Just a little more than ten years ago, I visited South Africa with a study tour from my graduate school of education. As I've mentioned before, the purpose of our trip was to study the effects of apartheid on education; we visited schools both in Cape Town and in Johannesburg, most of which were still segregated according to the apartheid system--white, colored , Indian, black--and had obviously skewed access to economic justice that corresponded with racial identity. Ten years and change later, while progress has been made, it's definitely slow going. Reparations to the black community leave out those who were considered "colored." And many argue that a new approach is necessary. Some people in South Africa want to eliminate race talk; others think that the language of race is necessary in order to eliminate racism.
I've been thinking a lot about that visit again, after Paula Deen's recent debacle. Though I don't consider myself a food blogger, and I don't watch the Food Network (that's my mother's job, and we don't have a TV anyway), and Paula Deen doesn't even cook the kind of food I would normally put on my table, I couldn't help following the coverage of her story as it unfolded, particularly on Twitter, where the hashtag #paulasbestdishes identified some of the most creative food-related racist slurs I've ever read. It was, in a word, shocking. As was Paula's testimony. But really, I found myself wondering, why was I shocked?
When I visited South Africa, they kept telling us how impressed they were with how far we'd come since the days of Jim Crow; they kept asking us how we managed to do what we did. What I wanted to tell them was that their discourse was actually more honest than ours. Because we try very hard, it seems to me, not to talk about
race. Like South Africa, many people in the U.S. think that eliminating race talk,
pretending that we are race-blind, will make it all better.
The reality, of course, is that we're not. And it shouldn't be surprising to us that some celebrities act out the racism that still seethes just below the surface of our culture, or just above it, depending on where you live in the U.S. . The only difference is that the media scrutinizes celebrities more closely, and celebrities represent the kind of people that many of us want our nation to be, rather than the complex (and sometimes disappointing) people we actually are.
One article in the NY Times described how Paula Deen's racist remarks have brought to light a long-simmering controversy among Southern chefs about the origins of Southern cooking; many of them expressed anger that Deen got rich on the recipes of slave cooks and domestic workers, and yet, the author suggested, disrespected the very people who made her success possible. As someone who is particularly sensitive to intellectual property issues of recipes, I think they have every right to be angry.
Why do we hold celebrities to this standard (reasonable though it may be for all of us)? Why do we pretend that we--as a nation--think racism is a crime, when we are so willing to turn a blind eye to it in so many circumstances? How can we pretend that we have worked for and achieved justice when even SCOTUS can't come up with a stronger statement about affirmative action programs in higher education, where the effects of economic injustice (which have deep roots in racism) are often so blatant? Or when SCOTUS strikes down section 4 of the the VRA? Clearly we still struggle with racism as a nation, and not just in terms of black and white. And I suspect that it would be a lot more productive to talk about the problem than pretend that Paula Deen is the only one.
Adapted from Dinner with Julie
Butter Chicken is not at all Southern, of course; it was one of the Indian dishes I first tried, somewhat paradoxically, in South Africa. Though I don't often eat meat these days (and Bread Wine Salt makes a lovely vegetarian version of this meal with chick peas), my family enjoys it, and it's relatively easy to prepare.
1-2 T. olive oil
1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
6-8 skinless chicken thighs (with or without bone)
4-5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 T. grated fresh ginger
28 oz. can fire roasted diced tomatoes, undrained
2 T. tomato paste
4 t. chili powder
2 t. curry powder
2 t. garam masala
3/4 cup evaporated milk
salt and pepper
Heat the oil over medium-high head in a large, heavy skillet. Add the onions and saute, stirring often, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Push the onions to the side of the pan and add the chicken thighs, turning to just brown them on all sides. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for a minute or two, until just fragrant.
Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, chili powder, curry paste, garam masala and cinnamon and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the lid and continue to cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.
Stir in the evaporated milk, season to taste, and serve with rice (most traditional), peas, quinoa, couscous, or whatever else you fancy.