I once taught an intro to literature course themed around the blurry concepts of comedy and tragedy, in which we dedicated a few classes to teasing out the concepts of irony, parody, and satire. Irony is a broad category that encompasses many types and tones: it can be gentle or biting, high stakes or low stakes, cosmic or merely situational. (I perversely enjoy teaching that most of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” is indeed ironic, although the lyrics primarily describe situational ironies with rather low stakes.) Parody and satire are ironic genres that can best be distinguished by determining who is the butt of the joke: are you making fun of a text or an author by imitating and exaggerating it? Parody. Are you mocking a political institution, social caste, or system of oppression by imitating and exaggerating it? Satire. The term satire is often misapplied to weak jokes that punch down instead of up, but if your satire is indistinguishable from the system it purports to critique or if it replicates the same oppressions enacted by that system, then it is not a very good satire.
I mention this by way of prefacing the Potato Salad Kickstarter. You’ve heard of it by now: a guy sets up a Kickstarter to fund his first try at making potato salad, offers incentives such as receiving a potato-themed haiku or having your name said out loud while making the potato salad, and has raised thousands and thousands of dollars.
So, what is this? On a site primarily utilized by makers and doers who need funds for supplies and production or to make rent while dedicating time to a task, the request to fund a perfectly ordinary and inexpensive kitchen project is a departure in style. Like many other pieces or performances that play with food, it comes across as whimsical and gentle parody–an impression aided by the sort of guileless, doofy narrative voice of the project. It’s just a potato salad and he’s not asking for a lot of money, so the stakes seem fairly low. It’s a good example of how I understand the concept of twee, aided by Judy Berman’s critique of a book by that name: its seemingly apolitical focus on the whimsical, the simple, the freely-given makes criticism seem ill-natured.
But criticize we must. Trudy at Gradiant Lair puts it plainly: there is nothing apolitical about launching a crowdfunding campaign that parodies crowdfunding campaigns when other people are using these platforms for critical resources and care. There is nothing hilarious about supporting such a campaign when serious campaigners are shut down and harassed. This is punching down, even if you don’t think it’s punching very hard. Trudy’s own experience with crowdfunding is heartbreaking and it’s hard to find the potato salad game clever or harmless after reading her story.
I really hope the potato salad guy considers donating some of his thousands to a good cause. NPR’s The Salt diplomatically names a few food-related Kickstarters that might make a difference if you want to fund them instead. Or, hey, if you’re the sort who mostly funds your friends’ projects and/or authors whose work you want to read more of, consider helping Render: Feminist Food & Culture Quarterly get into print.
Quick break for a palate cleanser: Creepy baked goods beautifully designed and photographed by Christine McConnell, who often poses with her creations dressed like Betty Draper in the first two seasons of Mad Men. There’s a nice example of gentle irony: we’re not expecting this pretty pastel housewife to be attacked by death cupcakes, but everything is so pretty and she’s obviously having a good time, so the series is fun, playful, and low stakes. I suppose these compositions could be said to satire the model housewife expectations of the 50s and 60s, but I think that would be a stretch: after all, despite the buttercream monsters and shortbread spiders, we’re definitely suppose to visually consume and enjoy the Stepford-meets-pinup tableaux at face value. Irony levels: consistent with finding a blackfly in your Chardonnay, with inverse proportions of disgust/delight.
Back to histories and identities and things that are made. I really enjoyed this New York Times article retelling the story of a man who worked in a Domino sugar refinery in Brooklyn many decades ago. It’s good in so many ways: the subject of the story, Robert Shelton, has a clear voice and perspective on the grueling but well-compensated labor. It’s interesting to think about the ways food production has changed, and changed cities along with it: refineries and factories no longer exist in city centers, and those old buildings frequently find second lives as galleries and high-rent housing. It’s neat, too, because one of the oldest and most influential works in contemporary food studies is Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz, part history of sugar production and part ethnography of how sugar is consumed and traded today. This more recent chapter of urban refineries and working-class labor doesn’t get as much air, as far as I know.
But what moved me most is Shelton’s reaction to the literally sugar-coated installation that is currently housed there. Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” features an enormous sphinx with the features and kerchief of an Aunt Jemima-type character, surrounded by smaller and darker statues of children carrying baskets and fruit. In the not-entirely-climate-controlled space of the old refinery, the sculptures melt, grow spots, break or erode. They are meant to decay, not to stay. But the sculpture means a lot to Shelton: it structures the space in which he can meet and talk to people about his slice of sugar history, it could even be said to structure the way he tells his story since it represents a lost history of labor and the figuratively fraught process of turning brown things white. But he also just feels very attached to the sculpture, relates to it, feels that its presence makes something about himself understood. He worries that when it melts away, so will his history. A wonderful (if bittersweet) example of how important public art can be.