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This Thanksgiving feels particularly special, with vaccination rates up in certain areas and health officials OK-ing family gatherings, so long as precautions are taken. It’s a time for people to come together and give thanks for making it through the chaos of the past year or so. Food is a love language and a way for people to connect after being forced apart for so long. But for some, it’s difficult to find the food of their heritage.
It’s important to remember that America, whether some folks like it or not, is a diverse country with rising levels of people of color and a melting pot of culture at its center. Iowa is no different, even though it is overwhelmingly white at just over 90 percent, with other races landing below 4 percent in population, according to World Population Review. As a result, people of a diverse culture tend to struggle to find the food that’s inherent to their culture.
The food scene in Iowa City is a travesty for culturally and ethnically diverse students
So, while we reflect on Thanksgiving, let us also remember the people who are not able to share their cultural holidays and traditions because of inaccessibility and a lack of inclusion.
AJ King — a 2020 University of Iowa graduate who goes by they/them pronouns and served as the LGBTQ+ constituency senator for UI Student Government — is Filipino. As such, they are familiar with the notion of feeling like a stranger in their own land; it’s something that’s become so commonplace, they don’t even register the isolating atmosphere in the Midwest at times.
“As far as groceries go, I wish that the ethnic session section was, for one, not called the ethnic section,” King said.
It’s a reminder that they will always be other in a land that never accepted newcomers and diversity, a land that preached inclusivity but didn’t follow through in practice. It’s ironic that America still views itself as a “melting pot,” when Americans don’t even give groups that don’t fall under the quintessential white American access to basic ingredients, produce or snacks that are authentic to their culture.
A 2021 graduate from UI, Johanna Cushing, also struggles to escape the Americanization of her native foods and traditions. Cushing comes from a German family rooted in traditional festivities and German food culture, partaking in Oktoberfest and Hofbräuhaus events — both of which center around German food specifically to celebrate their culture and connect with the roots of their history as individuals that live in an America that sometimes isolates them. Simple German comfort foods and snacks are a rarity and privilege for Cushing to come by, one she wished was just an everyday commodity since these are foods she grew up with that are engrained in her culture.
Quality brats, spätzle and sauerkraut are difficult to find, as they’ve been Americanized to low grade products that make a mockery of the customary German meats. While Cushing is grateful for things like Oktoberfest in the Midwest, she says it’s a cringey festival nowadays, since the American version of it gets German culture horribly wrong.
“I’ve noticed that things get Americanized very easily,” Cushing said. “If a store isn’t run by someone who is German or at least of the descent, I can tell. I feel like actual traditional foods for any culture are hard to find in America, but beautiful to come across if you can. This even applies to traditional outfits, decorations and such. It would take a lot or me to obtain an actual, traditional Dirndl that wasn’t trying to make me look ‘sexy.’”
King has similar woes surrounding the fetishization of Asian culture in general and Asian food in particular. Things that they were familiar with growing up were ostracized. They were told their food smelled funny and looked weird, a culturally insensitive and ignorant thing to say, simply because someone’s culture is different.
It’s interesting how America takes from other countries and then turns food or cultural traditions, among other things, into their own appropriated version of it, which they then follow up by mocking and ostracizing the original creators and practitioners. King said a specific issue they have with this fetishization is Boba. It was something they used to eat as a kid, and still do, but people used to make fun of it. Now, they see it trending all over Instagram with white people exclusively consuming it.
The food scene in Iowa City is a travesty for some of the culturally and ethnically diverse students that come to a Big Ten university hoping for accommodation and accessibility to basic human needs, such as proper nourishment for their bodies. However, an issue they commonly run into is a severe lack of foods they’ve known for the majority of their lives. Some of these foods are essentially any exotic fruit for decent pricing. Jackfruit, durian and rambutan are all fruits King grew up with that Iowa City doesn’t have. Seafood, too. If they want them, they have to go to the H-Mart in Chicago a three-and-a-half-hour drive away.
Iowa City’s lack of diverse food is a reflection on the overall community. It tells people like King and Cushing that Iowa City doesn’t care if they have access to the only foods they’ve known growing up. It tells them they can take their business elsewhere, because Iowa City profits solely on the fetishization and appropriation of different ethnic groups, their culture and their traditional foods. It tells them that they’re other, and Iowa City doesn’t care about their want for something that tastes like home to them when they’re already missing their families.
Nichole Shaw is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org