City Pages Food Blogger Insists Our Food Should Provide “Real” Minnesotans With Fast, Cheap, Exotic Experiences

Racist Food Critic Files PART 2

At Least She’s Consistent.

Writing about Mecca Bos’ terrible Hoban Uptown piece led me to take a closer look at her other local food reviews in order to further examine and verify patterns in her portrayal of POC-owned restaurants.  

In a roughly three-month sample period from May through July, Bos wrote approximately 150 food posts that were posted on the City Pages website. Out of that sample, about 115 of them were reviews or promos for food of what most would call food from white culture or “American cuisine,” (“dive bars”, pizza, bistros, “artisanal,” ice cream, candy, European pastries, bar food).  This left about 35 of the reviews in the sample to be on food that is generally referred to as “ethnic food,” but for Brown and Black people it is most often just called “our food.”  Of the 35 POC food articles, 20 were about Asian food. Of those 20 Asian food articles, 8 were about ramen and 4 about sushi. The remaining 15 articles were primarily about falafel, tacos, and burritos. In virtually every article she reinforces Orientalist and at times xenophobic notions that foods from white U.S. culture (of European and Native origin) are esteemed and even noble (such as the BLT at Butcher and the Boar), while foods of Asian, African, and Latin American origins are foreign, stinky, cheap, and exotic.

Like the British in India, the French in Vietnam, or the settlers in North America, Bos casts her Orientalist, colonial lens upon POC food and culture with a knowing bourgeois acumen and often condescending sense of entitlement. It is evident that she writes to and for white people, excluding the people whose food, culture and livelihood about whom she writes.  It is also evident that she feels entitled, or even obligated, to critique and evaluate Brown and Black-owned establishments in a way that includes paternalistically instructing them on how they should run their business to better make it suitable for her predilections.  And while she is prone to acting the pseudo-expert as she describes mysterious ancestral tales related to our food, she has yet to mention also the history of colonialism, genocide, and oppression that brought European food to the Americas.

Asian Food: Weird, Cheap, and Fast

Every article Bos wrote on Asian food at some point used descriptive words and phrases like weird, strange, esoteric, crazy, “a different animal,” ritualistic,” “kooky,”  and “fun oddballs.” Frequently she would call a long-established Asian food a “trend,” indicating that white people had started to eat it en masse.  She also tended to fetishize it, often stating that you were powerless but to want it [Asian food]  again and again and again, such as in her article about Thai Cafe on University. She also warned that you may get “startled” when greeted at the door in Japanese at a Japanese restaurant. Okay.

When discussing ramen Bos would alternately describe it as forgettable “slurp and go” cheap food or the “latest craze” born out of samurai traditions. When reporting on “foreign” palates she often didactically includes a superficial mini history or cultural lesson with her review.  For example, she informed readers in multiple articles that “some cultures”   eat hot ramen soups in the summer, while also reassuring readers that she understands how peculiar and weird of a practice this is. Bos also wrote about the samurai origins of Japanese noodles, thus appearing as an “expert” on both samurai culture and the noodles at Furukawa, all on her own expertise. In the majority if not all posts on Asian food she underscored the points that the price was cheap and the service fast.

Mystical, Magical Far East

An Orientalist lens was particularly evident in Bos’ review of Ghorka Palace in Northeast. She writes:

“Enter Gorkha Palace, the hidden-in-plain-sight, turmeric-hued edifice tucked behind Surdyk’s in northeast Minneapolis, and you’re hit with a wall of spice. Cumin, coriander, ginger, fenugreek, garam masala: This invisible curtain hangs in the atmosphere as certainly as the heavy fabric that cloaks the breezeway.”

So, if you can even find Ghorka Palace behind this mysterious shroud, Bos does go on to describe the food with enthusiasm.  However she says that menu prices will be “setting you back” $13-18, even though it is for high quality organic ingredients and grass fed bison, her word choice implies that the prices are definitely not cheap.

Bos remains enraptured with the mysticism of the place and describes the owners in a kind of model minority light, emphasizing the loving labor and toil of their painstaking work and their humble non-profiteering mindset.  With this theme Bos concludes:

“What can’t be taught is generosity and true hospitality. In Tibet and Nepal, openness and selflessness are imperatives relating to Karma and religion. At Gorkha Palace, you can feel it. You can taste it, too.”

“Relating to Karma and religion?” Is this a temple or a restaurant? While this review may be perceived as overwhelmingly positive, it still embeds this belief that they are other, mystical and exotic, and not business owners, but humble Buddhas, ready to not only serve you from the menu but also enlighten you in the process.

Stinky and Foreign.

In writing about these reviews, a friend mentioned that there had been a review of Ethiopian food in which Bos was particularly offensive and xenophobic.  Her May 2015 review of Afro Deli reads:

“African spices are distinctive for their earthy depth, their sometimes armpit levels of funk, and their imposing heat. Ethiopian berbere with its chile, garlic, ginger, and fenugreek; Somali ones with cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon — if it all seems a bit exotic, that’s because it is. Egyptians used these things for embalming. They’re used in magic, medicine, and ritual all over the world. People were sold into slavery in exchange for them. This is heady stuff. And at Afro Deli you can have heaps for around seven dollars.”

“Armpit levels of funk and their imposing heat.” Yes, you read that correctly. She wrote that Ethiopian spices stink like smelly armpits and have a threatening level of spiciness.  And then Bos goes on with horrifying flippancy to spout superficial trivia about such serious and complex topics as Egyptian embalming and slave trade, and ends the passage by saying you can get all of that for the rock-bottom price of $7.  How does this type of utterly offensive writing go unchecked past the editor’s desk?

The review, titled “Afro Deli Rebrands African for the Minnesota Palate,” clearly delineates people of African descent as not Minnesotan and not part of the “Minnesota palate.” In the review Bos tries to pin down exactly how long the owner has lived in Minnesota even though it has no relevance to the article. To her inquiries he replied, “I am Minnesotan.” Also present in the review  are the consistent themes of exotic, fast and cheap. Bos uses words like “magic,” “heady,” “addictive,” and “miniscule prices.”  And while it does seem that she truly recommends the food, she remains grossly unaware of the xenophobic, racist lens through which she portrays the business owners and their establishments.

In another post on Ethiopian food, titled “Because it’s cold outside, and other reasons you should be eating Ethiopian Food,” she starts out with this confusing and problematic analogy:

“The Twin Cities is home to thousands of Ethiopian immigrants. But that isn’t why you should get to know the cuisine. The Twin Cities is also home to thousands of lakes, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to implore you to set up an ice fishing rig.”

Actually, no, having a lot of Ethiopian neighbors and community members is a great reason to get to know the cuisine. Food is an essential part of a culture and community. And the lake reference just makes no sense. Lots of folks have tried ice fishing because we are surrounded by lakes during our long cold winters. Topography, like food, is an essential part of our culture and community, which is why each winter we have multiple community events centered around the lakes. But I digress.  She then goes on to say:

“1. If you like sourdough bread, you will love injera.

Despite its strange appearance — almost gray in color and with a dappled sponginess like the inside of a cow’s stomach, injera boasts an intense sourdough tang, not unlike the best San Francisco loaves.”

No, it is not like sourdough bread any more than soju is like white wine. And to liken it to the inside of a cow’s stomach is startlingly off-base, disrespectful, and reminiscent of xenophobic food programs like the Bizzare Foods show.  Bos concludes the review by reminding readers as always, that for “real” Minnesotans, it’s not just a meal, it’s an exotic adventure:  

“And that’s why, when winter gets the better of us, and we ain’t got no money for a passport stamp, we explore with our gastro-tickets tightly gripped, adventure and appetite leading the way.”

Authenticity is irrelevant, but is it authentic?

Not surprisingly, Bos’ reviews for Mexican food centered around tacos and burritos.  She brought comparisons to Chipotle in many of her articles for Asian and African food, but especially did so in regards to Mexican food. Her post on Catrina’s is titled, “Local fast-casual Catrina’s could be your new Chipotle.” No. No. No. chipotle is the wal-mart of tacos and burritos, was early-on funded by mcdonald’s corp, and nets about 500 million per year.  The founder steve ells directly copied the taco stands and burritos he saw doing so well in San Francisco’s Mission District and went and opened his own version in Denver, CO, which he thereby dubbed “fast casual” style dining. (Not surprisingly, In September 2011, Chipotle also opened an Asian fast-casual concept restaurant named ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen in Washington, D.C. )

Catrina’s is not the new chipotle.  Catrina’s is Catrina’s. Chipotle is a corporation that sells fast food. At the end of her review, even though the food at Catrina’s sounds wonderful and the owners strive to use many high quality and organic ingredients, Bos still ended the review highlighting what she upholds as their most mentionable attribute: cheap prices.

Authenticity is for Artisanal food

Bos often brings up and then soundly dismisses queries regarding “authenticity” in her reviews, and has written that really, there exists no authentic taco (but then goes on to describe one).  Despite these overt dismissals of questioning “authenticity,” Bos recently wrote a piece calling out Melt Shop , a grilled cheese place at the MOA, for using the term “artisanal.” Bos sanctimoniously asserted that “artisanal” is a term fitting only of a certain standard and that Melt Shop had no business using the term.  She declared even that they are “imposters!” It is as if she has revealed that the emperor wears no clothes.  So, like whoa, stay in your lane grilled cheese place at the MOA. Apparently bourgeois standards must be protected to remain authentic, I mean artisanal.

Bos is also officious about if and how POC restaurants should mix their menu. In this unnecessarily biting review of African Paradise, in which she oddly begins by effusively complimenting a different restaurant (Afro Deli), she then writes:

“The menu zigzags all over the place from suqaar to ugali to Middle Eastern favorites like gyros, to burgers and even an “egg muffin” with American cheese. We’ve got no problem with this schizophrenia as long as the technique is solid, but restaurants that try to be all things for all people generally fail miserably in the effort to be overly inclusive.”

The offensive and ableist use of “schizophrenia” aside,  Bos didn’t care about the “overly inclusive” mixed menu at the “New American” restaurant Xavi, whose menu features galbi, chorizo, coconut milk, thai basil, lemongrass, furikake spice blend, saffron couscous and yuba on their menu alongside or intermingled within otherwise  white, European-based fare.  To Bos, this menu mixing is okay for white bourgeois restaurants, but critiqueable for an African restaurant perhaps grappling with the challenges of attempting to meet the varied demands of consumers on east Lake Street.

Wait, some surprisingly complimentary reviews–oh, nvm, it’s not owned by POC.

At a couple moments, I did think that I had found exceptions to the Orientalist and xenophobic themes in Bos reviews, but soon realized that they were not truly exceptions at all.  One review was for Kyatchi on Eat Street, whose review was noticeably void of the familiar themes of cheap, exotic, and weird (though Bos did use “insane” to describe a menu item).  I then learned that though the chef is Asian, the four other owners are not. Thus explained the complimentary comments in the review such as, “Tiny, indie sushi bar Kyatchi has always been adept at this melding maneuver.” She is here referring to their mixed menu, about which Bos appears to not only have zero issues, but downright love, baseball metaphor and all:  “Their original idea to mash up sushi and hot dogs has been a home run from the get-go, and we love them for this originality.”  Other descriptions extol Kiyatchi’s upper class virtues:  “messy yet elegant”, “best quality,” “impeccable,” , far superior,” and “fancy.”

Another exception that was not really an exception was Bos’ review for Taco Cat, a taco place in Midtown Global Market started by two white guys whose only previous restaurant experience had been Jimmy Johns. Bos spins a veritable hipster success story of gentrification as she enthusiastically narrates how effortlessly and quickly “a couple of dudes with a serious yen for tacos” grabbed a hold of the local taco market. Bos demonstrates no awareness that for the owners of local Mexican food trucks, restaurants, and vendors on east Lake Street in Minneapolis, Mexican food has been and continues to be their livelihood and south central Minneapolis their home. The impact of gentrification channels resources and capital away from longstanding neighborhood businesses to new, predominantly white, non-local businesses that move in and take over the local market. There are many Latinx folks who live in this Minneapolis neighborhood who can and do speak on this much more adeptly and knowledgeably than I can. This economic and cultural aspect needs to be understood when frequenting a place like MidTown Global Market, where Taco Cat beat out many other applicants to a secure highly competitive vendor space. Taco Cat’s menu is even subdivided in this same manner that Bos writes, with “street style” tacos (for street cred? authenticity?) in one section and “speciality” tacos (for the bourgeois gourmand) in another.  The speciality tacos are named “The Ruckus,” “The Outlaw,” and “The Larry,” all names that seem more fitting for items at a cowboy themed sub sandwich shop than for tacos.

In contrast to her other taco reviews,  Bos does not describe Taco Cat as “drunk food,” but instead as good “hangover food,” so you eat these tacos not in a late night drunken stupor but in the golden daylight of brunch.  And even though Taco Cat’s food is also made quickly, she does not mention that it is fast, nor does she describe the food as “cheap.” She instead says that it is “priced at market.”  She gushes at length about the specialty tacos and burritos, and ends by saying that together the two guys are “creative genius.”  Like white settlers on the midwest prairie, it certainly does seem that these two former Jimmy Johnners “discovered” tacos.

Now read how Bos writes about Taco El Primo, or as she refers to them, “the taco truck in the K-Mart parking lot”:

“Cars drive by with the booming systems. Entire families spill out of the side of a minivan that, with its doors hanging open, seconds as a makeshift cafe. Everyone holds styrofoam containers in their laps. Couples approach the window, arm in arm, hungry and starry-eyed as they would be at any candlelight dinner. Brave souls go back for another dose of the torrid hot sauce, available in green (hot) and red (hottest).”  

The taco truck she is referring to is Taco El Primo, but she doesn’t give its proper name  in the title. Like the famed colonizer Chris Columbus, she writes as if she has discovered these tacos in this far off wild land of the K-Mart parking lot on east Lake, and must send a clarion call via the City Pages to those who would never think to go to that K-Mart parking lot, but who can now make an adventure of it to get an authentic urban taco experience. The theme and tone of her writing is centered around creating experiential, authentic-seeming imagery. Part of that ‘authenticity” is to focus on the low price of the food and how “real” the people are who come to eat it. And apparently the hot sauce is “torrid.” Frequently she uses semantics like “hordes” or describes families as “spilling out the sides of minivans” to describe the people. 

“They’re just $2.50 apiece, but we’ve been warned that the price may go up to $3 as the weather improves. The truck is shopworn, the cooks make each and every taco to order, and the people-watching is priceless.”

And because eating the same “authentic,” low-priced food as the poor local folks in the K-Mart parking lot is so real (and entertaining), echoing her dive bar reviews, she ends with this instagram snapshot:

“standing in a parking lot, leaning on a hot sun-absorbed car door, an icy mango Jarritos dripping down your arm, there’s no room for pretense here.”

There are many respectful ways that Bos could have chosen to write about Taco El Primo, without pretense or evoking the image of the high profile politician eating burgers at the local working class bar, or the tourist taking stereotyped selfies with poor children in India.  Instead, she exploits the moment to assert she’s got “street cred” by knowing where to find the most ‘authentic,” and by that she meanest cheapest, taco truck on Lake Street.

Hey City Pages

Bos is not alone in how she writes about food, but she is a regular staff writer at the City Pages and she needs to educate herself before she writes any further about that which she does not understand nor respect. Her constant delineations of who is and is not Minnesotan are insidiously xenophobic, racist, and classist.

Mecca Bos needs to issue an apology to the communities of color about whom she has written so offensively.  Many people give lip service to understanding systemic racism and microaggressions, but still don’t recognize its manifestations or how it permeates daily life in Minnesota and everywhere in the U.S. Mainstream media companies are particularly challenged in this area and editors don’t appear all that concerned about remedying or even recognizing the problem of racist reporting.  Bos was quick to dismiss me when first I emailed her about her Hoban review. This week when I sent her my fairly extensive post about her Hoban review, within minutes she replied with only a brief, MN Nice, “thanks for your feedback.”  

And so doing what we do, we put the time in. We gather evidence. We write back. We expect to be heard. City Pages and Mecca Bos: Are you listening yet?

City Pages staff contact info:

Pete Kotz, editor: pkotz@citypages.com

Hannah Sayle, managing editor: hsayle@citypages.com

Mike Reitmulder, web editor: mrietmulder@citypages.com

Mecca Bos, food critic: mbos@citypages.com

Links that may be of use. I don’t endorse everything in them, but I do find them relevant:

http://www.eater.com/forums/reviews-critics/2016/3/23/11290082/please-stop-writing-racist-restaurant-reviews

https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/hari-kondabolu-stop-talking-to-indian-americans-about-indian-food

http://www.racistsandwich.com

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/why-everyone-should-stop-calling-immigrant-food-ethnic/2015/07/20/07927100-266f-11e5-b77f-eb13a215f593_story.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/04/22/the-great-ethnic-food-lie/

 

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