Comfort Food: Immigrant Gastro-Politics in the Homeland

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Global reactions to 9/11 marked a nascent, surging Islamophobia in America and around the world. It also marked a revolutionary, if somber, change of fortune for the Food Network: Americans, overwhelmed and grieving in national tragedy, turned in droves to the channel, re-energizing a failing brand into the media empire we know today. Food Network restructured itself to match its consumers’ desires: Susie Fogelson, then-head of Food Network marketing, described a pressure to be “indulgent and spectacular…about entertainment value…” This need for familiar gratification in the face of an unfamiliar status quo is best labeled by the good that assuages it, for the American consumer and the immigrant alike: comfort food.

The dynamics of comfort food are integral to understanding the making of the role of the SWANA immigrant in America. The process of depoliticizing immigrant comfort foods to become comfort foods for Western audiences is nowhere more noticeable than in America, where perceptions of culture in SWANA foods are alternately sensationalized or erased parallel to American perceptions of SWANA immigrants. 

While many immigrant performances of food alienate Americans with their different cultural norms, the stereotypes associated with immigrants from all parts of Asia are especially transgressive. The notorious “curry smell” characterizes Indians, as well as other stereotypes of “unsanitary” eating, such as with hands; entomophagy, or the eating of insects, is culturally common among many Asian and African countries, but it is instead attributed to inferior taste or severe food insecurity; the production of halal foods is frequently accused by far-right organizations such as the English Defence League as attempts at cultural conversion and sharia law; Muslim dietary restrictions attract particular ire from xenophobes, such as in the 2017 attack on a Davis mosque whose damages included bacon wrapped over the handles of the door.

It seems, however, that those same cuisines enjoy high popularity from their ostensible cultural targets. In the early 1900s, during the height of the “Yellow Peril,” Chinese Chop-Suey restaurants reached peak audiences of hungry American consumers, while Chinese immigrants were viewed as diseased. Such relations denote a cultural divestment; that the consumption of a culture’s food not be related to its cultural origins suggests a separation that begins when the feet of the immigrant touch Western soil.  

This percolation of resources, appropriations of ethnic goods to create homogenized, socially acceptable results, disproportionately affects SWANASA immigrants as communities whose gastro-performances are perceived as violating Western cultural values. The callous disregard with which cultural products are leached of their social context becomes weaponized against those immigrants, whose performances now accede to generic representations of food in popular media, and, transitively, generic representations of cultural values. 

The process of depoliticizing immigrant comfort foods to become comfort foods for Western audiences is nowhere more noticeable than in America, where perceptions of culture in SWANA foods are alternately sensationalized or erased parallel to American perceptions of SWANA immigrants.

The impact of this on immigrant identity and community are destructive. Scholar Janet Langois traced skewed perceptions of Islam and racism in Michigan post 9/11 to an anonymous rumor that in a Detroit restaurant called The Sheikh, owned by a Lebanese immigrant, patrons cheered while watching the fall of the twin towers. At the time, the restaurant found itself embroiled in a national scandal; commentators from CNN, FOX, and the imams in Dearborn, Michigan all declared the shop and its owner as uninvolved in the claim, but the restaurant itself rapidly lost business, despite changes by the owner including emblazoning American flags on the walls to reflect his cultural compliance. The scandal has since resurrected as the origin of the claim that American Muslims were cheering on 9/11, an assertion erroneously repeated by President Donald Trump, among others. Unsurprisingly, of Arab-Americans surveyed by Langois in Detroit within a decade of the incident, many reported feeling a “crisis of identity”: the feelings of bystanders on an ideological battleground. 

Enter the hunger strikes at Guantanamo Bay, a prison known doubly for its high population of Yemeni, Pakistani, Afghan, and Saudi Arabian inmates and for its abhorrent, inhumane abuse of their rights. Begun in 2005 partially due to the verbal abuse of Islam with which guards taunted inmates, the hunger strikes were also a claim of “dignity;” as 15 year inmate Khalid Qasim suggested in dialogues published by The Guardian. The rejection of prison food suggests, for the prisoner, a vestige of control over their lives and surroundings, much in the same way immigrant performances seek to assert familiarity and community in new lands. Though in radically different circumstances, the politics of consumption remain a site for the ideologies of immigrants to abrade with the state. Much like The Sheikh in Detroit, however, such sites are identified with a radicalized otherness, and the state responds with tar and feathers. The dignity of immigrant food–the assumption, through cooking, of a basic right to culture as well as sustenance–necessarily implies a degree of control for every SWANA immigrant. The desire for dignity is universal–and as universal is the attempt by the state to erase that dignity, to call into question the normalcy of the immigrant by dint of their cultural difference. Such “corrections” are meted by the state in policy and popular life, but the violence with which their trajectories land is dependent on the degree that food represents immigrant cultural transgression. In Detroit, immigrant dignity is met with racism and fear. In Guantanamo Bay, inmates on hunger strike, including Khalid, are force-fed twice a day, strapped to a restraint chair with nutritional supplement “poured into their noses.”   

While certainly violent, gastro-political conformity engenders itself in far more insidious ways as well. In a research study conducted on “Arabic and South Asian immigrant women” in Canandian cities, researchers found common trends of women facing accusations of “cultural isolationism” or “alienating behavior” in public and in the workplace due to their religious or cultural dietary restrictions. Moreover, the researchers found that while the women broadly continued performing culture through cooking, they were “consistently frustrated” by “their children’s refusal to eat what was prepared…because their children were frequently preferring non-traditional foods.” The “diversity” offered by the homogenized comfort food–the hot dogs, pizzas, hamburgers, and etcetera–is in direct, social competition with immigrant performances of cultural solidarity. The conversion of these immigrant performances into a homogenized food devoid of their cultural context offers a bait to children of immigrants, the ostensible future actors of immigrant culinary performances. The plate becomes a war for versions of social posterity; failed futures (and their dominant cultures) are nothing but leftovers, to be discarded in the garbage.