College of LAS « Illinois

Research

The Politics of Food

A bone of contention.

Asian Fish Market

It’s been called “the Orient Express.” In New York City, the Number 7 train travels from Times Square into the older neighborhoods of Queens, where you can find the city’s “other Chinatown.” From the train’s elevated tracks, passengers can look down on one of the largest Asian immigrant communities in the country.

This is also the train that pro baseball player John Rocker described in his infamous statements in 1999 when he called the train ride “depressing” because he was surrounded by so many foreigners. As he put it in Sports Illustrated, “I’m not a very big fan of foreigners”—one of many statements that nearly sunk his career.

At the heart of Queens lies Flushing, where visitors find a smorgasboard of Asian restaurants. Flushing is also at the heart of the tension in New York between Asian immigrants and more established ethnic groups—a tension symbolized by the clash of food styles and the smells of exotic cuisines, says Martin Manalansan, an LAS anthropology professor who has tracked “the politics of food” in New York City for more than 10 years now.

“Food is an easy medium for discussion and enjoyment and exploration of other cultures,” he says. “But it’s also a way of looking at immigrant struggles and politics in the city.”

For example, one local politician made it part of her platform to “bring back the old Flushing,” harkening back to a time when the community was predominantly Jewish and Italian. As she toured Flushing, Manalansan says, this politician pointed out the strange food items and exotic restaurant signs—symbols of the newer, more “foreign” Flushing.

“Asian Americans have historically been directly associated with food and indirectly with specific aromas,” Manalansan says. “Filipinos, Koreans, and Vietnamese have been branded as dogeaters. The Chinese have been accused of cooking and eating cats, rats, and every animal imaginable.”

Even food odor can create a stigma among Asian residents. Manalansan cites the case of “Gloria,” who worries about the food smells in her apartment. She is particularly concerned that smells will mark her household as “immigrant”—or, even worse, as FOB (Fresh Off the Boat).

In one incident, Gloria was shocked when an office supervisor made a surprise visit to her home just after she had cooked binagoongan, a pork dish made with fermented shrimp paste.

“The whole house reeked of the shrimp paste. It was embarrassing,” she told Manalansan.

A pair of Asian realtors also told Manalansan they advise homeowners to cook something American, such as pot roast or apple pie, before showing their home. The realtors argued that strong Asian food smells put off homebuyers, even Asian homebuyers.

Asian businessmen, meanwhile, are concerned about “foreign” smells when they put on their “public and occupational personas.” As one of them said, “I want people to smell Calvin Klein and not my wife’s curries.”

Manalansan, an immigrant himself who came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 22, is writing a book on the politics of food entitled Altered Tastes. In it, he not only addresses the meaning of food and smells in an urban environment such as New York City, he also deals with labor issues in the food industry—an industry that has been linked to Asian workers since they first became employed in large numbers in agriculture and food processing in the late 19th century.

In the book, he says, food is a metaphor for what’s happening in Asian immigrant communities. “Food becomes a way to think about the complicated and conflict-ridden struggles of immigrants,” he says.

For some, however, food also can be seen as a way to unite people. As one Indian American restaurant owner told Manalansan, “I know it is easy to like curry and still hate Indians and other South Asians.... But food is a way of coming together. So it’s a start. We have to start somewhere. Right?”

By Doug Peterson
Winter 2008