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Who Gets to—or Should—Tell the Stories of Immigrants and Their Foodways?

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Last weekend, Southern Foodways Alliance hosted their 3rd annual Food Media South symposium in Birmingham, AL. The focus of this year’s conference was to explore food writing through the lens of immigration, ethnicity, and identity.

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John T. Edge, Editor-in-Chief of Gravy, a Southern Foodways Alliance publication that describes itself as showcasing “stories of the changing American South through the foods we eat”, dove into the day’s programming by proclaiming there is a distinct difference between what he terms “passive” and “active” Southerners. Edge described himself as a passive Southerner because he was born in the South—as opposed to immigrants who actively settled there.

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The speakers were impressive: Among them, Birmingham-based writer Eric Velasco was there to talk about the Greek population's deep roots in the city, and Dr. Steven Alvarez, who now teaches English at St. Johns University, spoke about his 2016 course at the University of Kentucky called Taco Literacy: Public Advocacy and Mexican Food in the U.S. South, a class that hasn’t exactly flown under the pop culture radar (VICE's Munchies was pretty excited about it last year when it debuted).

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Hanna Raskin, the restaurant critic at Charleston’s Post & Courier, zipped through a brief history of 20th century food writing. She said that even in the 1950s and 60s, female food editors were exposing their readers to political issues, like child care, food stamps, public transportation, and more, through food writing. Von Diaz, a producer at StoryCorps, echoed this sentiment during her conversation with NPR correspondent Debbie Elliott, claiming that reporting on food has, and can continue to be, used as a tool to sensitively bring attention to other issues.

Writer and chef Tunde Wey spoke about the genesis of his traveling dinner series Blackness in America, which aims to bring a small group of diners to share their own stories about how their lives and work intersect with blackness. Writer and editor Ann Taylor Pittmann, who’s half-Korean, talked about the proliferation of Koreans and their foodways in Montgomery, AL (thanks to a local Hyundai plant), as well as a deeply personal identity crisis she grappled with as she did research into the Korean community. Caleb Zigas, director of the non-profit La Cocina in San Francisco closed out the day in a conversation with Wey speaking to the informal economy immigrants must engage in because of barriers to entry. Across all the speakers, there was a thread of confronting how immigrant stories get told, who tells them, and what the food media can do to be better at telling them.

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So who gets to, or should, tell the stories of immigrants and their foodways—and how? Well, it depends, and the question animating the weekend was: Why do I want to hear from you about “this”? It's as relevant to readers as much as it is to writers and editors. Osayi Endolyn, Associate Editor for Gravy Magazine, and Chris Ying, Editor-in-Chief of Lucky Peach, discussed appropriation and representation from many different angles, speaking about their own experiences as journalists to illustrate their wider points.

“If you don’t know anything, the best thing you can do is listen,” said Ying, who co-edited Voices from the Storm, a collection of oral histories from Hurricane Katrina survivors while at McSweeney’s. He also urged attendees to consider the power that editors have to bring more representative voices to the forefront, and the responsibility editors have to understand the foodways they, or their writers, are covering.

Throughout the day, speakers continued to suggest an easy, obvious way to accomplish this: If you don’t speak the first language of someone whose work you are covering, bring a translator. Wey also put it plainly: "Embody ignorance and enter spaces like you don’t know shit, because privilege impacts the way we write."

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Endolyn spoke about her experience at Gravy, and, in particular, how a story makes its way to publication. If the magazine's editors move forward with a pitch, they pay attention to the pitfalls that may come up—basically, how to not fall into false narratives when translating the article to a wider audience. This is especially, while not exclusively, important when reporting on immigrants. Immigrants, after all, are not a monolithic group, Endolyn said; their stories, as culinary historian Michael Twitty puts it, go beyond boat narratives (the reductive idea that all immigrants traveled by boat to the shores of the US).

Ying also touched on the issue of authenticity after a question on the use of the word “ethnic” to describe food and cuisine from different parts of the globe. “Talking authenticity is to draw circles around things—what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s yours, what’s mine,” he said. The same could be said for the political divide over the White House’s proposed immigration ban, with two different sides hearing and living two different stories. In light of this, Ying explained that to remove the stigma and fear that surrounds immigrants, writers can go beyond evoking empathy by profiling subjects—they can make immigrants' food “mundane,” part of our everyday landscape.

“Defending the rights of immigrants is the most American thing you can do,” he said.

Tags: southern foodways alliance, birmingham