Journalists listen for clues. We learn to push through people’s nuanced words with an attentive curiosity that gets at the heart of the story. Liliana Paredes spoke of that yesterday on WUNC’s State of Things, though her work is as a linguist and advocate in the local Latina immigrant community. I like what she said about listening to stories of struggle:
“To be a healthier community, we have to listen beyond the words they use.”
Over the years, I’ve spoken to a lot of chefs and restauranteurs, farmers and shop owners, who employ immigrants in their kitchens and fields. Talking to them about immigration can be touchy. No one wants to come off like a jerk, but not many will actually go on the record by taking a stand on one of our country’s most controversial topics. But like journalists and linguists, many of these bosses listen. They listen beyond what they see on the cook line. And sometimes, they do even more than that: they speak up.
Allies should never be the loudest voice in a movement. But I’ve noticed that when more chefs speak out—as friends, not bosses—the more we eaters are given our own chance to listen.
I wanted to share a couple of examples that have recently sprung up in more “foodie” circles. Chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern isn’t timid. The James Beard Award-winning chef is constantly, unabashedly praising her predominantly Mexican immigrant kitchen staff led by sous chef Miguel Torres. In her bestselling cookbook Cooking in the Moment, Reusing devotes an entire section to “Family Meal,” where she names the delicacies her staff brings to group celebrations. She publishes Torres’s carnitas recipe with a simple, direct and touching introduction:
“He has not seen his family since moving to North Carolina in 1999, and the goal of his home cooking is to make his dishes taste as close to his mother’s and grandmother’s as possible with the ingredients he can get here.”
Reusing also stays privy to issues surrounding migrant farmworkers and, in 2012, spoke publicly about it at TEDxUNC. Watch her talk, "Resetting the Table," here.
Andrea Reusing and Miguel Torres. Photo from Lantern's website.
The venerated kitchen of Crook’s Corner has been named by the James Beard Foundation as “an American classic.” Chef Bill Smith, in his humble, understated way, has creatively turned that notion on its head by pushing the boundaries of what we define as “classic,” “American,” or even “Southern” by highlighting a Nuevo-Latino undertone as the driving force for his menu. Smith credits his staff front and center: Hector Gonzales, from Puebla, Mexico, and Israel Cruz Martinez, from “a small town seven hours outside of the city of Oaxaca.”
Smith makes frequent visits to the families of his staff in Mexico, and has said:
“They really are my best friends. This is hard work. Having them has extended my life.”
Last year at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, UNC professor and novelist Randall Kenan spoke of the history of Crook’s Corner. Kenan reiterated that Smith has sponsored two families to receive their papers over the years. “He plays this off as it’s a minor thing,” says Kenan. “But I wonder if any of us has sponsored one immigrant family, let alone two.” Watch Kenan’s entire symposium talk below, or skip to minute 19 to begin where he details Gonzales and Martnez’s contributions to maintaining the restaurant’s legendary reputation.
(Full disclosure: Smith served as an adviser to Un Buen Carnicero, the film I directed, featured in the post below.)
Victoria Bouloubasis is a food writer and journalist who writes about food's cultural symbolism and identity, sustainable agriculture, the fight for fair food access and farmworker and labor rights A chief contributor to INDY Week since 2008, she has also published in The Guardian, Modern Farmer, The American Prospect and The Local Palate. In 2014, she directed Un Buen Carnicero, a bilingual documentary produced by Vittles Films with funding from the Southern Foodways Alliance. She is currently pursuing an MA in Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill.
A good butcher listens. When customers at Cliff's Meat Market in Carrboro, North Carolina began asking for cuts in Spanish, owner Cliff Collins started looking for help. For nearly 18 years Tolo Martinez has worked behind Cliff's counter, learning "country" English and giving college professors, blue-collar workers and long-time patrons exactly what they want—and always with a smile. Un Buen Carnicero goes behind the courtesies of the butcher's counter on the eve of Independence Day to explore the complex realities of immigrant life while celebrating America's freedom and questioning its convenience.
This bilingual documentary was filmed in the summer of 2014. It is a film by Vittles Films for Southern Foodways Alliance Greenhouse Film Projects.
14 min. Spanish and English with subtitles
Director: Victoria Bouloubasis
Director of Photography, Editor: DL Anderson
Producer, Second Camera: Mikel Barton