5 Periods of (Food) History That Deserve A Show More Than “Confederate”

edna protest

When I was in college, I wrote a comic (or the scripts for a comic) where Amelia Earhart led a squadron of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War — one of those “everyone knows everyone” stories where veterans of the Easter Rising teach the Night Witches how to play cards. The Iron Canaries, as they were called, were pursued day and night by a Nazi squadron lead by German stunt pilot Hannah Reitsch flying a tricked-out plane outfitted with weapons designed by Wernher von Braun.

The series (would have) ended with Amelia forced to trade von Braun for a squadmate, and von Braun giving this masturbatory “villain with noble intentions” speech about how every death of the war weighs heavy on him, but a German victory is necessary for his true mission: colonies on Mars. The drop-off goes haywire, a bunch of planes blow up, and Amelia fakes her death to start a new life as a French Communist who drinks too much and is obsessed with silent films about space travel.

It made you think about the flimsiest pretenses we require to co-sign mass butchery no fucking sense, historically or ideologically. But it was comforting, even gratifying, to write.

Alternative historical fiction is a societal self-soothing technique. It’s a shortcut around the mountain of dead bodies and broken lives so we can look at some plantation house and go “wow, what a beautiful time to be alive”. It’s a doctor’s note for oppression and injustice; the American Civil War could have been influenced by vampires or aliens or a secret cabal of British aristrocrats bent on using the war to regain control of their former colony, go easy on it in gym class.

The planned TV show “Confederate”, the next project by the Games of Thrones showrunners that presents what America would look like if the Confederacy had won and slavery was still legal — as opposed to now, where only some sectors of our economy run on slave labor from incarcerated Black and Brown people — will undoubtedly be predicated on some similarly insipid deus ex machina. Maybe the Confederates develop the bazooka! Or the East India Company parachutes into Gettysburg. The machinations are irrelevant — it all serves the same aim.

It’s apologia of the worst order and also just fucking boring. How many movies and TV shows where men with Three Musketeer mustaches over-pronounce the “h” in women’s names do you need?

But oh, there’s so few things that have happened in the course of human events. What ever would we make our historical dramas about if not for wistful close-ups of tragic heartthrob slaveowners lionizing one of the most shameful periods of American history.

Well, I’ve made a modest list of some. It was easy. I recommend everyone give it a try!

fish and chips

1. 1880’s Ireland. Giuseppe Cervi gets on a boat to America, mistakenly gets off at Ireland, starts the fish and chips trade there. 

Fried fish is endemic to Catholic social life. Even those of us whose families grew up not strictly observing the “no meat on Fridays” tradition still attended the neighborhood fish fry because Catholicism is an unending “workplace pride exercise” at work — you just do what everyone else is doing and hope no one notices that you’re not doing it with enthusiasm. Ironically, of course, fried fish was created by the Iberian Jewish communities that Catholics terrorized with state violence. It’s fine. We ate some bread and now we’re Jesus and Dad forgives us.

I think, even if the hardships and perseverance of the Italian diaspora don’t resonate with you, doing an Irish folk cover of the theme from Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song as Giuseppe finds a road-sign and realizes he’s on the wrong continent would make it the most successful pilot ever.

stuffed crust

2. 1990’s America. The Mongiello family sue Pizza Hut over the rights to stuffed crust pizza.

Hey Game of Thrones fans, if you like watching the unfettered traipsing of the common people by incalculably rich and powerful people, you’ll love the history of fast food chains! They bust unions, they appropriate local cuisine, bully critics and protesters, and steal from their own workers whenever possible, whether it’s their wages or their ideas.

A family-owned business risks it all to fight an international fast food brand over the rights to their novelty menu item.  They’re hopeless, outgunned, and outmatched. They’re us, the working stiff with one foot in the grave and the other food on a banana peel, alleviating our immeasurable suffering at the hands of the capitalist state with a steady stream of shows of people we’d wish we could be. A good, wholesome underdog that we can root for against the evil empire who is so evil that it’s been able to use a show about its own evil to get us to buy their evil food to eat while we watch them be evil. But many thinkpieces will be created about your eating that evil food, so greenlight this show because I need work. We have cats to feed!

edna protest

3. 1940’s America. Edna Griffin fights to desegregate lunch counters in Iowa.

Soda pop as we know it has its roots in the pharmaceutical/medical industry — pharmacists and druggists had soda fountains where they’d serve soda and ice cream. Some sodas, like Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper, were marketed as having health benefits. It’s likely people in those days knew that was bullshit; still, there is a tangible association of the soda fountain/lunch counter with a certain sort of social health.

Segregating those counters, then, was an abject affirmation that Black people were not entitled to the benefits of that social health. Edna Griffin’s efforts to desegregate those counters through her picketing and lawsuit against Katz Drug Store was, in a sense a demand for access for health. That’s not reinventing the wheel of discourse; it’s just good to remind ourselves that the need for desegregation extends beyond the optics of intolerance.

It’s good (and good for you) to laugh at white supremacists who want to “reclaim” milk  — you could have a character who works at one of hte counters and is so insistence that malted milk is what makes white people strong and dutifully fills his underwear with his pure white sharts — but it’s imperative we recognize that milk is not some inert object that Nazis are distracted by. By the time Edna organizes her picket of Katz, home refrigeration was still a pioneering technology, and home freezers had only been on the market for less than a decade. It’s not, and has never been, about strong bones and baby fat.

Edna Griffin’s, and other Black activists who would take up desegregating lunch counters throughout the US, deserve to get the recognition that is so often denied them by a cultural education on civil rights that centers the congeniality of MLK’s non-violence to the exclusion of all other activists. If you’ll let me have just one this one pun — Edna Griffin’s fight for a seat at the soda counter deserves to be part of our pop culture.

Pope Francis looks at a chocolate statue which reproduces himself, given to him yesterday after his wekly audience, on February 6, 2014 . AFP PHOTO / HO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images

4. 1700’s Europe. Catholics and Protestants hate each other, love chocolate and coffee, respectively

A respected chocolatier arrives at his shop one morning to find that a Protestant has moved into the storefront across the street, and he intends to convert it to an establishment that serves that damned libation that gives them the energy they need for all that work those Protestants love so much. Mon dieu! Most unacceptable!

“I shan’t let this plebian buffoonery besmirch my craft, which is a regal profession that sometimes dabbles in aphrodisiac, but still very respectable when doing so,” says our Catholic chocolatier, maybe.

“Alas, at least he seems not to have a son, so I can still employ my daughter within the shop for fear of losing her to this seductive heresy!”

Plot twist, his daughter’s gay and Protestant Coffee Guy has a hot-ass daughter. Also plot twist: Protestants and Catholics never really learn how to get along, so by the end of the first season, where Protestant Coffee Guy and Catholic Chocolatier’s petty bickering and corporate sabotage eventually leads to a begrudging respect for each other, and Catholic Chocolatier helps Protestant Coffee Guy’s family escape an anti-Protestant mob. And then maybe the second focuses on Catholic Chocolatier discovering the pleasures of coffee, which causes him to rethink his own theology.

Meanwhile, Protestant Coffee Guy’s family are trying to find a new life for themselves and his daughter’s constantly grilling him on the fact that Martin Luther was sex positive and also kind of a pervert so her homosexuality isn’t sinful and her dad’s like “NOT NOW, GLADYS, I’M ON THE RUN FROM CATHOLICS.” Maybe she has a different name. I haven’t really decided what country this would take place in.

momofuku5.  Post-War Japan. Momofuku Ando creates instant ramen.

It’s Breaking Bad, but with noodles. Momofuku starts out his life as a Japanese colonist on Taiwan, goes to jail for tax evasion, loses his business, and moves back to Japan, where the war and subsequent occupation by the US has led to a massive food shortage. The government’s like, “the Americans will give us a bunch of wheat flour, people should make bread from it so you don’t starve”.

Momofuku says “but we could make noodles out of the wheat, it’s what Japanese people are used to eating”. The government rolls its eyes and says “all the noodle companies are too small, just eat the fucking bread, dude”.

Momofuku goes “I’LL SHOW THEM ALL!” and creates instant ramen noodles. Okay, I sorta lied about that part. According to his autobiography, having to not be an aristocrat anymore and living under military occupation convinced him war was bad, and he was motivated to create instant noodles as a way to facilitate world peace. I’m imagining a montage of noodle misfires where Momofuku clenches his fist, loses hope, gazes up on a globe, imagines an ocean suffocating under tons of discarded little seasoning packets, furrows his brow and goes “I must.”

To be clear: Creating instant ramen isn’t really an equitable solution to the famine and human suffering caused by Japanese imperialism, or by the American imperialism inflicted on Japan and all the territory the US took from Japan. But compared to our current American discourse around reparations, which as of like last week is still at “Black people’s reparations was a Black president” , instant ramen is, for better or worse, ahead of the curb.

During the season finale you can do a closeup of a “western chauvinist” MAGA hat eating ramen in between games of Call of Duty and let the audience decide for themselves how successful he was.  That’s not really fair; even though instant ramen is a staple of the American poverty experience, unless you live by a grocery store that serves Asian immigrant communities, you’ve got a choice of like 3-4 flavors. If you’re lucky, you find a random palette of lime picante shrimp. I’m not suggesting we can dismantle American imperialism with cheese ramen — just that we haven’t tried it, Democrats probably oppose it, and it couldn’t hurt.

Author: Jetta Rae

Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae

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