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Chow Down

Taco bowls probably won’t save us

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At least once a week, I think about the viral picture of President Trump grinning over a Trump Tower Grill taco bowl accompanied by the caption, “I love Hispanics!”

The irony of this proclamation is not lost on anyone who keeps up with U.S. political news, but I bring it up now, over four years after that infamous tweet, to explain Chow Down’s return.

In an article published a little over a year ago, I described Chow Down as a weekly column exploring the intersections of food and culture, both on campus and beyond. The column’s goal was to encourage readers to engage with food in new and thoughtful ways and, most importantly, enjoy chowing down.

Inspired by shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” I hoped to challenge the notion that meals are inconvenient pit stops or brief interruptions along the way to checking off the next agenda item. Instead, I hoped readers — mostly my immediate family — would understand why food and its infinite intersections with life captivated nearly all my waking thoughts.

Through articles discussing the eurocentricity of artisanal baking in the United States, one couple’s attempt to ameliorate the dearth of Native American culinary representation in Seattle, and the role of food in making holidays bearable for homesick international students, I would like to think I successfully started those conversations.

But if I’m honest with myself, I fell short of my original goals. Admittedly, the global pandemic and election chaos of the last eight months has left me feeling especially disillusioned with the world. To invoke a tired phrase, the uncertainty of it all is enough to make anyone question their life’s purpose. As psychologists explained for The Washington Post, humans are not designed to ponder their own  mortality as frequently as many of us have lately. 

Alternatively, maybe my unreasonably lofty expectations for what food can accomplish destined me for partial failure. A trite narrative exists in the media — one that I am guilty of promoting — that food bridges all ideological, political, racial, religious, and cultural differences. 

As people unite over a shared meal, the assumption is that diners will overlook their disagreements, find common ground, and leave the table feeling far more empathetic than before. The imagined scenario implies that the act of eating together minimizes political polarization, or at least the materialization of misunderstanding-fueled personal resentments.

However, this narrative disregards an unshakable reality — after the meal, peoples’ distinct racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds remain salient parts of their identities. In the same way that many Americans mistakenly assumed the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement or President Obama’s election marked the beginning of a color-blind era and the end of racial inequality, the danger of placing too much faith in the act of temporarily putting aside differences to eat is a meal is exactly that — temporary. As the contradiction between Trump’s love for taco bowls and his administration’s immigration policies suggests, food only goes so far in building cross-cultural understanding.

Whenever I spiral into these cynical thoughts, I remind myself that people still need to eat. The danger of romanticizing food as a great equalizer is that it takes the place of conversations meant to inspire lasting social change, but Trump’s taco bowl never asked to be burdened with such lofty expectations.

Thus, even if sharing a taco bowl does not translate to greater empathy for immigrants, the necessity of food for humanity’s survival and its ubiquity warrants greater discussion. Instead of asking why a single taco bowl does not inspire broad social change, maybe all Chow Down should aspire to accomplish is a celebration of our resilience and allow at least one person to feel less alone, ignored, or underappreciated.

Over the next quarter, I plan to examine how, even in unimaginable times, people use food to nourish others, fuel their fights for a better future, connect to both given and chosen families, and share parts of themselves that do not fluidly translate to alternative media.

I’ve tempered my expectations for food’s political power, but I remain as enamored as ever with understanding food’s intersections with the human experience. I hope you’ll join me.

Reach columnist Estey Chen at Twitter: @esteychen

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