Words we shouldn't use while talking about food
We live in a world full of socio-political tensions. And those are here for a good reason – the world is messed up, don’t you agree? Everything we do, as individuals and as consumers showcase our beliefs and can either add to or ease those problems. And so does everything we say. Put those words in the context of food – one of the most political areas there are – and you’ve got yourself a discourse that is highly intersectional, emotionally loaded and very hard to navigate in. Our word choices are therefore powerful – they can propel different oppression systems and further divide people or promote inclusion, awareness and respect. And that’s what this text is about.
Food-oriented websites and magazines, blogs, articles, cooking shows, restaurant reviews – they’re everywhere, in ever growing numbers. And so is verbalized otherization, orientalization, cultural appropriation, sexism, classism, racism and more…One thing is certain – we are all guilty of it, somehow, somewhere. But we MUST educate ourselves, listen to the voices that are affected by it and try to simply be better.
(I feel like I need a tiny disclaimer here: even though I love reading academic writing that opens my eyes to new things, I can’t produce one myself…so even though the topic is important and should really be considered, I just poured my thoughts onto pages hoping you’d find them at least a bit inspiring.)
Down below you’ll find words that are frequently being used in the food industry and they always make me flinch. The reason I’m sharing those is because I’m hoping to start a conversation aimed at creating a more inclusive verbal space. Perhaps those words don’t trigger you specifically, but if you really wish to live in a kinder world and be mindful of others – keep an open mind while reading through.
…or anything guilt-, sin- or weight-related, to be honest. Describing food using such language is not only triggering to anyone that has ever dealt with eating disorders and body image issues but also perpetuates today’s toxic diet culture, body shaming and fatphobia. Assigning guilt and other similar emotions to food messes up with our relationship towards eating, creates stigmas and is highly insensitive and in my humble opinion also anti-feminist. This is sadly only a start, but you can have a quick read about other toxic diet culture terms here.
Clean eating / clean food
Apart from triggering guilt, shame and distorted body image, assigning more (moral) value to specific foods while judging others (after all, if it’s not clean it’s dirty) is an expression of multilayered privilege. If you think about what people usually mean by saying clean food, you’d see dishes that mostly reflect white, upper(ish) class culture. That deems other food as “less than”, worse in value or somewhat inferior, excluding everyone that’s not in the position to eat in such a way or anyone that doesn’t identify with such foods. Rule number one of food culture: don’t yuck someone else’s yum. Also, focusing on such food judgment dismisses real-life problems like hunger, food desserts, poverty, food sovereignty and eating disorders (in this case mostly orthorexia). So: enjoy your meals how you like them, just skip that term (and this darn hashtag). Other terms to consider in the same light: natural / healthy / good and bad food.
…otherwise called super scam. Problematic on many different layers, superfoods narrative is full of nutritional primitivism, racial implications, clean-eating gibberish. Not to mention the narrative-reality crash: freakishly high prices that aren’t reflected in how the communities working on growing these foods are paid. “The gentrification of food has been a hot topic in recent years, as many “ethnic” foods are “discovered” by well-meaning foodies – often white – who then raise the price of these meals until the original purveyors and consumers can no longer afford to eat them. This happens across racial lines and is often driven by the fetishization of “the Other,” or an urge to view and sample “exotic” cultures.” (Eboni Harris, Highsnobiety article). So consider spirulina (Central Africa), moringa (South Asia), maca (mostly Peru), gojii berries (China), chia (South America) and how much you know of their origins as well as how you describe them. There’s nothing super(b) about taking indigenious foods and selling them as economically exclusive miracles to a mostly unaware crowd.
This one is everywhere, especially in restaurant reviews. The biggest problem with it is its vagueness…What does that even mean? Most of the time, the context suggests that authentic food equates with ethinic cuisines’ realness. It’s important to remember here that no restaurant, no entity has ownership of culture (which food is a huuuuge part of). So if you’re quick to only call a Napolitan-style pizza an authentic one, remember that there’s plenty of other italian pizza styles, regions, ways of preparations and cooks that are equally part of that culture. What is authentic to you, might not be authentic to others…Especially, if you are not even part of that culture yourself. Another reason why ‘authentic’ is problematic in the hospitality industry is that it’s often used by chefs/restaurants themselves as a shield to avoid critique or waive bad reviews. Everything about that word and its usage screams UNCLEAR therefore TRICKY.
When you think about it, any food in the world is ethnic. It originates somewhere in the world, is created by some people that are part of some culture. Food is then ethnic by definition. And yet, when we hear ethnic food it’s usually about the non-European cuisines (hearing a lot about ethnic German food restaurants?). As always, context matters and in this case it showcases a colonial, supremacy mindset of the world’s most privileged white cultures.
…falls into the same problem category as the ethnic. Everything unknown or unfamiliar can be described as such. Why use it then? Would you ever use it to describe German food? Polish food? The only real thing we learn about food from this adjective is that the author is not really familiar with it. For some foods to be described exotic is yet another display of cultural dominance and unawareness. Just google exotic food and you’ll see a bunch of dead animals that are traditionally not eaten in Europe or North America (carnism at its fullest) and cooks that represent marginalized-by-the-so-called-first-world cultures.
Kaffir (limes/leaves) and other racist words
Now, this one is very important. Kaffir limes and its leaves are a world-wide known food item used in a lot of dishes. They’re beautiful, aromatic and just amazing to use. But their name – not so much. Not many of us may know that the word is actually a racial slur, that might mean nothing bad to you, but is very offensive to South Africans. While there’s some dispute about the origins of the word, one thing is certain – we should not use it. Call it a Makrut lime / leaves instead. Unfortunately, it’s almost certain that such cases happen in other languages. Think about your native tongue or languages you speak well and make sure you advocate for non-offensive alternatives. If you’re a German speaker you can start with eliminating words like Mohrenkopf.
Soul food (to describe anything else than African-American cuisine from Southern States of the US)
Way too many times have I seen a white European food blogger put out their food online calling it soul food. There’s already a discussion about the complexities regarding the shift and/or the boundaries between soul food (cuisine traditionally prepared and eaten by African Americans in the Southern United States) and Southern food (soul-food influenced, non-necessarily African American-cooked). And yet, here comes the third party, not even closely related to that culture, claiming to be somehow part of it…with the food that is not even inspired by this cuisine. Sometimes it feels like the term is perhaps misused to mean something more close to comfort food that can actually differ from cuisine to cuisine and also individually by definition.
Cruelty-free just because something’s vegan
The number of times we see or hear this…is ever growing. And even though one can understand where the need of saying this comes from in the context of vegan food – we must simply look at the bigger picture. And let’s just state it point blank – Just because it’s vegan, does not mean it’s cruelty free. Consider human labour at every stage of the process – from planting, to harvesting to processing. There’s destruction of indigenous lands (with people, fauna and flora), there’s unfair wages, there’s child labour, there’s racial / economic / classist oppression entangled in every food item production. To think food is cruelty-free just because it’s plant-based is a huge display of privilege (one cannot see what doesn’t affect them) and it’s simply jumping to conclusions. Let’s not.
…foodporn (hear me out:P)
I know not many people would be with me, but dang it – someone has to question it. There’s two reasons I feel we should rethink foodporn. First: distorted relationship we develop towards food. Being exposed to omnipresent foodporn makes us hungry, stimulated and expecting reality to match expectations created by online visuals (which is especially difficult in the era of food photography). This might disable us to enjoy the real thing, leave us constantly disappointed, craving more and cause frustration or even disturbed eating patterns.
Secondly, the term foodporn draws parallels with the industry that is inherently anti-feminist and anti-liberation. Keep in mind that I mean the “traditional” mainstream pornography, that is created by and for men in a highly misogynist cis-homo-patriarchic manner, that exploits womxn, their bodies and minors. Perhaps foodporn wouldn’t be problematic in a world where ethical porn is considered a standard. But it’s not. So as vegans and as feminists, we should see issues in how that industry operates and refuse to linguistically normalize it. Pornifying and fetishizing bodies is a problem, why do we agree to pornify food then? As one of the leading vegan feminist – Corey Wrenn – says:
If you’re reading this final paragraph – well done and thank you for sticking around until the very end. I know most of such conversations aren’t easy nor comfortable but I do believe they’re important. Below I’ve included some article links that can be read to stimulate more reflections in that area. If you have any thoughts or ideas you’d like to share with me regarding this post – please do!
About the author
Marika – vegan chef, animal advocate & educator. Professionally: creator of Plant Base & all its food creations, workshops & events, media & design. Privately: book worm, intersectional feminist, dog fanatic, Aquarius. Big on vegan food, even bigger on food for thought. Here to grow, open dialogues & share resources with those who also believe that veganism is only the beginning.