing exactly what The Advisory did: renovating abandoned urban spaces and referencing the building’s past life in name and decor. Old banks and old firehouses are desirable real estate for bars and restaurants: the reference is playful, allowing adults to dine in a location that would never have permitted eating or drinking, or in buildings associated with childhood dreams. And it’s also a bit melancholy: such spaces necessarily invoke the instability of urban spaces and the inevitable life cycles of a city. One might make equally convincing arguments that such establishments capitalize on urban decay or that they honorably memorialize the traces of the past.  In either case, you and I knowingly participate when we dine there; we must know that the bank failed even when we admire its remaining brass and marble facings; we must know that we are slightly predatory consumers, higher up in the food chain or just younger and swifter than this site’s previous occupants.
Of course the case of The Advisory  is different–it’s egregious. The restaurant’s decor used a great deal of the source material whole cloth and as the subject for humor, veering from from allusion to parody. Further, the parody is inextricably linked to the financially and culturally disadvantaged immigrants who sought advice there; the parody is only a few years removed from a time when such an advice center was needed, or perhaps the need continues unmet. But I think it’s interesting to ask: how would we like to have seen them make a more respectful nod to the site’s history? A tasteful blurb on the menu or a table display? Keep the name and color scheme, that’s all? Would we prefer if the new inhabitants erase any trace of the old?
To me, these are fascinating issues of social space. I have an inclination to  draw a distinction between this and foodie obsessions with sources and raw ingredients and such–if only because foodie-ism has so many other issues! But the T&C post is right: the fields of foodie-ism and social space obviously overlap inside a restaurant, and it’s always going to be a good idea to check ourselves.

Anyway: away from semantics or at least toward a more playful application of them: Gertrude Stein reviews beer! The short, free-association reviews are modelled after Stein’s Tender Buttons, a text that resists analysis, much to the fascination and frustration of literary students. If you’re not familiar with the poems, I quote a few on my book site (toward the end of that post).

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