“Nobody smells chicken and thinks of racism!"
I remember the first time I felt nervous about what I was eating. “Nervous,” as opposed to “apprehensive,” which describes how I felt the first time I ate ant eggs, corn smut, and rattlesnake at some alta cocina temple in Tijuana. (I needn’t have: the eggs were textural, the smut was trufflesque, and the rattlensake resembled, you guessed it, a richer, gamier chicken.) Nervous, as in, “Is this okay?” It was my first time dining at Arterra, the Del Mar restaurant co-founded by James Beard-award winning chef Bradley Ogden and local star Carl Schroeder, who went on to open Market Restaurant + Bar. I don’t remember the menu’s exact wording, but it must have been a helluva write-up, because the highly descriptive verbiage somehow obscured what became clear to me upon the dish’s arrival: I had ordered a very fancy version of fried chicken and watermelon. The watermelon was done three ways: a shooter of consommé, shredded and pickled, and…well, it was all delicious. But…is this okay?
Years later, I saw Gabriel Iglesias’ stand-up bit about putting together a racist gift basket for a fellow comedian — a Black fellow comedian, one G Reilly — who was visiting Fresno for the first time. First thing he puts in the basket is fried chicken. Then watermelon. Kool-Aid, malt liquor, a rack of ribs… you get the idea. And the comedian was thrilled to get the basket, because as Reilly himself deadpanned, “Nobody smells chicken and thinks racism! I didn’t know it was racist until I got back to my neighborhood!”
But of course, some people do smell chicken and think racism. Says Food Americana author David Page, “Fried chicken, on the one hand, has been used as a racial slur, and on the other hand, is not necessarily given the due it deserves as a dish created by people who were working as slaves. I don’t try to skirt the controversy around its origins in the book. There was chicken frying in Africa, and the flavoring and the way it developed here was, I believe, mostly the product of enslaved Africans.”
And yet it was white man Colonel Sanders who made it mainstream, just like it was the white-owned Anchor Bar that made Buffalo wings famous, just like most competitive barbecue pitmasters are white.
But while Page’s book doesn’t shy away from the racial component in the making of American cuisine, it does keep things appropriately complicated. There is a way in which my quesa taco at Mr. Birria “began with the Spanish introducing their foodways violently and forcibly upon the indigenous peoples of Mexico and South America.” The Spaniards, he notes, introduced “among other things, beef, wheat, and the technique of frying. And then those foodways would evolve. Imperialism and conquering, all that has been tied up in so much of what people end up eating.”
The bad history doesn’t mean the food it produces isn’t good. “The word ‘appropriation’ is difficult when you’re talking about food,” Page concludes. “Does a white guy have the right to make food that was initially created by Asians or African-Americans? I think yes, if it’s done with respect for where it came from and who it is that you’re interpreting.”